So, you’ve got a story idea, or a thousand of them flying around in your brain. Maybe one hit you in the head while you were pouring your lychee juice or perhaps you have been collecting them for months. Whether you are a pantser or an outline-it-to-the-deather, there are organizational tricks and tools to make your journey across the page easier. Managing information is something I struggle with, having been born with what I can only assume is a genetic anomaly that has left me with the organizational capacity of a very drunk chipmunk.

Thus, I have never had a fondness for organizing my materials before writing, or, to be transparent, for organization of any kind. It has been my tendency to sit down and let the ideas flow, feeling that somehow organization and regimentation will chase creativity away. I don’t know why I should hold so fast to these ideas, though. The opposite has certainly not shown to be the case, as evidenced by a drawer full of unfinished (I prefer the term partially completed) manuscripts, stopped dead by my particular talent for writing myself into corners.

I decided that rather than clinging to my methods, I would do some research and actually try to devise a cure for my continued writer’s obstacles. I wholeheartedly embrace the notion that all of the blocks that I have ever faced have been created by my lack of a clear path. I don’t claim this to be the case for everyone, but we are talking about someone who found a fork in her purse yesterday–not a difficult conclusion to draw.

What are the Best Ways to Collect Information for Your Novel?

How do you come up with ideas for your stories? There are so many sources of story ideas:

  • Newspaper headlines
  • Traveling
  • Everyday encounters
  • Reading books
  • Reading magazine articles
  • Reading pretty much everything
  • Eavesdropping
  • People watching

You get the idea. Newspaper headlines are a personal favorite of mine. People are disgusting and weird and without even taxing your idea generator (I’m sure that’s an anatomic thing), you can just browse through the newspaper and find horrifically delightful story ideas. I once read an article about a family in China who thought their house was haunted because of a ghostly screaming. Turns out it was just an old lady who had somehow become trapped within a shared wall. (You know how that happens.) My point is that ideas are everywhere. But what is the best way to collect them and actually retain them without them dissipating into the ether before you have time to brainstorm?

Well, there are things like journals where you can jot down your ideas as you go, if you are the type of person who is capable of keeping up with a journal and have somewhere to put it. There are, also, the highly questionable index cards of lore, which are about as useful to an an-organizite as a spreadsheet.There is also Evernote.

What are the Benefits of using Evernote?

Evernote is like an idea catcher. It’s a notes app that integrates seamlessly across all your devices. I am using the free version, and I only ever use two devices. Evernote is good if you do a lot of research on your phone, for instance, while sitting at airports, restaurants, or your dentist’s office, and you don’t want to dweeb out and pull a notebook out like the secret nerd you are and start writing your ideas down.

Here’s How it Works

You get the app and create an account. There are things called notebooks which are where you are going to store your ideas and research items. You can start with one or as many as you like. I have two–one for fiction stuff and one for blog stuff. Pretty easy, right? Then, say you are riding your unicycle to work and are suddenly struck by an idea for a story. You can record an audio note and send it off to Evernote. You don’t even have to tell it where to go. Of course, that’s just one example. It does a lot more than just audio notes.

Now say you have an idea–that unicycle ride really paid off–and it’s time to research. Evernote is super helpful for storing all your research items. For me, this is where it offers the biggest benefit. When I research, I read everything there is to read and write notes in a spiral, because I’m old. I take screen shots on my phone, too. But, then I delete them on accident or forget where I read something, and I leave my notebook somewhere or spill something on it or turn it into a grocery list. Then I spend more time trying to find all the information again, because I am lazy about bookmarking, etc. Evernote is great for amassing data when you suck at being organized. Which, I do.

Here are the things you can send to Evernote

  • Photos
  • Websites
  • Web Clipper
    • functions kind of like Pinterest
    • able to mark-up the pages with a weird pen thing
  • Screenshots
  • Scanned items
  • Audio files
  • Typed notes
  • Written Notes
  • Probably more, but this is not an advertisement. You get the idea

Then, if you are some kind of organizational weirdy-head, you can add tags and organize further. I haven’t done any of that nonsense. It’s enough that I am attempting to keep ideas, at all. So, the gist is that you can have a parent notebook, notebooks within it called a stack. You can share these, which I’m sure is helpful to some people. I am doubtful anyone wants to peruse my “idea” list of weird and creepy news stories or my corresponding “research” (moo-ha-ha), but knock ’em dead, people.

