Chalk Outlines: How I Plan A Novel

Outlining: Not Just For Bodies Anymore.

It’s no secret that I love my outlines. And, man, I mean love. Like the way I love coffee: I may drift away, but I always come back, and while I know it’s not entirely healthy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyway.

I used to outline on paper, with the straight-up Roman numeral system I learned back in the sixth grade*. Then I switched to doing the same thing in a Word document, because it meant less little directional arrows when I had to add something in the middle.** Then there were index cards, which could be endlessly shuffled around but inevitably lacked space and got eaten by the cat.

But now I have found my ride-or-die outlining system, and most of you are going to be entirely unsurprised that it’s Scrivener. I’ve mentioned this particular piece of software before, but never really gone into how I use it. Probably because that would take forever. I use Scrivener for everything from research to planning to editing. It’s a powerful suite of tools all rolled up in a good interface.

For outlining, there is a very convenient feature called the Outliner. It has a number of pre-set columns, but—and this is important for me—you can also customize those columns. Mine are as follows:

-Scene Title: often something basic like ‘Jimmy Finds Orthotics of Power’ but occasionally something more entertaining, like ‘HOLY SHIT IT’S ALL FUCKED UP NOW’.

-What Happens: does what it says on the box. Mostly a Coles Notes version with the pertinent points laid out

-Who’s There: Because characters are like cats: hard to keep track of and then they turn up somewhere you weren’t expecting.

-Questions Raised: Anything dangling hook of information that gets introduced in the scene. I keep track of these so I can make sure that all the important ones get answered eventually.

-Notes: Because sometimes I need to remember something that doesn’t fit in one of the above categories.

Once I have a bunch of these laid out, I use to Label feature to colour-code everything. Partly because it’s pretty, but mostly because it’s helpful. Sometimes it’s by point-of-view character, to make sure I’m not spending all my time inside the wrong head. Other times it’s by plot line: main, sub 1, sub 2, romantic, whatever. The colour coding makes it easy to take in, at a glance, the overall spread of attention. Am I not developing sub plot two enough? Maybe I don’t need it at all. Is Talulah the Overly Sarcastic Orderly taking over a lot of scenes? Consider bumping her up to major character, or scaling back the scenes from her point of view.

Of course, the outline thus created changes once I start writing, but I track those changes, too. Then, when I’m done, I compare what I did with what I meant to do, and see where the changes improve the manuscript and where they were the products of too much coffee and a bad dream the night before.

Most of the above can be done with any spreadsheet program, or a table if you have the patience for formatting. I prefer Scrivener because it’s simple and I have to change programs far less, but if you have something that can do all of this, more power to you.

So that’s my system. What do you do to outline?

*Heeeeeeey, Mr. Butler.

**Also less hand cramps.

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7 thoughts on “Chalk Outlines: How I Plan A Novel

  1. I don’t outline that much… but I use Scrivener for everything. It is versatile but nevertheless easy to use. When I go walk my dog in the woods, the dog is pretty much on his own, and I dictate. God knows what the other dog walkers out there think when they see me in the bushes, mumbling in to a little device, gesticulating… but anyway, I love how I can just pull those sound files in to Scrivener and listen to them there while typing. Links for research, past or present? They are in Scrivener, immediately accessible on need. Though I don’t hardly oultine I am very organized, and Scrivener allows me to do it all centrally in a clear and uncluttered way.

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