When it comes to story planning, we often divide writers into two categories: plotters and pantsers. The ones who know everything there is to know about their story long before they put pen to paper and the ones who fly by the seat of their pants, making it up as they go along. Even then, there’s more than one kind of pantser or plotter. Each writer has their own method to make the inevitably daunting task of outlining that much easier.
No matter what kind of planner you are, the hardest part of writing is translating what’s in your mind onto the page in a way that makes sense and can be altered to your liking. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the four types of planners out there, and the digital tools they can use to make their outlining process a breeze.
First off, we have the Architect, the prototypical plotter. Architects need to plan everything before they can get going. This kind of writer will know how many rooms are going into the house, where the sink’s going to be, and what kind of wallpaper they’re going to use.
If you’re an Architect, your outline is probably a meticulous scaffold of scenes, chapters, and themes that would make your average panster weep in frustration. All of these elements are strictly laid out and tested before you start writing and serve as your guide as you move forward.
For this kind of writer, Scrivener is the holy grail of plotting software. You can keep everything — and we mean everything — in one place. Both your outline and your manuscript can be kept in Scrivener so you can easily reference your plan as you write, without having to slip between different programs. And you can color-code and create subfolders to your heart’s content. You can also bookmark important documents to make the interface easier to navigate. The best part is when you select a bookmark, it opens side-by-side with the project you’re currently working on, so you don’t have to flip between tabs! At $59.99 for a one-time download, it’s a pretty good deal for unlimited customization and organization perfection.
Another option Architects should consider is Plottr. It does a lot of the hard work for you in terms of layout and even offers additional character and structure templates. Overall, Plottr requires far less customization and initial effort to create your outline. You can organize your novel chapter by chapter, create character and place profiles, and easily interlink the two. And of course you can also color-code everything. But unlike Scrivener, Plottr is solely devoted to outlining, so there’s no place to actually write your book, and the price tag is a bit steeper at $99 for lifetime access.
However, not all plotters are as attached to their outline as Architects are.
On the plotter-to-pantser spectrum, Designers are somewhere in the middle: they have a pencil sketch in place and like to have a good idea of what the painting will look like. However, they might not yet know what precise colors they’re going to use, or even what type of paint. They’ll figure that out as they work.
Though they might not rely on a strictly detailed novel outline, it’s important for Designers to sketch out a skeleton of plot points. This might resonate with you if you like to leave some space to explore in your planning stages. Leaving certain relationships or events open-ended or vague lets you have fun while you’re writing and gives you space to develop some parts of your novel freely, painting within the margins you have outlined.
Scrivener and Plottr are still great options for Designers as they have a lot of room for flexibility. The freedom of Scrivener allows the most tech-savvy Designers to create an outline structure that works well for them and doesn’t require too many specifics. For those daunted by Scrivener’s many features, Plottr’s templates and easy-to-use interface are a great alternative as you can fill in as much or as little detail as you want.
For the writers that lean more towards the panster side of the spectrum, there are a whole host of other options to consider.
Knitters sit down and write scenes as they pop into their head. They’ll then go back and “knit” the sequences together later. Since they might randomly have Scenes 2, 10, 11, and 27 down on paper, it becomes a question of “filling in the blanks.”
For this type of panster, they may want to draw out the scenes they do know in advance and lay them out in order. To them, a novel outline will be helpful as long as it gives them freedom to move scenes around. If you’re a Knitter, you could use post-its or a corkboard, but there are some digital tools that may also be helpful.
Milanote is like a digital corkboard and has been described as “the Evernote for creatives.” It allows you to visually organize your ideas, add photos to give yourself extra inspiration, and if you ever think of a new scene or idea, it’s easy to rearrange to fit your new vision. Milanote also has templates specifically designed for writers, so whether you want to create a character profile or a novel plan or just want to brainstorm, you can simply pick a template and start working without worrying about the setup. There is a free version of Milanote, but there’s a limit to how many notes you can add, so, if you want unlimited access, there’s the option of a monthly subscription for $9.99.
Another option, though slightly unorthodox, is Trello. While this is technically a project management tool, its cards and brainstorming features are perfect for Knitters as they are specifically designed for managing projects that might not be fully realized yet. And they can, of course, be reordered as needed. Unlike Milanote, all of Trello’s features are free.
In George R. R. Martin’s own words: “Gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed, and water it. They kind of know what seed it is. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have. They find out as it grows.” In other words, the Gardener is the ultimate panster, figuring out their story as it grows and sprouts.
Since this kind of writer engages in organic world-building and character-building, a traditional novel outline probably won’t be a natural fit — though a mind map might be useful. This method gives Gardeners a place to brain-dump and store their ideas while also creating new connections that could help them further develop their story.
If you’re looking for a way to make digital mind maps, the creators of Scrivener have you covered with Scapple. With lots of useful features and customization options, it mimics the simplicity of creating mind maps by hand, but the digital format makes it easier to edit and make changes without worrying about mistakes. And you can also add images to your mind map along with text. However, Scapple does require purchase, so expect to pay $20.99 for lifetime access to these features.
If you’re looking for a free alternative, Coggle has many of the same features as Scapple. You can create connections between ideas and add images to make a flow chart of your novel, and customize it with different colored arrows and text boxes. Since Coggle is an entirely online software, it also allows for real-time collaboration, so it’s great for co-authors or if you’re working with beta readers. It’s kind of like the Google Docs of mind maps.
There’s no right or wrong way to outline a novel for every writer, so we hope the tools we’ve explored here are helpful. If you’re not sure what kind of story planner you are, experiment with different methods and find what works best for you. You might not strictly be a plotter or pantser depending on what you’re working on, and even if you have traditionally been more of an Architect or Designer, exploring new processes can help you discover new things about yourself and your story.
(c) Daniella Zelikman