How to bring order to chaos

I’m currently collecting thoughts/ideas for a sci-fi novel and haven’t really found a way of collecting all those large and small snipets other than just putting them all into notepads. I put some of it into Scrivener’s Binder, but that seems even more rigid. I’m looking for a way to collect all info about characters, the world surrounding them, maybe even plot structure in one place, in a way that allows me to put them into context, in relationship with each other.
Now, before I get some random mindmap-app and add another single-task programm to my workflow, does anyone have a better idea?

Do you want to see your notes and snippets in a tree outline (perhaps not, if you think Scrivener’s Binder is too rigid), “clumps and lumps” (which a tagging system could give you) or in some kind of pictorial representation? The choice can depend on how your mind works, how extensively you want to plan out the relationships between your notes and snippets, and how much you want to spend.

The OS file system, saving your notes and snippets to TextEdit, say, plus a freeware tagging application such as Tagit and a filer such as Hazel, would be a quick, cheap and dirty solution. At the other extreme TinderBox or Curio would be significantly more expensive but more visual and more fun to play with.

Of course, I know some writers who would argue that the quickest and dirtiest methods of all are also the “analoguest”: pencil or crayons and paper, or whiteboard and marker, or simply Post-its on the wall.


That’s a huge question, given that “bringing order to chaos” is a big part of a writer’s job description (right up there with “bringing chaos to order” and “sitting down”).

I highly recommend note (index) cards of some kind. Whether they are actual or virtual is up to you, though actual cards have the benefit of being cheap and infinitely groupable/shuffleable/nudge-around-able. Also, portable. Also, colorful, which is nice.

Oh, look! A dead horse! Where’s my stick?:

I’ve done a lot of searching for a free-form index card solution for OS X. There used to be one called ThreeByFive, and it was a very cool app. Unfortunately, it no longer exists. The current crop of notecard apps (and notecard functionality in larger apps) all pretty much force you into a grid.

Fortunately, a group of Curio users have convinced the developer that free-form notecarding is a good fit for that application. Curio 6.1 (out, from what I can tell, in a matter of weeks) will include some level of ThreeByFive-like functionality. So you might want to check into that.

Edit: Nevermind. I don’t have time for a P.S.

Yup, it sounds like against all the odds the horse is now rising to his feet. Well done, Sean and Vermonter.

And popcornflix, who added some excellent ideas and support. The Scriveneratti came out in force on this one. I personally blame Keith, who introduced us to the concept that a developer might actually give a damn.

Mr. Coffee,

This one line will now become my personal motto. Never shall a rant be started, never shall a toe be stepped on, never shall an argument be engaged in without me striving, with all me energies, to use this quote. Mind you I may not be able to give full attribution as the circumstances may be highly in-conducive to full attribution, but as a frequent flagellater of deceased equines it will serve me, and those who are near me, in good stead.

Thank you for the replies.

I’m really not a writer yet, I need as much visual help as I can get.
There’s people, places and stuff in between, like industry, politics, religion, and I need an intuitive way to connect these dots.

I briefly looked at Tinderbox and found it rather daunting (and expensive, especially for a programm that still uses Rosetta).
Curio looks pleasant enough and the note card function sounds promising. I’ll try it out (although I might very well end up using actual cards).

It’s common knowledge on the Tinderbox forums that the next version will be a universal binary. Yes, it is expensive but its the only thing that even remotely does what it can do, on any platform that I’m aware of. For complex organisation there is nothing in its league. Not everyone needs complex organisation though! Also not cheap, but another thing that can help you visualise connexions is OmniGraffle. It’s nearly 100% visual unless you know AppleScript, but is a lot less daunting as you put it. That said if I had to choose between OmniGraffle and Curio I would probably go with the latter for large-scale book organisation.

I’m taking another look at Tinderbox. As far as I can make out it serves two purposes. An information manager and, well, a very sophisticated mindmapping application.
I use DEVONthink, so I don’t need another place to just store information. For arranging and grouping notes Tinderbox seems very capable, but again, the price really is too high for what I can see myself doing with it. I’m sure I’m overlooking tons of useful features, so I guess I’ll keep playing with the demo, but so far it just hasn’t clicked.

As an information manager, Tinderbox is very limited by the fact that you can only store text in its notes, no pictures or other medias. (You can put pictures on the map surface, yes, but that’s not the same - that’s only a background; the images cannot be handled along with the notes.)

