I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month (hopefully more consistently than in April), and the whole idea behind writing success and the concept of NaNo and best practices for “winning” has me obsessing over one question: What if you aren’t a Plotter or a Pantser?
I think we can get so caught up in labels when it comes to writing, and sometimes it’s to our detriment. (I’m totally guilty of labeling myself, too. Have you read my post about being a gardener writer?) You either plan or you’re spontaneous. You write serious, highbrow literature or you write fun, superficial stories.
So today I thought I would say adios to the labels and share a minimalist outline that I’ve been using during Camp NaNo to guide the writing of my current WIP. I consider myself to be right in between Plotter and Pantser as I am in most things (shout out to my fellow Libras!), and this minimalist outline is giving me the best of both worlds. It helps give me structure without crushing my creative spirit, and it keeps me organized so I (hopefully) won’t have to dig around searching for character names and important moments in the plot when I begin the dreaded editing phase.
Before we dive in, I’ve put together a Scrivener template that you can download for free. I get it. When you’re just starting out, Scrivener can be a beast, and if you’re looking to get started with your writing dreams ASAP, you don’t have time to tame it. So let me do the work for you!
If, however, you’re super into Scrivener and want to do the legwork yourself, keep reading! I’ve put together detailed instructions to help you create a minimalist outline that works for your story. Not mine, not the latest bestselling author’s, just yours!
How to Create a Minimalist Outline in Scrivener
Step 1: Defining Your Story
The best part about a minimalist outline is that you only need to know one thing before you begin: genre. Since genre can be a big determining factor in the intended length of your novel, you’ll want to settle on it before you begin writing. The Write Life has a great article on word counts, and I’ve pulled a few highlights for you:
- Science Fiction/Fantasy: 90,000-120,000 words
- Romance: 70,000-100,000 words
- Historical Fiction: 80,000-100,000 words
- Thrillers/Mysteries: 70,000-90,000 words
- Young Adult: 50,000-80,000 words
With my current WIP, it’s somewhere between YA and fantasy. I know that my first drafts tend to be wordy at best and so I’m giving myself a little wiggle room and have set up my outline for 100,000 words. You do you! (And remember, this is just a guideline/starting point, and you can always switch things up as you get further into your story.)
Step 2: Setting Up Your Story in Scrivener
It’s time. Let’s set that bad boy up in Scrivener! If you aren’t familiar with Scrivener, I have a few words about why you should give it a shot (and maybe even a second shot). I’m a big fan of its clean, writing-focused setup, and I’ll share a few of my favorite aspects of the software as we set up your minimalist outline.
Creating a New File
The first thing you’ll want to do is open Scrivener and select File, then New Project. From here, you choose your template. I would recommend either a completely blank document or the Novel template under Fiction. It includes a few templates and front matter things that could be helpful as you write. Give your new project a title, hit Create, and you are well on your way to writing your story.
Before we begin working with your intended word count, let’s tidy things up a bit. I tend to move the Front Matter folder so it doesn’t distract me while I’m writing. You can drag and drop it below the Template Sheets folder.
Customizing the Template Sheets
Speaking of Template Sheets, I would highly recommend taking a peek at both the Character Sketch and the Setting Sketch templates. They automatically include aspects and attributes that you might need to know about your characters and locations, but you can also edit them to include questions you always ask about your characters or things you’ll need to know specific to your story.
If you download my free Scrivener template, I’ve included the Character and Setting sketches that I use in my own outlines.
Preparing for the What Ifs
Now, we’ll just add one more item. Click on Research, then click the big green plus button to add new text. You’ll probably want to include lots more research once you get into your story, but for now we’ll just call this page What If? When I’m feeling more Pantser than Plotter, my What If? page is the perfect place to store , and asking “What if…?” is my favorite way to get myself out of a writing rut.
What if my main character can commune with nature? Or what if the love interest never physically shows up in the story? What if my story world is overrun with faeries? And what if those faeries will only speak with my protagonist? You’ll put all of these questions, their answers, and little plot buzzings that aren’t fully formed yet into your What If? page, and then we’ll plot the ones with promise in your minimalist outline.
Step 3: Adding Your Story Structure
Finally, it’s time to add your chapters! Using the intended word count that you landed on based on your novel’s genre, we’ll go ahead and include a folder for each chapter. But how do you determine how many words are in each chapter?
