# The Zettelkasten Method for Fiction Writing

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• You'd like my novella War in the Mall. Shameless spoiler: There is a big war between the cheese and the saucage seller that decides on the meaning of life.

Indeed, I would like it ! I really like that kind of situation I play with this absurd, non-sens, exagerated humour and situations. If I dare, I could talk about the flame-thrower penis case of the god of knowledge, the drunkard prophetic crow or the god-killer turkey.

I like to pair each element with an effect.

It's a clever use of these books, thank you for sharing

Ah, I see. Same for me. I like to unfold an idea with several different approaches. This gives my a feel for what remains constant and therefore is potentially closer to the soul of the idea.

Yeap, that's it. Ideas are organic, they need the good conditions to extend over the story. I can test how ideas articulate between them, if sometimes I can obtain new input. I also write "pilot" scenes, to introduce new character, new element, or to test a scene idea.

I also have "exploration notes" which help me to explorate ideas, elaborate context and consequences of a "what if". For example, in my 4th book, I changed the nature of one of the main character. As he was a member of the main family, I have to reset their backstory. So I created an exploration note. In the begining of the note, I write a brainstorm about ideas, then I dig "hypothesis one : they do this like that and an other one takes the place and…

I link the exploration note to the decision note, and complete with official sheets related. The decision gives birth to the outline and the outline to the novel.

Already considered. I never heard of this mass approach and I like to make it work.

I see, a kind of challenge ! I would be curious to know the result.

I am not so sure about that myself. I never had the need to have an old version of anything whatsover. I can recall old stuff good enough to reproduce it or don't mind to re-create it.

From experience (15 novels in 3 years), beware of memory process. Writing is a high load process. There are plenty reasons to know a memory partial shut down, and it always happens at the worst time

I also believe there is a best version and iterations generally go in the direction of improvement. So, I like to increase iterations and testing. Then keeping versions becomes to cost intensive but not longer necessary.

I suppress the notes when I end a version. However I keep the old version of novels themselves until I end the final novel : they are testimony of improvment. I separate the first draft of the novel and the corrected one : sometimes, corrections may lead too far from the starting point and I need to come back to the initial draft. It's like a Github version.

The sad story behind this pic is that she tyrannised me to the death until I decided to work from my bedroom (back then she was allowed on the bed). I thought the wanted company. But she slept within a minute.. I bet if I would have sneaked out she would have returned to obnoxious mode.

Poor her, was she anxious ? Reminds me the behavior of a cat (I don't have one but cats like my home. They come, meow me like if I was their humans, sleep and go back later). It was fairly anxious and need help to fall asleep. It turned in circles, meowing, came to me until I catch it like a baby to put it in blanket telling it kind words to comfort it. Was it the story for your girl too ?

My parrot was smaller, indeed. That was at evening and he really enjoyed watching TV with us. At this time, we lived with my brother in my father's home. He liked to come here on the couch, jumping from me to the two boys before screaming after my cinnamon one to play Skyrim… He was a big dragon fan, no joke here, he imitated those, spreading his little wings as soon as he saw a dragon. He talked too. Insults and food related words, for the most part. Funny one !

• edited May 13

@Loni said:
My parrot was smaller, indeed. That was at evening and he really enjoyed watching TV with us. At this time, we lived with my brother in my father's home. He liked to come here on the couch, jumping from me to the two boys before screaming after my cinnamon one to play Skyrim… He was a big dragon fan, no joke here, he imitated those, spreading his little wings as soon as he saw a dragon. He talked too. Insults and food related words, for the most part. Funny one !

"Gaah! Run you fools! Here comes the almighty Parrot Dragon!" *Said Parrot Dragon as it spread its wings while looking down on you.*

• @Loni said:

The sad story behind this pic is that she tyrannised me to the death until I decided to work from my bedroom (back then she was allowed on the bed). I thought the wanted company. But she slept within a minute.. I bet if I would have sneaked out she would have returned to obnoxious mode.

Poor her, was she anxious ? Reminds me the behavior of a cat (I don't have one but cats like my home. They come, meow me like if I was their humans, sleep and go back later). It was fairly anxious and need help to fall asleep. It turned in circles, meowing, came to me until I catch it like a baby to put it in blanket telling it kind words to comfort it. Was it the story for your girl too ?

