Create a visual outline to keep your story on track

Visual outline for a novel

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

Visual outline for a novel

How to outline your story in 6 easy steps

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.

There are many ways to outline your story, from the Three Act Structure to the Hero's Journey but 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.

In this guide, you'll learn the modern approach to outlining a novel using Milanote. Remember, the creative process is non-linear, so you may find yourself moving back and forth between the steps as you go.

1. First, 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. Create a new board for your outline.

    Create a new board

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

  2. 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

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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. 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.

5. Ask for feedback

With any creative technique or project, it’s important to be open to constructive criticism. Now that the first version of your outline is done it's time to ask for specific feedback on the sequence, plot points, and character development. Make sure you stay open to suggestions and improvements and try not to take criticism personally.

If you’re not sure how to deal with the feedback you get, writer Neil Gaiman has some insight: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Asking for feedback on your story outline
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Invite a writing partner or editor to provide feedback.

    Invite editors to your board

    Open the "Editors" menu from the title bar of your board. Add email addresses of the people you'd like to collaborate with—they'll receive an invitation via email.

  2. Start a comment thread.

    Start a comment thread

    Drag out a comment from the toolbar on the left and place it on your board. Other editors can reply to your comment.

  3. Mention others to get their attention.

    Mention teammates to get their attention

    Type '@' in any text field to mention someone who has access to your board. They'll receive a notification and be able to respond to your comment.

6. Start a rough draft

Now you have a solid outline for your story and you've gathered constructive feedback, you can start sketching out the details in a draft. Your outline and your drafts are perfect companions. Jump between them as your need, switching ensures your story works at the high level and in the details.

A draft chapter of a novel in a writers app
How to do this in Milanote
  1. Drag a Document card onto your board and start typing

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're starting a new novel right now, use the free outline template below to start mapping it out or read our full guide on how to plan a novel.

Start outlining your next masterpiece

Get started for free with one of Milanote's beautiful outline templates.