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A Display Hack for Your Story’s Outline


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Organizational HackI recently finished drafting the most challenging book I’ve written to date. Not only did it require the highest word count and psychological complexity I’ve navigated thus far, but its writing period spanned several years and became punctuated by numerous pauses, some stretching out for months at a time.

Paradoxically, I felt an urgent need to complete this story, and each time I returned to it, I chafed at the lengthy but necessary reimmersion period. I wanted to leap into laying down new track, dang it. Not spend my time refamiliarizing myself with who did what to whom, and when.

But hey, necessity is the mother of invention, right?

In the end, I developed a tracking system that allows me to dive into a scene while also being able to see at a glance where it lies within the larger manuscript. Essentially it replicates the functionality of a plotting board, plotting cards, or a tabled outline, but in a linear format.

Below are screenshots of a demonstration murder mystery, along with the key to what I’ve decided to track. I’m sharing them with the understanding that:

  • You should feel free to adapt it to suit your own writing style and particular manuscript’s needs, or disregard it altogether. In reality, that’s all I did; I simply collated ideas gleaned from others into a new format that works for my brain.
  • This will likely be most helpful to pantsers, quilters, or more organic writers. i.e. Those of us who write like we’re sitting at the center of spider web, and who need to see how all parts of book will be affected if we tug on a certain thread of silk.
  • If you are a plotter, linear writer, or are advancing your WIP at a steady pace, for goodness sake, don’t divert your energies into organizing along these lines! But later, if progress stalls or when you’re in the editing phase, you might find this a useful tool.
  • While I’m sharing screenshots of a Scrivener binder (Windows version), the textual features would certainly work in Word’s outline feature as well.

Without further ado, here we go…

Binder-1.png?resize=525%2C391&ssl=1
Screenshot of Scrivener for Windows Manuscript Binder (click to enlarge and open in new window)

Tracking Point-of-View (POV) Characters

If you’re writing in more than one POV, you’ll want to ensure you’ve introduced pivotal characters at appropriate times in the manuscript, then staggered their viewpoints at the necessary intervals.

In this image, it’s easy to see POV distribution at a glance. I’ve gone with yellow background for the murder victim’s viewpoint, stereotypical pink for the female protagonist’s, and blue for the male’s. (In the Windows version of Scrivener, display label colors in the binder by going this route: View > Use Label Color In > Binder.)

Stage of Completion

Binder-POV-Flags.png?resize=300%2C231&ssUsing icons of colored flags, you can indicate how close a given scene is to being finished. A white flag means it has yet to be written. Red indicates it’s in bad shape. Orange, that it possesses a few clunky areas. Green, that it’s solid for this stage of writing.

I find this cue handy when I sit down to write and am not necessarily in the frame of mind to draft new words. I can zero in on a yellow or red scene and tackle edits for a time.

Also, it breaks down the book into bite-sized goals and creates a visual reward for completing one step. It’s surprisingly gratifying to change an orange flag for green.

Keep Track of Timelines

Binder-Day-Scene-Designations.png?resize
Binder Day and Scene Designations

Historical writers know how easy it can be to paint yourself into a corner by having a character meet another figure before they were actually born, or failing to account for travel time, etc. Contemporary writers also need to track the passage of days.

I tend to write books that take place in a compressed period. By tracking the date or number of days elapsed, I ensure items occur in a logical sequence, and that they’re appropriately paced.

I like to use a numeric system for each scene, coding them like this:  #day.#scene for that day.

In the image above, see item -4.1? That’s a prologue that takes place four days before the main storyline begins. As there is no scene -4.2, it’s the only scene to occur on that day.

Day 1 is where we meet our two main characters, and contains four scenes.

And scene 26.1? It’s an epilogue that wraps things up a full three weeks after the main storyline has concluded.

In keeping with the generally tight pace of crime fiction, the bulk of the storyline takes place over a five-day period.  But, oops! Notice that I’ve got a fair bit of action occurring in days 1 and 2, but no scenes  planned for day 3 and barely anything for day 4. Going forward, that’s a strange gap that will need to be addressed.

Scene Location

Tracking this allows you to avoid repetition, especially if scenes routinely take place in nondescript settings. (Though why would you choose to insert your characters into boring locales?) By routinely varying the location, you can create a sense of movement and liveliness.

Binder-Scene-Location-and-Synopsis.png?r

Brief Synopsis of Events

By including this in your scene’s description, you will find it easier to make corrections, eliminate repetition, and track plot and character arcs at a glance.

Binder-Scene-Versions-and-Forks-in-the-R
Scene Versions and Forks in the Road (Click to Enlarge)

Track Forks in the Road

In the image above, did you notice scene 5.1 lists three options for the climactic scene, each taking place in a different location?

Sometimes I’ll reach a fork in the story road and can determine which way to go at the level of the outline. Other times, I’ll need to rough-drafting each scene first.  Either way, the binder allows me to organize and visualize the possibilities.

Track Your Scene Versions

I’ve never mastered the snapshot feature of Scrivener, so this is likely an unnecessary hack, but I like the idea of preserving individual scenes in their various iterations. That way, I can easily return to a previous version if I discover I’ve overwritten superior text, or zigged when I should have zagged.

To accomplish this, before tackling any significant change, I first duplicate the scene. The newest version gets a higher “V” number, and older versions go into the folder specifically designated for them.

Put it all together, and this is the result: a basic outline visible alongside the scene you are currently writing.

Story forest PLUS story trees.

Binder-Visible-While-Drafting-a-Scene.pn
Scrivener Binder AND Editor on One Page (Click to Enlarge)

Now over to you, Unboxeders. Does this open up any possibilities for you? Do you bother to track any of the above? If you do, what’s your preferred method?

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About Jan O'Hara

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen; Cold and Hottie; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.

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