So, you are getting the idea. Evernote is a digital way to collect ideas and research.

How Do You Organize Your Ideas on the Page?

Well, now you have an idea and you have amassed a ridiculous amount of research, because it’s addicting and it’s super fun to tell people you are “conducting research for your novel” while enjoying some  poutine and reading about how best to make a DIY shrunken head. We’ve all been there. What is the next logical step? For me it used to be–“Wait, what? I’m already three chapters in. I was supposed to research first?”

I like writing. It’s the best part of being a writer, in my estimation, so I am always impatient to get started. The problem is that rushing to the page without at least the most basic of plans is likely to lead to obstacles. Why? Because writing a novel is hard AF, people. The plot rarely ever just runs along ahead of you showing you the way with literary breadcrumbs. You have to wrestle that a-hole into submission and it’s hard.

Even if all you do is draw the shape of your story, and label your inciting moment, crisis, climax and resolution, at least you have something. I’ll use the example of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where -” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

I think it’s like that with your story. If you don’t know where you’re headed, how will you ever get there? All the boring, tedious, hard pre-work allows you to make it through the maze of writing with a bird’s eye view of the maze rather than that of the worm.

How to be the Bird

So, all we have to do now is take all the information we have collected and arrange into the story we want to tell. Easy-peasy. Well, not exactly, but at least we have options, some more palatable than others, to go about this somewhat odious task. The basic types of organizational tools are

  • Outlines
  • Story Shapes
  • Spreadsheets
  • Worksheets
  • Snowflake Method
  • Software


If you’re an outliner, you probably stopped reading around line two of the first page. Outlines are a hotly debated topic among writers, for some reason. A lot of writers hate them, me included, but it is for the exact same reason that I run into obstacles–planning shit is hard. If you can just hitch your mindset over a little, and try to think of it as clearing the way for your writing, it becomes a tad more palatable. Kind of. There are different types of outlines and different levels of detail. I will never be John Grisham. Well, for many reasons including the impossibility of mind-body transfer, but I will never be able to stomach outlining every detail. Gross.

I am also not of a mind that you HAVE to have an outline. It is one effective tool to help clear the path and give you the bird’s eye, but it isn’t the only tool. Let’s take a look at a few different types of outlines.

  • Your Basic Outline
    • I’m not teaching a course on outlining but this type breaks your story into three or four acts and hits the major points of action. You can check out some templates here and here.
    • This can be as skeletal or as detailed as you please
    • The more detailed it is, the less you have to figure out while writing
  • Your Key Scene Outline
    • You know how it begins and how it ends and a few main milestones on the way which are roughly sketched out with most of the story coming during composition.
  • The Index Card Outline or Moveable Outline (aka my worst nightmare)
    • Major scenes written on index cards which can be arranged and rearranged
    • Did you know that you can lose index cards if you’re not careful?
    • Highly variable and easy to add and subtract

Story Shapes

I am mostly including this because I love it. I don’t know how helpful it is  for other people, but drawing a story, for whatever reason, has really helped me solidify the bird’s eye perspective. Story shapes are based on Vonnegut’s research. And who doesn’t love Vonnegut? No, seriously. I’m asking. There is even an entertaining video about it here.

The basic concept is that there are six basic story shapes based on graphing the misfortune on the y axis across the timeline of the story. It is helpful to recognize which shape your story has.

  • Rags to Riches (Rise)
  • Riches to Rags (Fall )
  • Man in the Hole (Fall then rise)
  • Icarus (Rise then fall)
  • Cinderella (Rise then fall then rise)
  • Oedipus (Fall then rise then fall)


If you hated outlining, you will probably hate spreadsheets. For me, it’s a matter of having to learn technology to do something I already hate–organizing stuff. I won’t go into too much detail here, except to say that the level of detail that can be attained with spreadsheets is incredible. The Snowflake method (more on that in a bit) relies on spreadsheets later in the process.

A spreadsheet is . . . who am I kidding. I will refer you here for tips on spreadsheets.


