Outlining Fiction With Scrivener

I’ve been discovering the freedom of outlining, and spent a day writing up an outline document for what appears to be a novella. ((There are 40-some scenes, and I average about 1000 words per scene, so that’s roughly 40,000 words, the upper end for novella-ship. A question I can finally answer firmly thanks to outlining and statistics!))

And then I thought: well, of course, Scrivener is pretty powerful. Why don’t I use that to organize my outline’s scenes a bit better? I mean, Outline Mode is there for a reason. And so I spent an hour entering each scene in Outline Mode, and wishing that I had done this in the first place, as Outline mode is more than sufficient for the first pass of outlining (which for me was simply listing out simple scene descriptions).

For the second pass of outlining, I started to add in some of the more basic scene attributes, like story arc, characters, time, status (pace charting), and labels (POV for scenes I can figure it out for).

You can see I’ve switched things up a little from the last time I talked about using Scrivener. Hook/Intensity/Prompt will come back when I dive deeper into the outline. Setting now provides titles for each scene, as it’s a good, bold visual cue in either Outline or Corkboard mode.

It’s just a bit daunting to deal with, however. I have over 40 scenes, and thus over 40 index cards, to sort through, overwhelming for a beginning writer who’s trying to get the hang of loading the entire structure of a story into her head.

Well, Scrivener is still pretty powerful. We can slice and dice, particularly if we’ve supplied meta-data as I have.

One of the most flexible features of Scrivener is its search box, which has a whole range of options to restrict what you’re searching for. Because I operate Scrivener like I do Eclipse (one Workspace for each “world”), I don’t have a single manuscript folder. Thus I like to restrict searches to my top-level selection in my binder (“Search Binder Selection Only”); now I can just select a folder and search only documents under it.

Now, here are the ways I can slice & dice my plot, usually with Operator: All Words:

  • Setting (Search In: Title).

  • Story arc (Search In: Keywords).

  • Individual character (Search In: Custom Meta-Data).

  • Interaction between two specific characters (Search In: Custom Meta-Data).

  • Individual days (Search In: Custom Meta-Data).

  • Multiple days (Search In: Custom Meta-Data, Operator: Any Words).

To get results to show up in the main area, you need to click the “Search Results” bar on the left side. This is unfortunately not intuitive, but is the only part of the process that isn’t.

But once you do so, you can, for instance, suddenly see how different story arcs are operating vis a vis the pacing chart, and whether your POV choices are appropriate from the pin colors. It’s kind of amazing how much you can tell from looking at the smaller screenshots without having to even touch the zoomed versions.

Here’s the main action arc:

Here’s the quieter love arc:

Here’s a… really dead arc that needs some more beefing up in pace and scene count, or else be dropped as an arc (which means all cards that are purely green-chipped will be dropped as well):

Am I handling the interaction between the two main characters okay? Not too boring? Not imbalanced vis a vis POV choices?

Darn, have some scenes to figure out POV for.

As you can see, all this makes Scrivener a very, very powerful tool for analyzing plot and structure.

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