How to plan a novel in Milanote

Plan for a novel

Follow this step-by-step guide to learn the modern process of planning a novel in Milanote, a free tool used by top creatives.

Plan for a novel

Starting a novel can be an exciting but daunting experience. It's the beginning of the creative process—where your mind is overflowing with ideas, inspiration, and plans. This guide will help you organize everything in one place so you can begin writing with confidence. You'll brainstorm ideas, collect inspiration, research your topic, dream up unique characters and create an outline for your story. At the end you'll have a solid foundation that will speed up the entire writing process.

1. Set up your plan

Create a place to plan your novel

Traditionally, your ideas and plans might be scattered across various sticky notes, to-do lists, spreadsheets, and documents, making it hard to keep track of everything and get a bird's-eye view of your project. A central project plan combines these artifacts into one easy-to-access place. It will evolve over the lifespan of your novel but usually includes:

  • Your ideas
  • Research
  • Inspiration and moodboards
  • Outline
  • Character profiles
  • To-do lists
  • Comments and feedback from others
Planning board for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Create a new board to plan your novel.

    Create a new board

    Drag a board out from the toolbar. Give it a name, then double click to open it.

  2. Choose the Novel Plan template.

    Choose a template 

    Each new board gives you the options to start with a beautiful template.

2. Research

Collect articles and data

Whether you're writing a sci-fi thriller or historical fiction, research is a crucial step in the early writing process. It's a springboard for new ideas and can add substance and authenticity to your story. As author Robert McKee says "when you do enough research, the story almost writes itself. Lines of development spring loose and you'll have choices galore." When you bring your research into one place and see things side-by-side, new ideas and perspectives start to emerge.

Research for a novel

First, open the Research board

You’ll find the board for collecting research on your Novel Plan board. Double click the Research board to open it and get started.

Planning board for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Research board to open it.

Wikipedia, blogs, and news websites are a goldmine for researchers. It's here you'll find historical events and records, data, and opinions about your topic. We're in the 'collecting' phase so just save links to any relevant information you stumble across.

Collecting articles and news clippings for novel research
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Drag a link card onto your board to save a website.

  2. Install the Milanote Web Clipper

  3. Save websites and articles straight to your board. 

    Save content from the web

    With the Web Clipper installed, save a website, image or text. Choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.

Collect video & audio

Video and movie clips can help you understand a mood or feeling in a way that words sometimes can't. Try searching for your topic or era on Vimeo, or Youtube. Podcasts are another great reference. Find conversations about your topic on Spotify or any podcast platform and add them into the mix.

Collecting video research for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Embed Youtube videos or audio in a board.

    Embed Youtube videos or audio tracks in a board

    Copy the share link from Youtube, Vimeo, Soundcloud or many other services. Drag a link card onto your board, paste your link and press enter.

Collect important images

Sometimes the quickest way to understand a topic is with an image. They can transport you to another time or place and can help you describe things in much more detail. They're also easier to scan when you return to your research. Try saving images from Google Images, Pinterest, or Milanote's built-in image library.

Collecting images during research for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library. 

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

Pro tip:

Allow yourself the time to explore every corner of your topic. As author A.S. Byatt says "the more research you do, the more at ease you are in the world you're writing about. It doesn't encumber you, it makes you free".

Collect research on the go

You never know where or when you'll find inspiration—it could strike you in the shower, or as you're strolling the aisles of the grocery store. So make sure you have an easy way to capture things on the go. As creative director Grace Coddington said, "Always keep your eyes open. Keep watching. Because whatever you see can inspire you."

Collect research for your novel on your phone
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Download the Milanote mobile app

  2. Save photos straight to your Research board.

    Take photos on the go

    Shoot or upload photos directly to your board. When you return to a bigger screen you'll find them in the "Unsorted" column of the board.

That's a great start!

Research is an ongoing process and you'll probably continue learning about your topic throughout your writing journey. Reference your research as you go to add a unique perspective to your story. Read the full guide on Organizing research for your novel to learn more.

3. Brainstorm

Generate ideas & characters

You have an idea for a story. It's just a spark at the moment, but you can't stop thinking about it. Now is the time to harness your creative energy and turn your idea into something real. And brainstorming is the perfect technique for the job.

Brainstorming is a classic creative technique for generating new ideas quickly. You can use it to dream up new characters, settings, or even explore themes you want to include in your book.

Grouping ideas for a novel during brainstorming

First, open the Brainstorming board

You’ll find the board for brainstorming on your Novel Plan board. Double click the Brainstorming board to open it and get started.

Planning board for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Brainstorming board to open it.