No. My little witch was more like a border line personality with big moods swings. Anxiety was one of her mood. But 90% of the time she was just an hyperactive asshole. She likes to bully small and/or insecure dogs, bullying in general, testing boundaries, eat scat of the hookers and truckers next to a mini wood in my neighborhood, gets angry at pigeons, to sneak up behind other dogs and bite them in the nuts (literally), to tore things appart and what not. Her training was more of a moral intervention. She is insanely smart (though has her really dumb moments that take me of guard), very high drive (she beated up her friend even we trained two full hour sessions that day who is a Viszla..). The one thing that is going for her is that she is funny and she never really bites.

I am a Zettler

• @Sascha and @Loni : I have been following your discussion with interest, even if it went off into the higher realms where I do not dare to thread

I’d like to get a bit more down to earth.

For the record: I’m an amateur fiction writer. I write just for my own pleasure. I’m not published, or at least not in any meaningful way.

I started writing in nvALT, long before I knew about ZK, because it allowed me to start multiple (unconnected) notes and ideas, sketches and other related texts or knowledge, and quickly find them back.

I was using tags in nvALT but very few links, and no timestamp IDs. This worked quite well for me up till about 1000-1200 notes. Then it started to run into its limits, and therefore I’m “migrating” the whole bunch to a more formal ZK, with hubs and links and structure notes. I know most of this can be done in nvALT as well (though @ctietze ’s nifty timestamp utility for nvALT never worked well for me), but it’s easier in the The Archive. Also, the ability to have multiple tabs open and to use markdown is practical, even when not essential.

I have three comments, not so much criticisms as well as topics that have note been addressed.

1 The ZK as a tool

A ZK is a tool, like any other. I’m hardly the first to observe that you can write in any software, though of course you may have a preference for a specific tool, which can also be pen and paper.

A ZK has a few advantages. The main one is to keep a potentially endless number of loose notes, ideas, character and location sketches and links to images together in a more or less meaningful way. I can tag them or link them.

A typical project (say, a concept for a book) would have a number of different notes associated with it. In my case:

• There will be a “hub” note connecting all other related notes (sometimes through sub-hubs)
• There will be a “structure note”, containing the basic premise and outlining the structure of the book
• There will be a hub for characters, linking to notes per character (as a project expands, a character may become a sub-hub, linking to separate notes for background, manners, pictures, etc.)
• There will be a hub for locations, linking to notes per location
• There will be a hub for research topics, linking to notes per research topic
• There will be many “content notes” with text in various stages of completion and aggregation (from 1-sentence fleeting thoughts till worked-out scenes)
• There may be links to examples about how to write about certain events, feelings or emotions
• There may be notes or hubs about deleted scenes, front matter, back matter, journaling, etc. etc. ad infinitum
• There may be tags for to-do’s, versioning, etc.

A shorter project, e.g., a short story, would have correspondingly fewer notes, certainly with fewer levels.

All this has nothing at all to do with writing style or writing quality: it’s just a tool. You can use Ulysses, or nvALT or iaWriter, or Word or Scrivener in mostly the same way.

Still, I’m interested in getting tips and ideas on how to use the ZK in a technical way. I love the YouTube video by Lionel Davoust for that.

2 Knowledge is more than just structure, and this “more” can also be analyzed and stored in the ZK

Some comments on @Sascha ’s series

Knowledge is knowledge
Agreed. My main comment is that your knowledge may not be my knowledge. The example you gave is to analyze the content of a quote. I would perhaps, analyze the style, sentence structure, or the emotion or atmosphere that the author is able to convey with the quoted passage. That is also knowledge.

What you can look for
You say there are 6 types of knowledge. I beg to differ. They types of knowledge you mention are all very relevant, but do not give the complete picture. I loved Shawn Coyne’s book about storygrid, it is a super-useful concept and I can admire the way that, e.g., The Silence of the Lambs (which Coyne uses as one of his main examples) is build up, but that doesn’t mean that, in my opinion, The Silence of the Lambs is a good book. It is awfully well outlined and plotted. But it’s not Melville, Mann, or Proust. There is clearly something more than the 6 types of knowledge and perhaps @Loni was referring to that in the first post.

A toolbox to analyze
Same thing here: you focus strongly on the structural and meaning aspects of writing. Those are surely important, and, yes, the ZK method is useful. Point taken. But though it may work for you, this is the whole thing. You’re somewhere using Fifty Shades of Grey as an example. Interesting book. Read it. Well-structured. Cleverly positioned into the genre. Horrible style, should have put it away after a few pages. Couldn’t put it down. Why not? It was not the naughty parts, which were, a.f.a.i.k., about as erotic as a bag of potatoes. What, then, does that book have that made it such a success, that made it unputdownable? How did she make it into a page-turner? Thát is what I want to analyze.

