July 8


Tools for Writers: Omni Outliner



Many fiction writers are suspicious of outlining. There’s a tendency, especially among literary writers, to feel that anything thought out in advance cannot be real writing.

Better to discover what the story and the characters and the prose want, as the writing unfolds, rather than planning out chapters in a long ungainly list.

And there is something wonderful about just writing, about simply drafting to see what appears. However, I’m in the middle of writing a complex novel, and I’ve simply reached a stage where I must outline, in considerable detail, or I don’t make forward progress at all.

My novel is set in Edinburgh in the 18th century, during the building of the new town.

“This City is a Clock” charts the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town and the development of the Scottish Enlightenment. The protagonist is a boy when the novel begins and has grown to old age by the final pages. As a child, he is put to work by the architects of the new town when they discover that he has unusual mathematical gifts. To them, his strange talent seems an emblem of the new rational order they are hoping to create. And the boy is eager to help them: he wants to be able to escape his impoverished background. His family is so poor that they live next door to a witch, and she terrifies him. However, the architects repeatedly run into trouble, their goals being opposed by a variety of vested interests in the city, and the boy discovers that the only way he can overcome these troubles is to go to the witch and ask for her advice. But each time she offers to help, the cost to him and the rest of the city grows.

From the very start of the project, I envisaged the story having three main parts, or “books” — so that we see the main character grow from a child to a young man to old age. We see, through his struggles, the development of Edinburgh, the transformation of Scotland, and the dawn of the industrial revolution.

However, such an envisaging is easy to dream up. I wrote the first third of the book relatively quickly and then moved, in unfortunate innocence, on to the 2nd third, assuming that it would basically be just as (relatively) painless to write. Twelve years go by in the story between books one and two. I had no idea how hard it would be to thread the characters and plot lines from part one into the scenes of part two, as well as inserting characters and threads into book two that I knew I would want to develop in the third book.

When I tried to “just write,” to draft my way into the story, I kept reaching a point where I realised I had missed out a crucial bit of information three scenes earlier. So I had to stop, redo all my careful prose, and rewrite. Then I would hit the exact same problem a week later. I knew where I wanted to get to. I could see the climatic scenes quite clearly. I just couldn’t get to them.

This happened enough times that I began to feel quite frustrated.

I’ve simply had to stop and work out, scene by scene, what action what being taken and what foreshadowing information needed to be presented (surreptiously) to the reader. To do this, I’ve been using the program Omni Outliner. If you have an iPad or Mac, and want to plan out a novel or some other substantial project, I highly recommend this app.

It’s very simple: Omni Outliner creates tables of text where you can create as many rows and columns and checkboxes as you want. It’s like Excel for the Humanities. I’ve created an outline where, for each scene, I not only write a description of what happens in the scene, but also, in four columns:

  1. How the scene begins — where, when, how narrated. (useful to check I’m not starting scenes too early, or always in the same way.)

  2. What the protagonist is trying to achieve. (is anything at stake?)

  3. What foreshadows or side information the scene needs to convey. (what will the reader need to know now in order to feel what happens later?)

  4. What cool stuff happens — what is the payoff of the scene?

The resulting file is quite substantial.

If you click the link, you’ll see the downside: it’s an expensive program. The desktop version does have a student / educator discount, if that applies to you. But I’ve been finding it very helpful.



omni outliner

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  • I absolutely agree. In years past, I refused to outline. Maybe I’d give in to a synopsis to get my thoughts down. Let’s face it, a map or outline was blasphemy. Then I began my first complicated story, thus: Wait! What country did that happen in?…Who is whose handler? I can’t remember what a Moscow police car looks like.

    Then I moved on to working on a short police series where the 1st & 3rd books share storyline/plot.

    I may not need to outline every story. Maybe notes or a quick synopsis will do. But I realized quickly how important outlining can be to a story. I’d have one big headache otherwise.

  • Not sure on signing up to special programs to help with outlining, but I have found it very useful (albeit, with my actual novel-writing progressing only very slowly). Maybe it’s due to the type of mind I have. I love lists and forward planning, and for that reason I once read some advice about writing about each character in depth. I took it to the extreme of writing out my story from each main character’s perspective, and though these shift and alter regularly with new bits added, they remain invaluable. I hope your new outlining works wonders for you 🙂

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