Using Scrivener for Plotting

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.


55 responses to “Using Scrivener for Plotting”

  1. Hope, this is *so* useful — thank you! I use and love Scrivener. Like you said, it’s brilliant for managing big projects. I wasn’t terribly au fait with the use of the virtual index until I read your post.

    I throw everything I need into one binder for each book, like research notes, pictures, maps, time lines, character and setting notes, synopses, agent, CP and contest feedback, not to mention the actual ms and its many drafts.

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hi Vanessa,

      I use the binder in a similar way. I even keep some image files in there for when I need to describe my hero and heroine in detail. I can’t imagine trying to organize a book without Scrivener anymore.

  2. Amanda Brice says:

    Wow, this looks amazing. I’ve never been tempted to try Scrivener (I just use Microsoft Word), but between Gwen’s book, the fact that you can use it for formatting, and your OCD-ness, I think I’m going to have to give it a try!

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Amanda, the PC version of the program is only $40. I have to say I was skeptical of it, but at that price it was worth giving it a try. I was a convert within a hour of using it.

      • Amanda Brice says:

        Really? Sold. Heck, I spend $40 (or more) per book just on formatting, so even if I only used it once to format a simple ebook, then I’d have made back the cost. Anything beyond that would be exra, and it looks like there’s a LOT of extra!

        • Hope Ramsay says:

          I’d be interested to know how it works when it comes to formatting e-books. As I’ve noted in other comments. I use it for the first and second drafts and then I’m pretty much forced to use Word because my publisher does all the copy edits (which I should be working on right now) in Word. So there always comes a moment after I’ve turned in my revisions when the Scrivener file is set aside and my editor and I are just swapping copies of the final document in Word.

        • Cate Rowan says:

          Amanda, just a word of warning: Scrivener is fine for formatting simple ebooks if you play with the settings–but you wouldn’t be able to do anything nice, like the scene divider images or chapter heading graphics you used in Pointe of No Return. I love me some Scrivener, but Legend Maker is much better if you want to include images. (And LM is darned cheap, too.)

  3. Caro Kinkead says:

    Great post! I’m a pantser, but I love Scrivener as well because its format lets me merrily come up with my scenes as they occur. I can write the scene that is the book’s inspiration — then one before and one after, another after, two before, etc. I’m learning to embrace the fact I don’t write in a straight line, but Scrivener can keep me organized even as I’m bouncing all over the place. And the ability to put notes with the scene is a life saver. No more little post-its or scraps of paper that disappear right when you need them.

    This has give me some ideas to try, but any program that can support processes that are so different as what you and I clearly have is amazing.

    • Hope Ramsay says:


      The thing about Scrivener is that it lets me start out in my OCD way, but then it allows me to break out, so to speak. Since using the program, I find myself writing scenes out of order, especially when I get to the gray areas of my plot. And, as you said, I might be writing a scene I’ve planned and suddenly one of those gray areas occurs to me. The program allows me to stop right then and create a scene card for the idea and slot it in for writing later. I write faster and more efficiently with this program. Less stuff ends up on the cutting room floor.

  4. Hope, You’re making this pantser really think about crossing over to the plotting side. I love the fact you can write scene out of order and move them around. ANd I LOVE you have everything right there on the sidebar. I’m sure if I had the software and had attempted working with it before this post, I’d have a zillion questions for you. I’m a hands-on learning type of girl.

    This afternoon’s goal: Figure out how you split screen in Word because that would be soooo useful and head to Scrivener site.

  5. Kate Meader says:

    Hope, this is amazing. I’ve been using Scrivener for about eighteen months and I know I’ve been missing out big time. I love seeing how you color-coded and used the index cards – that’s a real eye-opener.

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hey Kate. I’ve been using it for about the same period of time, maybe a little less. And I didn’t figure all of this out right at first. At first I used the outlining feature more than the cards. But the more I used the cards and figured out how to use the other meta tags, the more I liked the program. The last book I wrote seemed so much easier than any other book I’ve ever written and I attribute a lot of that to Scrivener. I just didn’t get stuck the way I used to with a big word document that doesn’t give you feedback on what comes next.

