Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Outline on a Clothesline by Gail Sattler

Do you outline your novel completely before writing? Today, Gail Sattler has a method she's developed for making sure all those scenes are in the right order. -- Sandy

Gail: I've been asked to post on outlining a novel, a subject that is dear to my heart. I have a workshop class called "Outline on a Clothseline" that I'd like to share with you.

Yes, this works exactly how you think it works. One evening, watching one of my favorite shows, Castle, they had a quick view of Richard Castle doing pretty much the same thing, with a clothseline strung across his apartment, and recipe cards hanging from clothsepins. 

I may not use an actual clothseline, but it's close. 

In order to write a novel tight, you have to know where you're going, and where you've been, as you move from scene to scene. For an outliner, the condensed version of this is to take a package of recipe cards and make notes of your story, writing a scene, or a POV section from a scene, onto a card, important plot points, important plot turns, and major conflicts. For me, this works best as I'm either reading or making my synopsis. I have the whole novel outlined, and I know exactly what happens and how it ends, including the black moment, including knowing my closing line, before I write the first sentence.  

Once all the scenes are written on cards, knowing the order is important, but at this point,
 not critical, this is where you hang them. First hang your opening, hang your closing scene. Pick what feels like the middle of the story, and hang it in the middle. 

Then comes the fun part. Hang your scenes in approximate order, and this is where you organize them. First, by importance of what happens and what follows. Then when everything is done, look at your scenes. Make sure you don't have similar scenes side by side. For example, don't have two fast action scenes together. 
There should be a contemplative moment or a personal scene with character growth between. Don't have two high conflict scenes together. This is where you separate them on your clothseline.

Once you have a good mix of action and contemplative moments, of conflict and tender scenes, scenes where it looks like the protagonist is sure to fail and moments where they get what they want, even for just a few minutes, then you're ready. Take your cards down, in order, as you write them. Or if you don't actually have them hanging on a clothesline, number them and put them in a pile and use the cards as your outline as you write your novel.

Happy Writing!

If you're a total pantser, you probably broke out in hives reading this, but maybe you're one who outlines first. Share your process with us. Do you use the index cards? How do you decide the order and keep them straight? Are they like puzzle pieces on the floor? 


Gail Sattler an author of over 40 books, lives in Vancouver BC with her husband, three sons, two dogs, and a lizard named Bub, who is quite cuddly for a reptile. When she's not writing, Gail plays electric bass in a community jazz band and acoustic bass for a local string orchestra. When she's not writing or making music, Gail likes to sit back with a hot coffee and read a book written by someone else.


  1. I love the way you explain this, Gail. Even a SOTP writer can use this kind of outline. I've always built a story-board, using sticky notes for the same basic thing. I may try the "clothesline." Thanks!

    1. You're welcome, I hope it works for you. :)

  2. Great post, Gail! And Scrivener helps so much with these "cards." Thanks for visiting Seriously Write.

    1. I thought of Scrivener when I read the post, too, Annette. Love those cards!

    2. I use Scrivener, and love it. If anyone reading this wants to try Scrivener, and/or buy it, email me at - I can give you a discount code to use at time of purchase.
      Gail Sattler

  3. Great post, Gail. I am too much a pantser to get in the outline zone, but having taught literature and the structure of fiction for my professional career, I think my background helps me get from beginning to end. You've given us a wonderful analogy to work with! Thanks! Beautiful cover!

  4. Great idea. I need to try it out.

  5. Thanks for sharing the Scrivener discount info help above, Gail! (Readers, check it out in the comments just above.)


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