How To Use StoryLines To Write A Novel Or Other Book

by Strephon Kaplan-Williams

A new user has asked on the Forum how StoryLines works to organize for writing a novel. I can now give my experience.

A novel is a complex fabric of interconnections that has direction and the goal of resolving these interconnections, either into harmony or ending, or a mixture of both.

StoryLines is linear in the sense that its columns move forward, one column after another. Each column can represent then a chapter or a scene. A chapter is a collection of scenes, so then it may be best to use StoryLines one column for each scene. However, you can use one column per chapter in a more general overview way. For a full novel of 25 chapters you will then have 25 columns of cards going up and down. If you choose to use one column per scene you then will have to think of more like 150 columns in StoryLines, 6 scenes per chapter, and that is a lot of work to organize ahead of time before writing your dramatic text. But it may be worth it.

The best way I have found to organize scenes and chapters in StoryLines is to keep the 20 to 25 columns for chapters and then to list the storylines as Scenes 1, 2, 3 and so on until you get 6 scenes per chapter. This means you can see all your scene descriptions, one after the other, on the screen for a given chapter.

I have also designed each card to hold about 28 words at the type size best for my eyes and with 3 columns showing on screen of my 17 inch screen at a time. Thus I see three chapters with the Story Goal storyline at the top followed by 6 scene storylines with 28 words showing on each card. Of course the top upper right window shows more text for a card if you have it. Mine shows about 170 words in the upper right window. Now, that is a lot of words! And if I have more I just scroll down.

A novel is a map of your head. Readers are reading your head. What is in there is what comes out. But do you know what is in your head in an organized way? Most of us don't. We just express ourselves and see what is there, one thing following another, or responding to others in what they express. But for a reader you must present a totally organized head experience for them to go through. Your material must be organized with its structures and substructures there underlying your dramatizations, which must not be so obvious that they dominate the reading experience itself.

Storylines is the best tool I have so far seen that can lay out before you in an organized way what is in your head. Thus for my novel so far I have now 21 chapters actually, and so far 6 scenes as storylines per chapter. That's 201 scenes to organize, but I don't have to do them all at once. I write my first chapter after organizing it with storylines. Then I build on what is there with the first chapter and thus for the subsequent chapters I have the next upcoming 5 chapters organized according to various storyline themes and categories, but also with the 6 scenes of each chapter described. Then I write the chapter, easily going down the list of scenes and filling them in dramatically with characters in action and reflection. After I have written first draft text I can go back and change the storyline scene descriptions to fit the actual text, and adjust the next chapter scene descriptions as well. I also put in scene ideas that may not happen until 10 chapters down the road, and even when I get there if a cene is still good but needs to fit elsewhere, it is easy to move the card.

So the StoryLines writing process is to start organizing your chapters with various storylines and detailed scene descriptions, but then also write actual chapter text. Thus you progress, a new chapter text while ahead of you you are building the scenes for the next chapters, about five chapters ahead of yourself. This is like strategy in winning battles in business, war or love. You keep refitting your strategy to what actually emerges in direct experience.

Further, for you and the reader to experience that the material really has an effective and functional structure underlying it all, you can construct each series of chapter scenes to have the same structure. Thus my 6 scenes per chapter are constructed around the basic dynamics: context, challenge, response, counter-challenge, response, resolution, one category for each scene.

Note that this formula also holds in life as well as in fiction. Thus your readers read for immersing themselves in another person's life and learning to problem-solve from it. Note that these are my own categories. The Marshal Plan has another way of forming a complete structure which I do not agree with enough to use. So I have developed what I describe here and pass on to you.

Of course StoryLines allows you to come up with your own repeat structuring so that you have organization of the whole as it develops. You can copy my way of structuring but you will not write what I write because we each have different information, creativity and values. Yet the structure must hold for a lot of people and represent an effective structure for living life. You want a lot of readers? Then give them valued structures for how to live life and dramatize these in your fiction.