Chapter length tends to vary greatly based on the story and the author. I think it comes down to individual style more than anything, but we do need some number to use as a guideline. I look to Better Novel Project for everything books and numbers, and you should definitely take a peek at the fascinating comparison of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
The average of the average chapter counts of these three novels is 4,250 words. I typically make things a little easier for myself and shoot for 4,000 words per chapter. Once again, you do you.
So go ahead and take your intended total word count, divide it by your average chapter word count, and voila! You had the number of chapters to use as a guideline in your minimalist outline.
Click Manuscript, then select New Folder from the big green plus button until you’ve created a folder for each chapter. Yes, this is tedious. Yes, it’s worth it to be able to visualize your novel even when you don’t yet know what’s happening at each of these points.
Step 4: Customizing Your Minimalist Outline to Work Best for You
If you click the Outliner button, the one to the right in the three centralized buttons at the top of the screen, you’ll be taken to the Outliner mode. You’ll do most of your writing in the left button: Scrivenings mode, and you can also do a little outlining in the middle: Corkboard mode.
The Outliner mode shows all of your chapter folders with four headings: Title, Synopsis, Label, and Status. To customize this view with even more headings, go to View, then Outliner Columns, and click on the ones you want to include. I like to have Word Count, which automatically updates as I write.
Adding Custom Meta-Data
Now, here’s where the real magic happens. Be sure your Inspector is open to the right-hand side of the screen. (It’s the blue button with the cursive “i.”) The fourth section of the Inspector, which has a little tag, is your Custom Meta-Data, and I love this feature. Click the gear button in the bottom section of the Inspector and choose Edit custom meta-data settings. You can now add your own meta-data aka whatever you want to track within your novel.
Not sure what to include? Here are a few things I’ve used over the years:
- Date (especially when you’re writing historical fiction or a sci-fi with time travel, and date/time is so important)
- Point-of-View Character
- Main Character’s Goal (because if your MC doesn’t have a goal for each chapter, is your chapter even necessary?)
Once you’ve added your custom meta-data, you can go back to View → Outliner Columns and add it to your Outliner mode. Now you have a minimalist outline with an outline that reflects your story and not some generic novel format!
Step 5: Plotting What You Know Within Your Minimalist Outline
Even if you’re the greatest Pantser that ever Pantsed, chances are good you have some idea of either where your story begins or where it’s going or some vision of the middle. There’s something that started you writing it, and that something is what you’ll include in your outline.
Click Manuscript, then use the green plus button to add New Text to your outline. Now, here’s where you’re going to think I’m crazy. Let’s say the first thing you know about your novel takes place in Chapter 1. Instead of clicking and dragging this new scene page into the Chapter 1 folder, you’re going to drag it right below the folder. Yes, it sounds crazy. I totally get it.
However, when you go into Outliner mode and click on Manuscript, you now see all of your chapter folders plus the new scene. If you had dragged it into the folder, you’d see all your chapter folders, and then you’d have to click on the Chapter 1 folder to see the new scene. Not a great way to easily see everything in your novel, especially right at the beginning when there isn’t so much to see. Instead of hiding what moments we do know away in folders, let’s keep them out in the open. You can always pull your scenes into the chapters once you finish up your first draft.
If you download my free Scrivener template, I’ve separated out the Outline from the Manuscript. That way you can easily see what you’ve already outlined while keeping it separate from the scenes you’ve actually written within your novel.
Incorporating Your Plot Points
Continue adding new text to your manuscript in roughly the spots you intend for them until everything from your What If? page is in the outline. You can also use this minimalist outline if you’re following the Hero’s Journey or some other plotting device to guide your story. If you know the halfway plot point, go ahead and add it to that middle chapter. I would just caution against adding in plot points that you don’t know. If you don’t know how your hero will be whisked away from their homeland, don’t include that plot point on your outline. Put it in your What If? and wait until you have
Go ahead and add a title, synopsis, and label to each new page in your Manuscript. I like to label everything as an Idea until I’ve had the chance to spend time writing it. Then I’ll change it to a Chapter or a Scene.
Now, when you open Outliner mode, you’ll see exactly what you know about your novel and roughly where each plot point takes place. You can flit between the pieces you know, fully drafting them before creating others. Or you can start from one point and write to connect one point you know with another. A minimalist outline gives you ultimate freedom to write the way you want to, you not-quite-Plotter, not-quite-Pantser.
I hope you enjoyed my very first Scrivener tutorial, but mostly I hope it gives you the drive to write your novel in your own way! I’m considering creating a video tutorial to go along with this post. Is that something you’d be interested in seeing? Leave a comment, and let me know!