I once started to collect informations about current alternative energy technolgies with Tinderbox, but after the 3rd drawing of how some machine is supposed to work that I could not store, I quit and started again, using Scrivener… :smiley:

I had this problem, too. Much as I liked Scrivener, I would wind up with 60 or 70 of such snippets, but it was hard to see the order. I tried a number of solutions like Curio, OmniOutliner, 3 or 4 mindmapping programs (but not Tinderbox), but none seemed sufficient for catching such snippets. What did eventually work for me, however, was The Hit List (, a task management program. A list of tasks are easily arranged and rearranged as an outline with as many indented subtasks (sub-ideas) as you like. With a keystroke, you can shift to an index card associated with the task. I have to say, it’s the most beautiful on-screen index card I’ve ever seen, and it also includes information about the superordinate categories.

My guess is that the use of The Hit List, or any other such program, probably has a lot to do with one’s thinking style. I discovered, to my surprise, that my writing resolves around questions and possible answers, and those require me to do something like “think about” or “go to the library to read…” I started using THL to remind myself of things I needed to do (e.g., “check RA’s discussion of history and function”) as part of developing an argument. But I didn’t really have an outline yet, just a set of questions and notions of where to go to resolve them. I could work on the list structure or little pieces of it in short “between times.” As I started keeping answers and snippets of writing on the index cards, I found sections of book chapters growing much less painfully around specific tasks, topics, or questions. As questions and answers changed the logical structure, changing the THL structure was painless, as was segregating tasks and ‘real writing.’ (Tags are also easy to use and helpful.)

The downside of THL as an outliner is getting stuff out. It can selectively print your expanded notes to pdf which then requires cutting and pasting to get it into Scrivener. Something of a pain, but because so much structure has been worked out before that point, it’s an endurable task. I find there’s less need for me to print because it’s so much easier for me to see structure, tasks, what’s done, what’s not done, etc. I guess I would count as another downside is my impression that people on the THL forum are not as pleasant and helpful as here at Lit&Lat, but then, we have an extraordinary group of people here.


This is not true. Drag an image into an outline and you should get a note created, titled by its name. Open that note and you’ll see the image embedded in the text area. You can copy and paste it into other notes as well. Additionally notes can link to any type of file at all by dragging the file onto the fourth item down in the sidebar (Cmd-Ctrl-T if not visible). This referential link can be used to quickly access the resource, while the text area of the note can describe the file link, like a library card. I prefer the latter method for linking to images, because I subscribe to a model of separating text from media until final production, but that is just me.

For the initial stages of long projects, I prefer index cards too. You can carry them around, shuffle them, and stick them onto a corkboard to see what you have.

For Curio lovers like me, watch for the upcoming 6.1 version which promises… ta da! Index cards! Can’t wait.

Curio’s new index cards, with, lower down the page, a link to a preview that contains them.


Hm, this might actually get me to buy it.

I wonder if VoodoPad Pro might be a simple solution for you.


Greetings My Lord,
Your presence amongst your lowly and unworthy subjects, doth bring joy and reassurance unto our palpitaters. Is your fettle of good vintage, Sire, are you well?

Oft times, my Lord, for woeful want of Your intellectual guidance and stimulation, the Good Ship Scrivener, doth all but flounder, upon the granite hard rocks of puerility/asininity. Your bounteous wisdom is sorely missed my Liege.
I am as always, Sire, Your most unworthy servant.

Could someone say more about how you use Curio and Scrivener to complement each other in
way laying chaos, so it is fecund rather than ghastly?

thanks so much,

laurel aka … :wink: :neutral_face: :question: :question: :question: :question: :question: :smiling_imp: :frowning: :stuck_out_tongue: :unamused: :unamused: :unamused: :unamused:

the overly enthusiastic ersatz smileys are meant to communicate that perchance boggarts are confounding the chaos.

enjoy the writing

Aisling aka Laurel … serenades/

Tá Starstuff gnóthach, ‘waylaying chaos’.
Did you use wand or sledghammer
Bí prodigious Starstuff.
Slàinte Mhath.

Something I did in my first book in Scrivener and it seems to still be working for me is the way I name my binder/scene files. As is the case with some books the timeline for the first few days is tight so I started out just brainstorming as many scenes (merely plot-points) as I could abbreviating names. After I had about 50 scene files I determined appropriate chunks and plopped them into a folder with a concept in mind.)

Then as I determined when each scene would happen I named the files Mo1 T disc body that’s short for monday of first week, Tom discovers dead body. The second section of files take place the second half of the first week, the third group of folders the second week, so those files will start Tu2 T meets Barb or whatever. The remaining folders are further down in the ms so I probably don’t have a feel for when they will happen exactly.

This gives me a real birdseye view of the timeline of my scenes. Then when I decide a scene needs to happen the second day, I drag it to the spot after Mo1 Tdisc body and rename it with Tu1 in front of the file name. This has helped me tremendously to keep track of the action at a glance.

Now that I’m over halfway through this ms I’m going to set up keywords and use them to analyze and go forward with less chaos, hopefully.