The 5 Best Online Tools to Help You Outline Your Novel

Writers Write is a writing resource. In this post, our guest bloggers shares five online tools to help you outline your novel.

The novel can seem like an insurmountable challenge to many aspiring writers. Due to the complexity and attention to detail that the novel takes to write, many fail because of their inability to bring everything together. If you find the proper tools and techniques, which you can think of as your ‘gear’ to help you conquer Mt. Story, you will be well on your way to finishing a story.

Here are five online tools for writers:

1. Trello 

Trello is a cool browser-based organisational board that uses a simple process of building lists and adding cards to those lists. You can find a useful tutorial here on YouTube. You will require some organisational skills beforehand but it is highly multi-functional and super easy to re-arrange things.

You can create a board for each new chapter with different lists to micromanage your novel all the way through. You can create a board for a group of chapters. You can have a board specifically for your characters with cards that represent their different qualities such as object/desire, conflict, identifying quality, and other character connections.

This is preferable to Microsoft Excel or Google Spread sheet because of the functionality of the different cards and boards. You can add labels to each list or to individual cards. You can include checklists, due dates and even attachments to individual cards. They even have a phone app so you can always have your novel outline at your fingertips.

2. Snowflake Method

What good is a tool if the person using it does not have the proper technique and skill to maximise the effectiveness of the tool? No use at all.  If you want to master the Snowflake Method, read this article by Randy Ingermanson first. Again, organisation is the key element.

You’ll start by describing your book in a 15-word sentence, much like the summary you find on the backs of novels. Ingermanson describes this sentence as your hook, which you will use to persuade publishers to buy your novel later.

Then you’ll progress to a God’s Eye view of the circumstances facing your protagonist in just one paragraph. He tells you what each particular sentence in that paragraph should explain. Next comes character development. Ingermanson suggests for you to write a one-page summary for each character. After you have completed these three steps, which we will call ‘the base’, you simply expand it.

You develop the one-paragraph synopsis of the book that you create in step two, and then elaborate on the one-page summary of each character to a four-page synopsis of each character.


3. Scrivener 

Scrivener is an outstanding stand-alone software programme that is available for a small fee for both Mac and PC here. The key idea behind Scrivener is to be able to complete your large texts by breaking it down into smaller chunks.

When you first open Scrivener, it prompts you to choose a blank project or use a template. Once you’ve chosen, the main editor opens. On the left hand side, you’ll see a navigational pane called the binder. There are three sections of the binder: draft, research, trash. The draft section is where all the various components of your manuscript will go. Research is used for images, .pdfs, etc. The default corkboard layout really does justice for giving that “I’m a bestselling novelist” feel to the sources or inspirations you’ve found and want to store for reference. Trash is self-explanatory. Scrivener supports exporting and importing documents, horizontal or vertical split screen editing and more.

(Buy your copy here: Scrivener)

If you would like to know more about Scrivener, you can find a video tutorial here.


4. MindManager Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is great if you’re in the brainstorming or idea phase. If you’re not already familiar with it, it is the process of building upon an idea in the same way the brain thinks. Your novel idea will go in the centre and then you’ll build upon it through adding different spokes or sub-topics.

Fortunately, there is a tool that can help writers called MindManager from MindJet Software Company. It displays information in mind maps using words, colours, images and spatial relationships to manage different information. MindManager has 30 days free trial version that you can find here. (click ‘Try MindManager Free’).

Don’t limit yourself to just words! Any central topic or spoke can be a phrase or a picture. Be creative.


5. XMind

XMind is a powerful Mind Mapping software tool that you can download free here. It works for all three major operating systems: Windows, Mac and Linux. It’s free and the free version does not limit you to a certain amount of mind maps like other free software out there.

Each workbook can contain multiple sheets. You use these to break up chapters or to plan each character’s development. From the central topic, you have sub-topics, which when stacked on top of each other take on the shape of a list. You can add notes and photos to each sub-topic to elaborate on that particular item. You can use the drill down feature to view a sub-topic as if it were the central topic to help you focus just on that particular item and build it out further.

There are other stylistic features. You can use colour codes for different aspects of your novel, marker symbols for different topics, a simple text editor, and much more. You can also watch a great video tutorial of the video here to learn more about XMind.

There you have it. These are the best online tools and techniques to outline your novel. Do not forget that organisation is the key when using the tools. No matter which technique or tool you choose, remember to write a little bit each day.  If you do, you will have a novel in no time at all.

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.

 by Jessica Millis. Jessica is an aspiring writer, editor and teacher.

Posted on: 13th March 2015

3 thoughts on “The 5 Best Online Tools to Help You Outline Your Novel”

  1. Thanks for the list. I’ve written four novels using Scrivener and can’t imagine using anything else. I love the way I can keep all my documents together in one place and see the outline as I’m working. It’s definitely worth the small fee.

  2. Michelle Wallace

    I’m familiar with Scrivener (not that I’ve used it)
    Never heard of some of these before… they are brand new to me…
    Thanks for sharing.

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