Outlining a novel can be tough. Even if you already have the entire story in your head, actually putting it all down in an outline can often bring your novel-writing efforts to a standstill.

For help with the actual outline of your novel, or to learn just what the basic elements of a story are, I recommend you read ‘Save the Cat! Writes a Novel’ by Jessica Brody. It makes a brilliant job of reducing most genres of fiction to their beats, and you can easily use it to get your outline into shape.

This post is more about the organisation and practicality of your outline. A lot of people use sticky notes (I’m a flashcards gal myself) when outlining a novel, but these come with the problem that you cannot go back to them again and again, unless you have an empty wall in your house where you can permanently put them up. But, even then, what if you are out of the house and have a great idea for your outline? Sure, you can make a note of it. But, wouldn’t it be better if you could make changes to it on the spot? What if your trusted sticky notes come falling down, ruining your efforts? The online tool Trello can help you with this, and much more.

What is Trello?

Trello is an online list-making application that is most often used in a team-working setting. It allows users to create ‘boards’ to keep track of projects, make sure deadlines are being met, and so forth.

Even though Trello is not a custom-made tool for novelists, like Scrivener, you can easily adapt it to your needs and outline a novel with its features! How, you ask?

Where to begin

Trello is a very user-friendly website to use, so do not feel intimidated from the get-go. There are not a million things that you need to click on or Google to figure out how they work. It’s very self-explanatory!

The first thing you want to do is go to their website and create an account, or log in with Google, Microsoft or Apple. The free plan has all the features that you will need.

Once that is out of the way, you will be greeted by a very blank page and simple dashboard.

On the left menu, Boards shows you the boards you have created, Templates takes you to templates of boards made by other users, Home is your home page and Create a team lets you invite other people to work on your boards. In an outline scenario, you can use this feature if you have a co-author, or a friend helping you out. You give your team a name, category and brief description, add teammate emails and voilĂ , your board is shared!

But, to share a board, you have to create one first. That big grey button under Personal Boards is exactly what you want to click to start your outlining journey. You can then name your board after your novel, set the privacy settings, and choose a custom image for it. This is the photo you will see in the background of your board, so you can choose one that reflects the theme of your novel from the available stock images.

Creating an outline

A newly-created board comes with some pre-populated lists as an example of a basic board. It should look like this:

The lists are the columns named ‘To Do’, ‘Doing’ and ‘Done’, to which you can add cards. These cards will, in most other boards, represent tasks, but for an outline you will use them for your scenes.

Since you are outlining a novel, the first thing to do is to change the names of the lists. All you need to do is click on them and type in the new name. For the purpose of this post I will use a three-act structure, and name the lists accordingly. If you use a different structure that requires more lists, you can add extras using the Add another list button. I also find it useful to have a list for scenes I’m not quite sure where they belong yet.

Here, I would recommend you add the elements of the story you definitely need to hit. This will serve as a skeleton and guide. If you follow the breakdown of a story explored in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, it will look something like this…

When you are adding several cards you can save time by pressing Enter instead of clicking Add another card. As you can see, the title cards are coloured; this makes it easier to tell them apart from the actual scene cards. You can do this by hovering over a card, clicking the pen on the upper-right corner and selecting Edit Labels.

Now you are ready to add scenes to your template.

You can expand these as much as you like, but short and to the point is usually a good idea. Include a one, two-sentence summary of a scene in each card as the title, like you would in a sticky note. These will appear at the bottom of your list. Once you know where they go, you can click and drag them to their place. Cards can be moved between lists, so don’t worry about where you create them. You can even add them all on your ‘spare scenes’ list and then play around with their placement until it all clicks together.

Extra features

This is as far as you need to go for a basic outline. However, Trello does have features you can add to your cards that can help you in your novel writing process.

One of these is the ability to add attachments to scenes. If you have an image that inspires a particular scene, or a website that you want to have open while writing another, you can attach these to your card by left-clicking on the card and selecting Attachment on the Add to Card menu, located on the top right of the page.

If you are on a deadline (or are participating in NaNoWriMo), you can add a target end date for each scene or section by clicking Due Date on the same menu. You can also select when you want to be reminded of this date.

My personal favourite is the ability to add checkmarks to scenes. This gives you an easy way to mark scenes as finished as you go along. Just click Checklist, title it, and add the elements you want on it (for example, ‘drafted’, ‘edited’, etc). If you only have one element to add, though, I would recommend a different method, even if it does take a couple more steps to set up.

Go to Add Power-Ups, search for Custom Fields and then add it. Go back to your card menu, click the new Custom Fields box, leave the type as Checkbox and name it ‘Done’ or whatever you prefer. I personally like the look of the second option more, but play around with both and see which one you want to use. Do take into account that, with a free plan, you can only have one Power-Up, so if you want to use another one you will have to go for the Checklist option.

Checklist vs Custom Fields

These are the features I use in Trello, but there are certainly others that you might find useful, so do explore the website and see what else it has to offer. If you want a portable version of your outline, there is a mobile app of Trello you can download.

Outlining a novel is a complicated process, so using tools such as Trello can help get that out of the way so that you can jump right into the exciting part: writing!

Sofia Matias is a professional writer, editor and proofreader. She specialises in working with independent authors of Young Adult and general fiction, arts and humanities students, businesses, charities and publications. She is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). Learn more about her and her services on her website and connect via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or Instagram.


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