What makes StoryLines a good organizer for writing a novel is that for each column g/ing up and down you can have several note cards, one above the other. The first column of StoryLines is the organizer column for this which does not have cards but categories called storylines. A unique feature of this system is that you have choice as to how many rows of categories, and their cards, appear on screen. Thus you can make up, say, 20 categories, or storylines, but only have four central ones appear on screen at a time. This is a good way to keep your organizational picture small enough to understand as you build the structural elements that underline your novel's dramatic text flow.

Thus, I have five row categories, called storylines, on screen now. They are: Story and Goal, Main Character, Place, Followup, and Actions. These are the rows that go through the twenty-five columns that title my 25 chapters of my novel. Once I have most of these cards filled I will have a solid bases in structure to write the novel. However, once these 125 cards are done with a sentence or two to indicate focus, I can now add other categories or storylines to my screen, as well as take away some of the categories, or storylines, now there. This keeps a limited view for me to understand as I plan each chapter. Some of the categories I set up at the beginning will turn out not to be needed. But of the 20 original I may end up with 10 major categories or storylines that run through my 25 chapters which StoryLines lets me title at the top of each column. Thus I will end up with around 250 cards if I fill up all the spaces for each of the 10 categories under each chapter column. In actuality I will not need to place a card in every blank space.

Other categories, or storylines, that I can next place on screen might be for Themes, Opposing Character, Named Characters, Conflict, MC Reaction, Reader Reaction, Resolution, Development, and so on. You know the basics of novel writing. So, I only take about five at a time of the storyline category cards for each chapter. But you can also start with just two storylines and then add a third and a forth, and so on.

To keep track of the overview of your novel, and check interrelations, use the report window. You can vary what shows up in the report window according to the Report Preferences under the Report Menu. The Report shows you all the text you have written on cards and in categories so that you can print out eventually an overall plan for your novel. But to check how it is going, StoryLines gives you your report in your web browser. You do not have to print it out or import it into a word processor, though you can.

If you need a more effective outliner you have to look elsewhere, like with OmniOutliner, which I use, because StoryLines' outline function is nowhere as developed as is its storylines-cards function. We hope for considerable improvement here in the near future.

The main thing the StoryLines outliner is good for is to quickly move to the storylines and column chapters you want. You do this by clicking on the description line in the outliner and it moves you there fast. If you try and use the bottom scroll bar you are in trouble. It moves too slowly and inaccurately. Always use the outliner to navigate your screen.

No other writing software that I know of has the effectiveness to organize your mind for writing a novel, or other kind of book, that StoryLines has. I have used Dramatica Pro in the old days and recently PowerStructure. But these programs are theory based on such themes as genres, drama, or the Heroic Journey and so on. StoryLines is not theory based so you do not have to get confused by trying to fit your imagination and style into some external structure that a writing writer or instructor says you must use.

StoryLines is a tool and not a theory. Use it this way and you will have used your computer well to help you think out and plan your novel's structure. Then you can be as intuitive as you want.

By the way, you do not have to fill in all the cards in the chapter columns and in the storyline categories at the beginning .Fillinwhat is broad and makes sense. But leave spaces and categories open. Fill in for about five chapter columns or so. Then as you write your actual chapters you can go back to StoryLines and rewrite cards and fill in new ones, according to how your writing of chapters is developing. You can add chapters or delete them. You can keep their cards in a reserve folder provided for you. Moving columns back and forth is possible, but follow instructions carefully. Columns will renumber as you do so.

StoryLines really loves you and wants to make your writing tasks as smooth and understandable as possible. But take the time to practice using it, and understanding what you are doing. With any new software you are in part learning how to think better, to organize better, to structure your writer's imagination. Believe me, it is well worth the effort. I have had several books published in non-fiction and now I see the value of using StoryLines for my novel writing as well. Don't let the process get away from you. Be creative but stay organized. Keep going through to the end. If you have done your storylines you will see your development and the goals you are striving for. You will be more likely to see it through to the end. You will also more likely have a good story to tell because your underlying structures are correct according to the art of creative writing that has developed over many centuries. You don't have to know almost everything about the craft of writing. But you must learn and keep to the basic . One of them is to organize your material so that it is understandable and dramatic for yourself and for your future readers.

This means follow and develop storylines to their eventual conclusion.

© Strephon Kaplan-Williams, 2006

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