How to Outline a Novel with Scrivener Corkboard Cards

Yeah, because this isn't terrifying.

Today I was told I write as a form of therapy. I don't think they were wrong. I did a lot of thinking about my novel in the last few days. I listened to personal accounts from COVID-19 survivors, dug into the George Floyd protests, researched the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and read several hundred pages on American Indian spiritual beliefs. Inside my brain, it's been a ride.

I also realized that the story I was writing had changed, and I had no idea what the new shape was. A text outline wasn't going to cut it anymore. Since I don't have a massive corkboard in my apartment, Scrivener was the best way to organize my thoughts.

Today I also wrote out every scene in my novel and color-coded it by character POV. This is incredibly useful, as I now have

  1. a checklist of what to write next

  2. a sense of which characters' stories I still need to flesh out

  3. confirmation that my once minor character Daisy has indeed stolen this show (impressive seeing as she dies in scene 25)

  4. some small prayer I can write this monster in 100,000 words

Basic Setup

To use the corkboard, first create a folder in your binder. I called mine Scenes. Select the folder, then click the Corkboard button. The top bar has a Corkboard button that looks like 4 little rectangles on a brown rectangle. Also note the Outliner button directly to the right of it, the one with blue lines. (More on that later!)

I also like to turn on the setting Show Card Numbers, found in View > Corkboard Options in the top menu. I'm juggling over 100 scenes, so it's really useful to be able to remember the scene with the goldfish was around scene 15. Also to have scenes renumber themselves when you drag and drop them.

Finally, I clicked on Toggle Split button on the far right so I could see my original outline and the corkboard at the same time while working.

Writing Scene Cards

Each card is pretty simple deliberately. The titles follow the format Location "Name - Memorable Scene Nickname." The card contents is a short description of the scene, including all characters by name. The card is also made a unique color using the Labels feature, which can be accessed by right-clicking the card (when you're not typing in it). I created of set of Labels to track POV, but you might want to label by present/flashback, real-world/dream world, major themes, etc.

While some scenes are several sentences long and may include punchline dialogue, I try to keep them short and sweet. My goal is to know what is going on in the scene at a glance.

Pro Tip: Filter your Corkboard with Ctrl/Cmd+F searches.

For example, I can quickly filter down and see all the scenes where my character Bridget appears. Whether it's her POV (light blue), is she's in a scene from someone else's POV, or is just mentioned. I can do the same thing with my location Nana's House. This has helped me a ton with continuity errors.

Advantages of a Corkboard Outline in Scrivener

It does take some time to set up the corkboard. At a story plotting level, the biggest wins of doing this method were that it became very easy to:

  1. insert missing scenes

  2. change the order of scenes

  3. filter to see scenes with a specific character/setting/other keyword

  4. check story balance at a macro level

  5. weave in a new story thread (in my case, a running gag and a symbolic repetition)

It also creates an organized way to keep track of the outline as I write the story, called the Outliner.

Remember that button with the blue lines? This changes the visual corkboard view to a metadata rich overview of your scenes. You can add a bunch of columns, but I like Status and Total Words. Status to lets me know which scenes to right next, and Total Words keeps track of my word count progress by scene. When it comes time for the second draft, if I come in under my target goal, I can use this column to check which scenes are too short. Over the goal? It's easy to quickly spot the wordiest scenes.

For now, the goal is to write, write, write.


As part of writing Unfinished Business, I'm participating in the #ROW80 challenge. I missed Wednesday due to craziness. This week I have no concrete progress this week towards my word count goal, but I did some serious heavy lifting in the research, plotting, and organization departments.

Goal: 25K by end of challenge

Progress: 9.2K

Next step: move my existing first draft text into my new scene cards and write first drafts of several scenes.

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