Working up an outline in OneNote

As I’m sure has become clear around here over the years my working methods duck and weave with every new book. I’m currently trying the outlining-as-movie-script technique I wrote about recently.

I like it but it needs a bit refining. Having faffed around and thought a bit the process should, I feel, work in this order (for me, of course, none of this may work for you at all).

  1. Treatment — in other words a simple text description of what happens in each scene. Really this is a basic outline setting down place, time and an event or thread. It’s not as long as a movie treatment. It contains no detail, quite deliberately because the creative part of developing character, drama and narrative happens in…
  2. The script outline. Again — read here to understand what I mean by this.
  3. The novel draft, written out of the script outline.
  4. If I hope this is a working script draft, a revise of that set against the new, fuller details of the story contained in the novel draft.


The question is… what do you use for each bit of the process? You could, if you wanted, do them all in Scrivener. It’s good for straightforward writing, has index cards for outlining and can have two panes, one for script, one for novel, in the same window. The script side of things isn’t as fully featured as a true script editor like Fade In or Final Draft. But it would work.

Alternatively — if you use a decent size screen as I do — you could use FI or FD alongside Word or another word processor to handle parts two to four.

But what about part one? The simple treatment. The outline.

I have toyed with index cards in Scrivener, FI and FD, over the years. Sometimes I like them. Right now I don’t. One reason is they tend to have fixed amounts of text visible, and this kind of outline has variable lengths. So on some cards the text will break and I have to scroll to see the whole thing.

Thinking about this I came to the conclusion… index cards suck. Who needs them? Really I just want a simple piece of clever digital paper.

Here it is.

Untitled picture

This is a page in a notebook from OneNote 2013, the best piece of software Microsoft have ever produced (currently Windows only I’m afraid but included with all versions of Office). Along the top are tabs for different sections that store information on the project — the titles tell you what they are. Under the treatment section we have an outline for each episode (this is not a real project as you may gather reading it).

What’s going on?

The text in blue represents the headings or acts of the story. If you use index cards in a script editor you will break your narrative down into individual scenes based on locations. I don’t want that. I want to group associated scenes into elements of the story, encompassing difference locations when necessary. Scrivener can handle this. FI and FD… not really.

The black text represents the story brief (here more compressed than it would be in real life). Each of those paragraphs is an outline element — OneNote does this automatically. So all I need do to move one up and down is use Alt-Shift-Up Arrow or Down Arrow. Right and left arrow will indent them if I wanted it.

It’s a simple, easy-to-use outline like this. But this is a three-storyline narrative and I want an easy indication of the balance of those elements. So I can tag a colour (or icon) to each. Here they are the red, yellow and green blocks, set up as simple shortcuts – Ctrl-6, 7 and 8.

Since each storyline has a tag (and you can have more than one tag for each scene) I can see if a minor thread is becoming too prominent — or a major one too small — just through a quick visual check.

There are lots of other things you could do with this as an outline, such as creating hierarchies and collapsing them. But I don’t need to do that for this purpose. Just simple paragraphs, tagged and easily moved around with a keyboard shortcut does it.

After I’ve organised a rough, basic outline in this form I can then go to the script editor and do the fun part — building the actual story with characters, action and dialogue. Or, more likely, I’ll do this in chunks — outlining a few of the acts here, then scripting them, then returning to the outline to add more elements.

Here are some things I like about working like this.

  • It’s really easy. OneNote’s a delight to work with, on a big screen or a tiny one. It uses the same keyboard shortcuts as Word pretty much, and the same dictionaries. If you know Word, you know how to type in this very easily.
  • Office 2013 works through Skydrive, Microsoft’s alternative to Dropbox. So your files are automatically synced to the web, backed up and kept up to date. If you work on your desktop, you get the same file on your laptop automatically without any fussy syncing. O2013 even remembers where you were working last and takes you to the same screen.
  • If you have a pen enabled tablet laptop you can scrawl on your notes with a pen, just as you can with paper. They also work on Android phones, iPhones and iPads with the free OneNote apps for those, working on the same Skydrive files.
  • OneNote keeps page history. So you can back up to previous versions of your outline if you decide to retreat to an earlier version. And anything you delete gets kept so it can be retrieved easily.
  • You can insert just about anything into a OneNote page — audio, video, ink, photos, pdfs, clip from the screen, print from any app, store emails from Outlook…
  • It fits into my recent ‘use as few apps as possible’ philosophy. With this it would be just Office plus a script editor.
  • And this one’s a real killer… OneNote works fully on the little Windows Surface RT tablet which you can now pick up for a song. I know the tech press hated these things but I work a lot in Office and I think they’re  fantastic. I have all my current projects  on an incredibly portable tablet with a detachable keyboard, one that will run for a few days between charges. For this kind of work it’s a delight to take out down a cafe or disappear down the pub for a while, to work in a different environment.

And now for the best bit of all. When your outline’s done you will want to keep it in view while you work on your script of course. No need to faff around with overlapping windows for that.

Go to the ribbon and hit the Dock to Desktop icon.


OneNote will now display your outline as a narrow, editable, scrollable window on the right hand edge of your screen. Launch your script editor and make it full screen. It will fill the space up to the OneNote docked bar automatically.


So for stage two I will work like this. Then I will have two screens, one script, one novel, for stages three and four.

I like this a lot. It’s going to be my working method for the current project from this point on.

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