I'm a plotter, meaning that I develop my novel before I start writing it. You could say that I'm almost an extreme variety of plotter, as I narrow my outline down to the scene before even starting the first draft. That's just how I write.

When I develop, I come up with all of the things I need to include, like the pieces of character development and stakes, for instance. I figure out what I need for those parts to come about, or in the case of stakes, escalate. When I'm done, I organize all the scenes I came up with, link them together, and then make the outline based off of that.

This means that virtually every scene has an important function it plays within the book. Scene eleven introduces the character's drive. Scene twenty shows the inner conflict in more depth. Scene twenty-three escalates the private stakes of the story. And so on.

I like to keep track of what each scene is supposed to be accomplishing, but in the case of scenes that accomplish several things at once, this gets a bit difficult. Additionally, what I really want is solely the outline in front of me, with the development of the scene hidden, but easily accessible. I don't want to be wading through development while I'm writing from the outline.

Is there a program that can do this for me?

What I've tried

I have been using Excel for this. On the left I have the scene. Going towards the right, I have details about the scene, like PoV, location, setting, time, so on. To the right of that, I have a column for each piece of development. Not all of the columns are used for every scene, so I tried combining the development information into one column, but things started to get messy and cramped.

What would be ideal is if I have something like Excel, but where I can hide and view the columns at will. They could be tabs on the top that I could expand or shrink depending on what I need.

Another way this could work is if I have the scene, then a pull down each for details and development. I can click the pull down to view what I have in that category for that scene.

Is there a program that can do this? Best case scenario would be a free program that works on my computer (PC windows 10). I'd prefer to keep my writing off the internet if possible.

  • Perhaps you should use microsoft powerpoint. You could use a seperate slide for each scene. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 20:11

4 Answers 4


I assume that you have googled for outliners and have rejected all of the many version available out there. So here are a couple of thoughts on alternatives.

  1. Trello, or something similar. Trello is actually a process management tool, but it basically consists of boards to which you can add lists, to which you can add cards. The cards open one at a time as you click them, and you can add as much detail as you want to a card. But with the cards closed, you can just look at the set of lists and their card titles. So you could use lists for acts, and cards for scenes, which would let you see the whole outline in one view, but then open the cards for as much detail as you want on any scene. You can also rearrange cards and lists just by dragging and dropping. It is online, but you can create private boards so no one else can see them.

  2. Mind mapping tools. These are essentially outliners, but they are good at letting you quickly show and hide details and move stuff around. They also allow you to connect various points in the mind map with arrows, which you can use to plot the relationships between things outside of the linear flow of the outline. Most allow you to use color or icons to represent various properties of a node, which can further help with visualization.

  3. Index cards and a large table or empty wall. You can write you scene titles large so you can see them at a glance but add detail in smaller size. You can even clip multiple cards together if you need a lot of detail on a scene. You can also color code for characters and highlight for rising or falling action, to see how people move through the story and how the arc builds. Low tech, but very flexible.

  • No, I did not search for outliners because I have never heard of them. Are there some widely accepted ones that I can research? Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 17:57
  • 3
    Okay, well, the most well known and widely used outliner is probably Microsoft Word, which has an outline mode based on heading levels, You can expand and collapse headings at will, showing or hiding the text underneath and you can reorganize the document by dragging and dropping headings. The benefit of this is that the outline and the document are just two views of the same file. There are lots of standalone outliners as well. I don't have a specific recommendation, but a Google search will turn up dozens on them. Wikipedia also has an extensive list: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliner
    – user16226
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 18:05
  • 1
    I'm beginning to think Word might be all I need after all. I knew of the outline mode, but I hadn't thought to try it with this. It seems to be working so far. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 22:03

I don't know of any software that can do this.

What I have done in the past, and what I'm doing again after trying to work with Excel, is write my outline in a text document. Each chapter is a numbered section in that text document. I leave a very broad margin (half the page or more) for handwritten notes, after I print the document out. For character development, relationships, and other throughlines, I take a sheet of paper each and draw an annotated graph, with chapter numbers on the x-axis to relate the points in the graph to the chapters in the text document. Usually I don't have more than three developments going on in a novel, so when I sit down to write I have three A4 or A3 sized sheets of paper on my desk with development graphs and a bundle of A4 papers stapled together with the outline. If things got more complicated, I would create a table – on paper – where each row was a throughline and each column a chapter.


Check out Scrivener

It is a tool designed specifically for planning/research/writing anything, and it is very customizable and flexible. It is not free, but affordable ($40 for Windows version) and has a true 30-days trial which only counts days you actually used the application.

I use a small subset of Scrivener's features, and I will never use anything else for writing, for I am totally hooked (I do not work for L&L :-) ).

It also works well with Aeon Timeline, there are ways of linking their files together, and has a companion iOS app. ($20).

  • If I purchase it, can I install it on multiple devices? Say, a desktop and a laptop? Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 17:53
  • Yes, up to 5 computers per platform. iOS app would be separate.
    – Lew
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 17:54

Articy Draft is a game development tool for detailing a world, it's characters, and the interactive elements of the story. It also supports templating and defining new fields if various types so you could define custom aspects to given scenes.

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