There are tons of worksheets and templates to choose from. These are great tools for people who really don’t want to outline, because they still force you to think about the arc of your story, your goals and the premise without all the tediousness of roman numerals. They are pretty fun to fill out and you don’t feel so very much like you are conducting inventory on articles of your story. I included an example of one I like here, but they are easy to find and even to design yourself.   You want to, at a minimum, include such things as

  • POV
  • Protagonist
    • What she wants
    • What she fears
  • Obstacles
  • Conflict
  • Antagonist
    • What she wants
    • What she fears
  • Inciting Incident
  • Stakes
  • Point of No return
  • Rising stakes
  • Internal conflict
  • Climax
    • win or lose
  • Denouement
    • How has she changed

These are general enough to not bog you down with every detail but to force you to think about what you want to accomplish. You may include themes, etc on these worksheets.

Snowflake Method

The Snowflake method, based on fractals or some such, and developed by Randy Ingermanson, is a lot of pre-work. A ten step system, it accomplishes a lot of the hard work of the novel by starting with a simple premise and expanding. Then you expand on your expansion and so on and so on until your book is laid out before you in snowflake form. Here’s a very basic breakdown:

  • Step I: Write a one sentence summary (think elevator pitch)
    • shorter than 15 words
    • no names
    • big picture
  • Step II: Overview (Takes about an hour)
    • expand the sentence to a full paragraph describing story set up, major disasters, ending
    • 5 sentence summary
  • Step III: Overview for storyline and each character. For each character:
    • name
    • one sentence summary of character’s storyline
    • motivation
    • goal
    • conflict
    • epiphany
    • one paragraph of storyline per character
    • we are only on step three
  • Step IV: Work on large scale structure (could be on day 3)
    • expand each sentence of your summary paragraph into its own paragraph
    • each new paragraph should end with more problems except the final one
  • Step V: Write one page description of each major character
    • also half page on minor characters
    • seriously, this is a lot of work
  • Step VI: Expand the one page plot synopsis to 4 pages
    • expand each paragraph from Step IV into a page
  • Step VII: Expand character descriptions into full fledged charts
    • develop character arcs
    • I have already started a new book
  • Step VIII: Take 4 page synopsis and make a scene list
    • use spreadsheets
  • Step IX: Optional
    • Begin writing narrative descriptions of the story line. Expand.
  • Step X: Write your first draft. Really? I’m so tired.
    • All the hard stuff is done
    • All you have to do is write and polish
    • This is probably worth the work
    • I will probably never do this


Okay, I have saved software for last, because I write on my mac in pages. I started with pen and paper in high school and wrote on a brother typewriter through college. I went back to pen and paper until ten years ago when I stared writing on a laptop. I have never used writing software.  So, because I am a scientific sort,  I decided to try both. You can get a 30 day free trial of Scrivener here and Ulysses offers a free demo.

First let’s take a look at the basics.


Scrivener allows you to fully manipulate your story. It uses rich text formatting and allows you to keep your research (that you collected in Evernote or in scrivener) right there at your fingertips. This self-proclaimed project management tool is a powerful aid to get you through your novel. Here are some features:

  • Ability to edit multiple docs
  • Cork board  with virtual (un-loseable) index cards
    • storyboard
    • free form
  • Outlining
    • pre or during
  • Collections
    • lists
    • documents
  • Full screen editing
  • Script writing mode
  • Snapshots
    • can restore to an earlier revision
  • Quick reference panes
    • load research into floating panes
      • character into etc
  • Synchronize with drop box
  • Export for printing
    • export to web or e-book
  • Mac or PC

Scrivener can house PDF’s, movies, websites, sound files, etc. and keep it within a click. It also has templates to pull from.


Ulysses calls itself a writing environment. Unlike Scrivener, it is plain text and can be easily converted to HTML, which, apparently is cool for nerds. It allows you to create PDF’s, word docs and eBooks which are properly formatted. You can publish right to WordPress from the app. It syncs with iCloud, which is one of the bigger differences between the two. It is probably a personality preference. Some writers will really enjoy the sparse out of the way nature of Ulysses and some will favor the more writerly feel of Scrivener. Some features of Ulysses:

  • Distraction free
  • Markup-based editor (Nerd boner)
  • Plain text enhanced
  • Themeable editor (not sure what that means, took it from site)
  • Keyboard nav
  • Typewriter mode
  • Single library for all text
  • Groups
  • Attachments
  • Filters
  • Auto save and back up
  • Writing goals
  • Full iCloud sync
  • Mac and iOS

I have downloaded the free trial of Scrivener and the Ulysses demo for comparison. Happy gathering and ordering. I think I’m going to dump a box of marbles out. All this organization is making me itch.

One thought on “Before You Write–Finding and Organizing Your Story Ideas

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