Start with your central topic

What's the central idea or concept for your story? This is your starting point. It might be just a rough idea at the moment or a topic that you want to explore, but this process will help you see how far you can take it. Add a note that describes your concept in 1 to 2 sentences to get started.

Brainstorming the synopsis for a story
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe your central idea.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Pro tip:

Your initial idea doesn't need to be something groundbreaking, you'll transform it over time. As Steven Spielberg says "All good ideas start out as bad ideas, that's why it takes so long."

Add as many ideas as you can

Now it's time to get creative. Start adding any ideas that relate to your main concept. Think about different parts of your story, locations, characters, or even the history of your topic. Explore every thread until you fill the board. Don't worry about evaluating your ideas yet, that will come later.

Brainstorming ideas for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note for each idea.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Add inspiring imagery, motion & sound

Sometimes it's easier to communicate an idea with an image or video, especially if it's a mood or style you're trying to express. Gather reference imagery, videos, and sound and add them into the mix. Images can help define things like fashion, character attributes and emotions, scenes, and more.

Images and video being added to brainstorming session
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

  2. Drag images from your computer onto the board.

    Upload a image or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

Finally, organize your ideas into themes

Once you've explored tangents and shared feedback, the next step is to make connections. This is where you see the magic of brainstorming.

Start by grouping similar ideas to uncover patterns in your thinking. Add a title to each group so it's easy to scan. You might find your ideas fall into groups like story, location, characters, or scenes, but there are no rules about how you do it.

Grouping ideas for a novel during brainstorming

You're done brainstorming

Now that your brainstorming session is complete, you have some strong ideas and you should start to see your initial concept coming to life! Remember, just as creativity and inspiration is constantly evolving, so are ideas. Come back and add to the brainstorm when inspiration strikes. Read the full guide on brainstorming ideas for a novel to learn more.

4. Moodboard

Organize inspiration & references

During brainstorming, you imagined the different parts of your story. It's time to start collecting inspiration with a moodboard (or "inspiration" board). It's a technique used by designers, filmmakers, and photographers but works just as well for creative writing.

Moodboards can help you visualize any aspect of your project. You can use them to figure out how a character or location could look. Or they could be centered around the era or the emotion you want to capture. You can create a moodboard for each of these separately or mix them all into one board. There are no strict rules.

A moodboard for a novel

First, open the Moodboard

You’ll find the board to make your moodboard on the Novel Plan board. Double click on the Moodboard to open it and start adding your inspiration.

Planning board for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Moodboard to open it.

Collect existing material

Start by adding any existing material you have—this could include images you've saved to your computer as inspiration. Just drag and drop them onto your board.

Images being added to a moodboard
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Drag files from your computer.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

Add inspiring imagery

The imagery you bring into your moodboard is what helps you express the feel of your story. Images can help you define things like tone, emotion, or a feeling you might be struggling to capture as you're writing. Use Milanote's built-in image library or search for visual elements from around the web. Don't worry about organizing the images just yet, that step will come later.

Images being added to a moodboard for writers
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

  2. Install the Milanote Web Clipper

  3. Save images from other websites straight to your board.

    Save content from the web

    Roll over an image (or highlight text), click Save, then choose the destination in Milanote. Return to your board and find the content in the "Unsorted" column on the right.

Transform your board from messy to organized

Once you have all your inspiration in one place, the next step is to arrange your ideas to create the perfect composition. Try combining different elements together. This is where you'll start to see new ideas appear. Perhaps the combination of two unrelated images will trigger an exciting new storyline.

A moodboard for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Resize your images to add hierarchy.

    Resize images

    Drag the corner of an image to resize it. Double-click the corner to return it to its original size.

  2. Crop images.

    Crop images

    Double-click an image and press edit to crop or rotate it.

You’ve finished the moodboard!

Now that your moodboard is complete, you have a powerful visual reference for your story and hopefully a bunch of new ideas. Remember, you can create multiple moodboards to explore different aspects of your story at any time. Read the full guide on making a moodboard to learn more.

Next, we'll start outlining your story.

5. Outline

Map out the sequence of events

A novel outline is often described as a roadmap or blueprint for your story. It helps you see the big picture and plan the sequence of scenes, characters, and ideas that will become your novel. It's a simple, flexible technique to help all types of writers stay organized.

This method is perfect for 'visual' writers—those who prefer to see the big picture as a sequence of events. Think of it as the modern, digital equivalent to the corkboard or wall of sticky notes, but much easier to manage.

First, open the Outline board

You’ll find the empty Outline board on the Novel Plan board. Double-click it to start adding the mapping out your story.

Planning board for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double-click the Outline board to open it.

Map out the key scenes

Start by laying out the major scenes or events you know so far. These might be the key turning points, locations, or plot twists. Don't worry too much about the order or details yet, just get the main parts out of your head. This is a quick flexible way to brainstorm the centerpieces of your story.

