How To Use OneNote to Plan Your Novel


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If you’re serious about writing, you need Scrivener. The $40 investment will be money very well spent. But, as many times as I may say that, I know that some people just aren’t going to pay for it. Or don’t want to learn a new, and admittedly complex, software. If you’re one of those people, or you have some other reason for not buying and using Scrivener, I don’t hate you and I’m not giving up on you. There are other tools out there and today I want to share one of them with you.

Even if you’ve never used it, there’s a good chance you already have Microsoft OneNote. It’s pre-installed on most new Windows 8 computers and you may have access to it with your Office 365 subscription or Office software suite. If you’re a Mac user (like me) you can download it for free in the App Store and it’s on iOS as well.

Before I found Scrivener, I used OneNote to plan my writing. In fact, I wrote an entire novel (ghostwrote, actually, so I can’t tell you what novel it was) using this system. All the planning in OneNote and all 80,000 words in Microsoft Word. Though I would never recommend writing that much in Word, I can still say that planning in OneNote was a positive experience. The thing that makes OneNote work great for planning a novel is its ability to hold multiple documents in a single file, much like Scrivener. Though it’s not necessarily designed with creative fiction writers in mind, we can set it up to work to our advantage. Here’s how:

When  you first open a new OneNote notebook, it will look like this:

New OneNote

The first thing you want to do is create four sections: Ideas, Characters, Plot, and Scenes. Once you’ve done that, your notebook will look like this:

OneNote Sections

The Ideas Section

You can use this one however you want. I use it as a dumping ground for any random ideas I might have during the planning process. Plot twists, new characters, world details, anything that doesn’t fit well into one of the other categories can go here. You can also use this section as a place to start your whole planning process, before you have a real plot or specific characters in mind.

The Characters Section

The characters section is where you keep character information. Make a page for each character and fill it with all the relevant details. Not just physical descriptions and personality, but character-based summaries, motivations, goals, conflicts, everything. I like to set up my character section like this:

OneNote Character

For each character I, at minimum, write a 1-sentence summary, a description of his internal “motivation,” his external “goal,” the conflict he faces in reaching that goal, and the epiphany he will discover along the way. In addition, I create a subpage for a 1-paragraph summary that goes all the way through the plot of the novel from the given character’s perspective.

The Plot Section

You’ll have a lot of plot information in your character section of course, but this is the place to focus on plot exclusively. I use at least three pages here:

OneNote Plot


The 1-sentence summary might be the “seed” of your story. A brief description that sums up the whole thing. This is how would answer the question, “What is your book about?” The 1-page summary is for more detail, but not too much. Just capture the broad strokes of your plot in a couple of paragraphs. You’ll probably do this as you create characters and expand the plot from that initial seed. Then the detailed synopsis is as long and detailed as you need it to be to fully describe the plot of your book.

The Scene Section

After  you’ve filled the character and plot sections up, you’re ready to plan out the individual scenes of your novel. This is where sub-pages in OneNote really come in handy because you can make a page for each chapter, then sub-pages for each scene in that chapter. Make it look something like this:

OneNote Scene

On the chapter page, you can include a brief summary of what needs to happen in that chapter. Then, on each scene page, you’ll want to include the POV character, setting, and a synopsis of the scene. You can add more if you want, like a list of characters and their goals relevant to the scene, but I don’t usually do that. You could also write each scene here, too, but OneNote doesn’t offer a good way to throw all of those individual scenes into a single document at the end, so I wouldn’t recommend it. From here, it’ll be best to switch over to a more traditional word-processer like Word, Pages, or Open Office.

Or just go buy Scrivener.


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