Using Scrivener for Plotting
Posted by Hope Ramsay Sep 13 2012, 12:01 am in craft, Scrivener, writer's advice, writing tips, writing tools
I am a plotter, not a pantser. I would no more think about starting a book without a plan for it, than I would leave my house on a long trip without my GPS. I’ve been a plotter for a long time, and it used to be that I kept all my notes, GMC charts, photos of characters, plot outlines and whatnot in separate documents for each book. Then I would create a great big fat Word document for the manuscript. And I would start writing the story at the beginning and end on the last page. Every book was written in a linear fashion.
Enter Scrivener, a word processing program that’s designed to help authors manage bigger works of fiction. I tried this program out about a year ago. And it’s changed everything. I honestly don’t know how I would plot or write without this software program. I mentioned this recently in a comment on the blog, and immediately my Ruby Sisters suggested that I write a blog. So here it is.
Organizing the plot, subplot, and plot layers.
My books are complicated. They have one main romantic plot, a romantic subplot, a couple of plot layers and a series arc. To get all this straight in my head before writing a book, I used to graph it all out on a piece of paper. Here’s an example of the kind of graph I would make before starting out:
In these visual plots I would assign a color to each arc and jot down (in teeny tiny writing) a bunch of scenes that I thought would be important to telling the story. I used to keep this chart in front of me as I wrote and I would amend it and scratch stuff out and by the end of the process I usually had a book, but my plot paper would be wrinkled and erased and a total mess.
I may still use a piece of paper to get me started, but once I’ve got my ideas down, I immediately transfer them into Scrivener, making a lot of use of the the program’s virtual index cards.
Each of my scene cards is given a color code to indicate the plot, sublot, or plot layer that applies. I provide a title for each of these scene cards and then a short synopsis about what I think is going to happen in the scene. I will then apply plot steps to the cards so that I know whether a scene is showing the ordinary world or a turning point of some kind.
How do I do this?
For the plot colors, I use Scrivener’s label options, which I edit to reflect the various plots, subplot and plot layers of my WIP.
For the plot steps I use Scrivener’s built-in status tags, which are designed to show which scenes are finished which are yet to be written. But I ignore the way Scrivener wants to use these tags, and have changed them to story step tags that I can apply to my scene cards. These story steps take the place of the W form of my hand written plot arcs. I know where along that imaginary arc of rising and falling action each of these story steps falls.
I want every scene to move one of the various plots or plot layers along. But sometimes there are scenes that may move along more than one plot or layer. I will assign a color to the card to reflect it’s main purpose in the story, but I’ll use Scrivener’s Key Words to put a little splash of color along the edge of the card to tell me that the scene is going to relate to actions in other layers or arcs.
So in the example above. The scene in question is the initial scene of the Last Chance Book Club and falls into the book club plot layer (yellow). Its story purpose is to show the ordinary world of the book club members, but it will also move along the main plot (green) having to do with the hero and heroine battling over possession of the abandoned Coca-Cola bottling plant.
You can set up your own labels, status values and keywords by checking the options in the “Project” menu on the Scrivener menu bar. Since I’m plot driven my tags and colors relate to those things. But if you’re more of a character driven writer, I’m sure you can figure out ways of organizing your scene cards to help you figure out what’s going on in the character’s arc. The program gives you so many tools to organize your work before you even start writing.
Keeping me on track as I write
Eventually I have to quit organizing myself and start writing. Here’s where Scrivener’s writing interface provides some more cool tools. Here’s a picture of the main interface:
Down the left hand side of the interface are all of my scene cards – from beginning to end. I end up adding scenes as I go along, and being able to see them in color is is incredibly helpful. I can see my story from forty-thousand feet. The colors tell me if I’m veering off track. And, most important, when I get to the end of a scene, I don’t have to think too hard about what comes next. And if I’m not really feeling it for the scene that’s supposed to come next, I can jump ahead and write in a non-linear way. Most important, I can move scenes around. I do this all the time. Scrivener makes it easy for me to keep the tension going by helping me to see where the story is going next.
In addition, on the right hand side of the screen is a place to put document notes. I cannot tell you how helpful this is. Instead of having editing notes scattered all over the place in comments that are hard to find. All my editing or drafting notes are right there. In the case of this example, you can see that I spent a moment before drafting the scene to think about what my POV character’s goal is, who the antagonist is in the scene and how the scene will turn out in a mini-disaster for my POV character.
All the plot notes are right there
I still have documents with character GMCs, character names and descriptions, research, maps of the town and whatnot. But now, instead of having them printed out and tucked into a folder or notebook, I can load all of that right into Scrivener. If I am confused and need to refresh my memory, all I have to do is split the screen and open up the research document or GMC. Below is a screen shot of my current WIP with the scene in the upper screen, and my GMC chart in the lower screen.
A few last words
Scrivener also does a few nifty things that I really love. It allows me to track how many words I’ve written in a writing session. I set my goal at 2000 words per session, and it’s amazing how that accountability keeps me producing words at a faster rate than ever before. I can also see my overall progress on a project which can be terrifying or gratifying depending on when my deadline might be. Finally, all of my problems with where to place chapter breaks have disappeared. I don’t worry about them anymore. I just write form scene to scene and in the end I insert chapters where they make sense.
I can’t imagine writing a large project like a novel in another other word processing program. I’ve become a total Scrivener convert.
I hope this gives you some idea of the program’s features and how you can use them for your own writing process. I certainly wouldn’t impose my OCD writing process on anyone. But Scrivener allows me to be ultra organized which makes me sooooooo happy.
I’m happy to answer any questions about the program or my crazy writing process.