Creating stories
There are of course “plotters” and “pantsers”, and I suspect most writers use some kind of (iterative) combination of these approaches. I’m more of a “pantser’, so structure emerges only very gradually, after a lot of writing, ideas, versions, trials, etc.

Therefore the advice to start with creating a structure note is a non-starter for people like me. I tried to do this with one fiction project, and I indeed created a very nice structure note, but that specific project never got further than that. The approach may work for others of course.

(The same, i.a., is true for my “academic” ZK: structure notes are usually the result of long (i.e., years) processes of emergent understanding and connecting of concepts.)

3 There is more than “knowledge”

Another thing: I strictly separate the writing process from the ZK-analytic-structure process. When I’m in ZK-mode, I structure, I link, I analyze, I tinker, I do research, I may correct mistakes, I may copy-edit, etc., but I do not write. When I’m writing, I only write. I do not tinker with anything. At most I may correct a typo in the previous sentence, that’s it. Maybe it is “creative mode”.

Same when I’m reading. For example, I’m reading Proust at the moment. While I’m reading, I enjoy the book. I do not analyze. When I have read a part, or a chapter, or a few days, or after I finish the book, I may have a ZK-session and try to analyze the structure, character, build, style, etc.

Apologies if my comment is too much centered on what I do, or if I diverge too much from where the discussion was going. In the latter case @ctietze may want to split it off as a new thread.

• edited May 15

Heeeey ! Welcome into the party, @erikh \o/

Therefore the advice to start with creating a structure note is a non-starter for people like me. I tried to do this with one fiction project, and I indeed created a very nice structure note, but that specific project never got further than that. The approach may work for others of course.

A structure is not a outline.
As I see this, you can sketch first something like that :

# My wonderful and fabulous novel Ideas

## Context :
First draw of creating my fabulous novel

## Decisions :
- [[The leading idea]] - Where I want to start ? Where I want to go ? Wheeeeere is my mind…
- [[The story - prompt]] - five lines to summarize my story

## Exploration :
- [[Explo.Development ideas]] - Exploratory Note. What can I do with this idea ? What would be the end ?
- [[Explo.Characters trials and goals]] - What are the goals of the main character, their trials, the goal…
- [[Explo.The characters developement]]  What could be the character development



And so on. You can compose an architecture friendly to tests and explorations, a structure to shelter your needs for creating from improvisations.

Another thing: I strictly separate the writing process from the ZK-analytic-structure process. When I’m in ZK-mode, I structure, I link, I analyze, I tinker, I do research, I may correct mistakes, I may copy-edit, etc., but I do not write. When I’m writing, I only write. I do not tinker with anything. At most I may correct a typo in the previous sentence, that’s it. Maybe it is “creative mode”.

What you can do is also creating notes to summarize what you learnt thanks to your researchs to the worldbuiling elements and ask news questions. Imagination is always linked to what we know, because we can't compose from thin air. It's a puzzle game. An insanely fun one. Writing is the art of asking yourself questions.

If the novel writing process is fairly different from the researchs and other, the researchs and creating processes are quite alike from my point of view : to shake your head, to wrap your mind around a problem to resolve it, to understand complex situations and to develop this understanding around inevitable conclusions.

Maybe it's because I've developped my Zettelkasten especialy for creation. Or maybe because my brain is always linked to the creation process and I don't see the difference. Or becausse analyzing is a part of my creation process. But I think you need a purpose when you create zettels, when you feed your Zettelkasten to create from it. Obviously, you may have some other fields of interests in your system… But from synergie comes creativity.

Maybe I should give an example ? I was making researches about cinetic energy and, especialy, about innovations around this notion. The first step was to exploit the water stream of a river to grind grain. I also have made some researches about smithing, and I went to a smithing lesson with a master. While I was writing about this stupid mill, a lightning strucked me : the forge I visited can only exist thanks to the XXIe progresses. To obtain an as hot as hell fire pit suitable for some of the technics I would like to see in my novel, I badly need… piston bellows. My smith character may be the fire god himself, but at some point, he introcudes high technology metal and obviously, people would like to imitate him. So here I was. I searched for documentation and I came with a new idea about how my city would be built.

(3D painting - Yusuf Artun owns all the credits here).

Something as trivial as cooking generates a lot of creativity. What if you mix garlic and apples ? Tomatoes and icescream ? Ginger and… everything. (I love ginger. I love it badly.)

