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Scrivener Hybrid Outlining

By J. A. Marlow
Copyright © 2009 by J. A. Marlow, All Rights Reserved

Outlining styles differ among authors, varying from none, to extremely minimalistic, to highly detailed. Over the years, I’ve tried many outlining methods and have eventually come up with a hybrid method that gives me flexibility during this stage.

As I’ve been asked repeatedly how I outline and with what program, In this article I hope to share a few of the tidbits I’ve learned along the way using the writing program called Scrivener (

Note: Potential alternatives to Scrivener, which is Mac only, are SuperNotecard ( for planning and outlining and Liquid Story Binder ( for writing and organizing.


Outlines are very individual to the writer and the book. Some books do well with a minimal outline that may be a line or two per chapter. Other books are more complicated and need the intertwining of subplots and intricate character development. The type of outline I’ve come to use is a combination of a scene outline and a phase outline. Bringing the two together has been working well to keep the first draft cohesive and give me a very good idea of any plot problems before writing the draft.

For the outlining itself, we’ll be using Scrivener’s virtual corkboard and index cards. First, open up a new Scrivener project. For this demonstration we’ll be using the children’s nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty”.

The Scene Outline

Make sure you have access to the Binder (click the far left icon in the toolbar if you don’t see it). Click once on the folder named “Draft”. Your virtual corkboard with a first blank index card should pop up.

I use each individual index card for one scene, although this could also work by making each card a chapter. Click in the title area to name the card something that makes it easily identifiable to you. In the body of the card I start with "POV: (character)" if known, and then try to create only one sentence describing the overall scene. I really try to nail this sentence, as I also plan to use it to generate a synopsis later. As such, only the description of the scene goes in here but no notes, location details, or bits of dialogue. Make this as concise as you can to capture the heart of this scene.

How do I define a scene? A scene is a stretch of story with a beginning, middle and end that is about one thing. When the subject, character, or the conflict change then it's a new scene, even if the story shows no break. There is no limit to how long a scene can be. It can be one sentence, several paragraphs, or an entire chapter.

The Phase Outline

I work in scenes at the top level of the outline, but at the same time I want it easy to put in notes about subplots, bits of world building and various other details that I need to keep in mind while writing the drafts. This naturally fell in line with the Phase Outline which I first learned about from Zette's free Nanowrimo ebook (link: She also has a great article about it in Vision (link: I like using it in instances where the scene may be more complicated, and it's important to have certain mini-events happening before or after other mini-events. Examples of this may be placing clues, action sequences, arc developments, and dialogue points.

Scrivener has an easy way to handle the details of the phase outline. Open up the Inspector (the round blue icon on the far right). This brings up a side-bar on the right. In this side-bar is the synopsis that I put in the index card, plus below that is an area for notes. The phase outline plus all the notes for the scene go in this area.  (Note: SuperNotecard can also handle these kinds of notes.)

Other items that may go into the notes are any steps leading up to big events within this scene. If it is an action sequence then this might be the choreography of the movements with the highlights of a win or a loss included. If it is an argument, it might be the movements around a room and the dialog bullet points along with who make them. It might be the steps towards a discovery or a character realization.

By using the index cards for the scene and then the notes section for the phase outline within that scene, I'm able to keep the plot easily in sight in nice bite-sized chunks. When the time comes to write the story, I can see all the world building I've already done along with the grand overview. I am much more likely to catch plot problems before the story goes into a first draft. The notes can help clue you in if you have too much exposition all in one place. Details of the 'world' should be spread out instead of all lumped together, and the notes can help you figure out where you can put these types of details, helping to prevent info-dumps.

In the Inspector area, there is an option for a “Label”. You can use this to color-code the index cards. I've used color-coding for a variety of purposes. For example, different colors can mean different POV’s, with a different color for each character. This is a great visual reference to help you see if you've given too much time to one character versus another character.

Color-coding is also useful when first starting the outline. If you have a sequence of scenes all having to do with one subject (example: character is trying to get off the mountain), you can code all of these the same color. Then comes another grouping of scenes (example: an argument with the parents), and these will be in another color. Since a new color starts a new scene, you can look at the area of the color change to make sure you have bridged the scenes properly. Or, if you suddenly decide that one scene-grouping should come before the other, you can easily select the mountain grouping and move the entire section to before the argument grouping. This can also give you manageable chunks to focus and work on without getting overwhelmed with the entire novel.

As I mentioned before, each book will be different in how much planning it needs. This outlining method is flexible enough to be altered to however much or however little planning and outlining the novel needs. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Estimating Word Counts

Let's face it, certain genres have a certain publishable word count range. Anything outside those word counts will be more difficult to sell. While you want the story to be told the way it needs to be told, estimating how many words your draft might reach can save a lot of headaches later. It’s much easier to add or delete a subplot from the story-line while still at the outlining stage than after the first draft is written.

This is achieved by either estimating how many average words you write per scene or how many per phase. This can quickly tell you whether you will come way under or go way over in the draft word count. It might take a little time to figure out how many average words are typical for you specifically, but it’s worth taking the time to find out.

As an example, I used this outline for two 2008 Nanowrimo novels. I didn’t take the time to figure out my average word count per scene, so I guessed. I thought the average would be 1000 words. In reality, it turned out to be between 600-700 (depending on the book). Both books came severely under the word count I needed by several tens of thousands of words. Because of this, the revision process has been more difficult than other books I’ve written and polished.

I learned my lesson. I now know I need a few more index cards than previously thought in order to get the novels up to the length they need to be.

Writing the Draft

Eventually, the planning and outlining must come to an end and the writing of the first draft must begin!

If you look at the Binder on the right, you will see that each scene has created its own document under the “Draft” folder. Go to the first document.

An area for writing will appear in the middle of the Scrivener project. The Inspector should still be open on the right. This will have the scene synopsis and all the notes sitting there for easy reference while you write the scene in the body. No hopping around, no searching, it's all right there.

Does all this effort mean that the plot is locked-in once you start writing the first draft?

Are you kidding? No character or story has ever played nice! Nope, be prepared to have the story veer off on you and go into unexpected and wonderful directions. Embrace it. Don't be afraid to throw out a plot card or two (I threw out ten in my last novel). However, you now know where you are going. You know the big steps that you need to make the ending make sense. The big questions have been worked out. You know the characters and 'world'.

Let the magic happen.