The key scenes of a novel outline
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a Column for each key scene.

    Drag a column onto your board

    Name it, then drag any relevant notes or images into your column

Add high-level details

Next, add a sentence or a short paragraph for each scene. There are no rules for how much detail to add, do what works best for you. Think about what's being communicated in this scene, the location, and the characters involved. This will help you consider where characters are introduced and how this scene connects with the next one.

Key events in a novel outline
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe the plot points.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Get the sequence right

Seeing your story at this level lets you make connections between themes and concepts you might otherwise miss if you went straight into writing. Re-read your outline so far. Look for scenes that feel out of place. Perhaps your transitions need some tweaking or a character appears without a proper introduction. Highlight areas that need more work and move scenes or plot points around to get the sequence just right.

Adjusting the sequence in your story outline
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Drag plot points around to get the sequence right.

Add imagery or video

While imagery probably won't make an appearance in your novel, this is a great technique for kickstarting new ideas. Experiment by adding images or movie clips that relate to your scenes. If you're the type of writer who creates moodboards, now's the time to see if you've already got imagery that could help evoke the feeling you're trying to capture. Try saving images from Google Images, Pinterest, or Milanote's built-in image library.

Adding images to a story outline
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

  2. Drag files from your computer.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

You're done!

Now that you've finished a draft outline, you can start writing, confident that your story has a strong foundation. If you want to learn more about this stage, read the full guide on how to outline a story or start with one of 5 outline templates.

6. Character profile

Create vivid, believable characters

One of the most integral parts of any story is crafting relatable and vivid characters. As writer Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”

The character profile is a popular technique for developing genuine personas for your story. It will help to shape a narrative as well as provide a handy reference point for their personality traits, backstory, goals, flaws, and challenges.

Character profile for a novel

First, open the Character profile board

You’ll find the first character profile board on the Novel Plan board. Double click on the Character board to open it and get started.

Planning board for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Double click the Character profile board to open it.

Start with basic characteristics

A character might start as a bundle of random ideas, traits and plot points from your game concept, so it’s important to bring everything together in one place. You can begin to shape the character and make them original. Consider the emotional connection between your audience and your character, and work towards the desired outcome. You may find that switching the age and gender of a character can lead to very different responses from your reader.

Describing a character for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add notes to describe your character.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

  2. Add an image to represent your character.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio, and much more.

Build their backstory

Your character's backstory describes the journey they have taken up to this point. It allows you to explore their fears, weaknesses, and motivations and to define their purpose. You can explain the character's methods and evaluations—why they act the way that they do, the choices they make, and how it drives the individual forward. Are they making progress towards their goal, or making things worse?

Adding a backstory to a character profile
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe their backstory.

    Drag a note card into your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left-hand toolbar.

Give them quirks, faults, and flaws

Your character should come from an authentic place. That means that the character probably has some contradictions that make them a little out of the ordinary. If a character is too simplistic, it can feel cliched. Character flaws such as overconfidence, impatience, or recklessness can add new dimensions to a hero and make them feel more relatable.

Adding quirks and flaws to a character profile
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Add a note to describe their quirks and flaws.

    Drag a note card onto your board

    Start typing then use the formatting tools in the left hand toolbar.

Add visual references & examples

Even if you're writing a novel, visual references and inspiration can help bring your character to life. There are lots of fantastic sites where you can find great visual inspiration for free, like Pinterest or Google Images. You can also create a character moodboard at this stage to help explore all aspects of their appearance. See our guide on creating moodboards for a novel to learn more.

Visual references in a character profile
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the built-in image library.

    Use the built-in image library

    Search over 500,000 beautiful photos powered by Unsplash then drag images straight onto your board.

  2. Drag files from your computer.

    Upload a file or document  

    Click the "Upload file" button or just drag a file onto your board. You can add images, logos, documents, videos, audio and much more.

Organise & refine

Once you have everything you need, it's time to organize your content into logical topics. There's no right or wrong way to do this. The goal is to make your character profile easy to scan and reference as you're writing the story.

Character profile for a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use Columns to group related content

    Drag a column onto your board

    Name it, then drag any relevant notes or images into your column

Create the rest of your characters

It's important not to fall into the trap of giving just one character too much responsibility for the drama in your story. Work on additional characters that compliment and contrast the traits of your main character. You can repeat the above process to develop a whole cast of characters that help bring your novel to life.

Map of characters in a novel
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Use the Character Relationship Map template

You're all done!

Hopefully, this guide has helped you stay organized while building a solid foundation for your novel. If you're just starting a new story, use the Novel Plan template below to get set up in minutes.

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