From what I understand about your process, you miss "mixing" and flexibility in your workflow, maybe ? You miss some precious connexions between researches and creativity as you separate the processes. I would be curious about your Zettelkasten, how do you process notes ?

But I may be wrong as well. English is not my mother tongue and my intuition, which dislikes empty spaces in logical progression, tends to fill the holes.

There is clearly something more than the 6 types of knowledge and perhaps @Loni was referring to that in the first post.

Yeap, indeed. At first, I had the feeling that sfast was missing the "sensibility" part. He's just expressing it… differently, with other goal on his mind. But there are something quite emotional in creation. A quest, a personal one, maybe about what he called Religion. "Call me Ismael". We are Ismael and the quest is our white whale, even if we don't know it. However, it can't be reduced to style only, even if it participates.

What do you think about all of this points, sire ?

@Annabella : yes it was like that ! That mini-thing really thank that he was an almighty parrot-dragon. He was cute and funny and as soon as I laughed, he remembered how much he liked to make me laugh and did absolutly every nonsens things he could do. Like asking my brother if he sucked d... with a psycho voice. I miss him a lot.

@Sascha said :
No. My little witch was more like a border line personality with big moods swings. Anxiety was one of her mood. But 90% of the time she was just an hyperactive asshole. She likes to bully small and/or insecure dogs, bullying in general, testing boundaries, eat scat of the hookers and truckers next to a mini wood in my neighborhood, gets angry at pigeons, to sneak up behind other dogs and bite them in the nuts (literally), to tore things appart and what not. Her training was more of a moral intervention. She is insanely smart (though has her really dumb moments that take me of guard), very high drive (she beated up her friend even we trained two full hour sessions that day who is a Viszla..). The one thing that is going for her is that she is funny and she never really bites.

"She never really bites" makes me think that you may have some missing skin spots from time to time. She seems difficult to educate, but as you mentionned she was mistreated, I am not surprised. She seems hard skinned as well and really badass. In a dog film, she would be the "not so nasty" villain with scare an thoughness who would end up helping the hero.

• Meow'm interested in @erikh's follow-up too. /ᐠ. ퟑ.ᐟ\

@Loni said:
yes it was like that ! That mini-thing really thank that he was an almighty parrot-dragon. He was cute and funny and as soon as I laughed, he remembered how much he liked to make me laugh and did absolutly every nonsens things he could do. Like asking my brother if he sucked d... with a psycho voice. I miss him a lot.

We would be a great comedic duo. Such a shame that it's impawsible. /ᐠ۪. ̱ . ۪ᐟ\

@Loni said:
"She never really bites" makes me think that you may have some missing skin spots from time to time. She seems difficult to educate, but as you mentionned she was mistreated, I am not surprised. She seems hard skinned as well and really badass. In a dog film, she would be the "not so nasty" villain with scare an thoughness who would end up helping the hero.

Spot on compurrison!

Your dog's habits can be broken, so keep up the good work, @Sascha! /ᐠ｡ꞈ｡ᐟ✿\

• @Loni said:
A structure is not a outline.
As I see this, you can sketch first something like that :

...

And so on. You can compose an architecture friendly to tests and explorations, a structure to shelter your needs for creating from improvisations.

Yesss ... but, the outline is an important part of the structure note. I'm with @Sascha on that one (story grids etc).
The example of the structure note you give would be called a "hub" with me: a collection of related, but not necessarily cause-effect, parts.
I do see from your example that I may be missing something in most of my projects, namely the "architecture", or the relationships between the "not causally related" parts.

@Loni said:
What you can do is also creating notes to summarize what you learnt thanks to your researchs to the worldbuiling elements and ask news questions. Imagination is always linked to what we know, because we can't compose from thin air. It's a puzzle game. An insanely fun one. Writing is the art of asking yourself questions.

I'm indeed doing this, and the linking between the notes (from the nvALT note box to a ZK) is indeed helpful here. Fun, too, indeed.

@Loni said:
Maybe I should give an example ?

@Loni Do you keep the visuals also in your ZK?

@Loni said:
From what I understand about your process, you miss "mixing" and flexibility in your workflow, maybe ? You miss some precious connexions between researches and creativity as you separate the processes. I would be curious about your Zettelkasten, how do you process notes ?

In my writing ZK, I process notes very intuitively (still knowledge, but intuitive knowledge, based, of course on years of reading literature).

I have to think deeply about your remark on "mixing". I have by nature a very rational (linear) mind, and it's very easy for me to kill the creative process by overdoing the structure.

