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 (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.html).
Potential alternatives to Scrivener, which is Mac only, are
for planning and outlining and Liquid Story Binder (http://www.blackobelisksoftware.com/)
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
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:
http://www.lazette.net/). She also
has a great article about it in Vision (link:
http://www.fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue%2015/phase.htm). 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
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
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
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
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
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.