Thank you!

• @erikh said:

Yesss ... but, the outline is an important part of the structure note. I'm with @Sascha on that one (story grids etc).

I know that, and I use outline and some of tool syou mentionned, you don't have to be "with sfast"! But "structure note" does not mean "outline note" right away.

• @Loni said:
you don't have to be "with sfast"!

ah, I thought that was required

To get it clear: for me a note that would give links to

• summary
• storygrid
• outline
• characters
• locations
• research
• ...
would not be a structure note, but a hub of related but not structured parts.

The note on story grid would be a structure note, because story gird is a structured concept, i.e., there are logical links between its parts. Likewise, an outline note would be a structure note, but not necessarily the other way round, as you correctly observe.

Still, you seem to have another kind of structure note, that I do not have. You used the word architecture for it. I would like to understand what that looks like.

• would not be a structure note, but a hub of related but not structured parts.

Why not?
My location sheet is closer to a structure note than anything :

North-West Zone (01)

|------ [[People of Ardfadel]] - [[Story]]
|------ [[Luminous of Draqualis]]  - [[Story]]
|------ [[Thulile's Tribe]] - [[Story]]
|------ [[Lifh's Mansion]]
|--------- [[Baelzabeth]] - [[Story]]
|--------- [[The three metal dragons]]

- [[Anciant Forest]]
|-- [[The clearing]]
|------ [[Cerbere's cabin]]
|--------- [[Cerbere's pack]]
|------ [[River]] - Leads to [[Center-North-West]]


I don't ask myself "what category of note my note is". I mostly ask "what purpose". When I talk about "architecture", I don't think about a kind of note by itself, with its procedural modele, but I think about a way of articulating notes between them to give meaning, sens, to obtain overview and insights about my story and to gather explorations I do.

So I don't have "kind of structure notes" by itself. I take note with a purpose in mind. That's all. The architecture is the system, not a note.

I have a process, however. "Exploration" "decisionnal note" "reminder of the decision" (the documentation/the outline/chronological view) "articulation note"(I study synergy, test note in action, drafts, deep outlines) and the writing by itself. They are all born from the same creative impetus.

@Loni Do you keep the visuals also in your ZK?

I do. I also keep audio. I have a software to keep a collection, (Eagle) so I don't have to make researches when I need something right away :

And I integrate those in note when needed, with a dedicated folder in my Zettelkasten :

And make a dedicated note to comment it, or integrate it into a visual note, for example with Typora (Gregory Fromenteau is the illustrator here) :

I am thinking about a way of mixing information and visual, to integrate maybe a .jpg zettel, why not ? I am working around it now. Maybe I'll stuck with Typora, I don't know.

I have to think deeply about your remark on "mixing". I have by nature a very rational (linear) mind, and it's very easy for me to kill the creative process by overdoing the structure.

I am nothing but linear But I can display a very rational mind as well, without being linear. I am not a "antistructure" person, I just like to take a step back and think outside the boxes, and ultimately keep my freedom.

But from what I see in your posts, it appears that you like to put "general idea" into "definition box". So you set a definition about what a "researching mind", a "structure note" or "outline note" have to be, and stick to this definition. Once again, those are perceptions, not absolute truth, I may be wrong here.

But I do feel inconfortable as you describe some part of your process, and I know this feeling well : "self inflicted conceptual boxes" !

Outlines, mind map, story grid, structures notes and others are nothing but tools. They should'nt shape the way you work deeply, just show you other ways of making things. They are technical moves, nothing more.

To employ an anology that @Sascha would appreciate, this is what I've learnt from martial art : move with purpose. Integrate technical moves deepling in your head and body, and forget them. They will resurface by themlseves when needed. To make harmonious mouvements, the constrain should not come from the exterior, but your body should move with intent, and your mind will activate every muscles needed without thinking.

• @Loni : thank you for your detailed answer and all the examples you gave!

I like your location sheet example! This is indeed something I do not have (yet). I may have a hub with locations, but you integrate different aspects into an architecture.

@Loni said
But from what I see in your posts, it appears that you like to put "general idea" into "definition box". So you set a definition about what a "researching mind", a "structure note" or "outline note" have to be, and stick to this definition. Once again, those are perceptions, not absolute truth, I may be wrong here.

I think so, yes. I'm doing writing as "fun". Once I apply too much top-down structure (something I am very capable of and that is often very relevant in my "academic" ZK) it kills the fun. I therefore search for the minimum relevant tool that will help the "emerging" structure/architecture, while not becoming too serious