  6. Wow! This is awesome! And exactly what I’ve been looking for. I’ve been trying to use Scrivener as a storyboard but I could never figure out the color-coding of character arcs, etc. This is brilliant! Thanks!

  7. Gwyn says:

    I’m not a fan of change, especially change that has a steep learning curve (and since I’m techno-challenged, that’s most software). Still, the Scrivener’s possibilities have tantalized me since I first heard of the program, although I didn’t believe it would work for someone who writes as I do. Gwen Hernandez, Starcatcher sister and author of Scrivener for Dummies, assured me the program is so flexible it works well for both plotters and story evolutionists (aka pantsers *g*) I plan to try it if ever I have sufficient time to fuddle with it for a while.

    • Hope Ramsay says:


      This is a pretty easy program to learn. It comes with a built in template for novels, so you just use that template and take it for a spin. As you use it, you’ll learn more things. I’ve spoken with lots of authors who have made the switch and I haven’t yet found one person who wants to switch back.

      My good friend Robin Kaye uses Scrivener on a Mac, and she showed me her Mac version the other day. It has bells and whistles I lust after. For instance you can convert text to spoken word directly from the Mac version. I have to cut and paste to get my voice program to read my book. (I always run my finished ms through a voice synthesizer, you won’t believe how many punctuation errors, spelling goofs, and other typos I find that way.)

      • Gwyn says:

        Yeah, I would. One of the things that hasn’t made the jump from my old computer yet is Text Aloud, and the voice program that came with word isn’t nearly as good. I’ve used it to edit all but Laurie’s last book (which she’s releasing Friday, so fingers crossed.) It is amazing what the ear catches that the eye misses.

  8. June Love says:

    Wow. Just wow. I don’t know what else to say. I was discussing different writing processes last night with a group of friends. One of them would love this. I’ll have to send her over this way. As for me, I’ve always been an organizer and have been struggling lately because everything in my life has been unsettled. That has bled over into my writing. I’m going to look further into this.
    Thanks, Hope!

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      June, “Organizer” is my middle name. I always feel so accomplished when I clean and organize my desk drawers. I just love going shopping at the container store. And sometimes that a problem. At the start of every book I have to kind of kick myself in the butt to quit writing outlines and scene cards and start writing prose.

      • Ellen Grogan says:

        Just a note to thank you for this blog. I, too, am a compulsive organizer and love the container store. I’ve been using Scrivener for Windows for almost 2 months and it’s amazing. Your blog has made it even more so. So many helpful hints with the color-coding cards. Thanks so much for taking the time.

  9. What a great breakdown of your process, and fantastic overview of how to accomplish it in Scrivener! I’m going to share this post with my students. It’ll be perfect because we just got done talking about how to use the Label and Status fields and tint icons, etc. 😉 Thanks!

  10. Great post, Hope. I’m kind of like Gwynlyn. I quake at the thought of change–especially when it comes to anything technical. The Scrivener program looks cool, but I wonder how much time it would take to learn to use it and whether it would really be that much help to a plantser like me.

    I start out plotting and come up with a premise, do a GMC chart, and character survey which includes where I want my characters to end up, so I have some idea of how I will resolve the conflict.

    Then I write as a pantser up to the first turning point and turn plotter again for a bit while I do an abbreviated sort of working synopsis, which is basically a list pivotal scenes that will advance the plot and character arcs, focusing on what each scene needs to accomplish–not necessarily what happens in them. I use that as a guide for the rest of the book, which I basically write as a pantser with a road map.

    • Hope Ramsay says:


      I’m pretty certain that the time investment in learning the software will pay dividends. For one thing, you don’t have to use all the bells and whistles like I’ve done. You can just use the standard novel template, and then instead of scribbling your turning point scenes on a piece of paper, you can create an outline right in Scrivener. Once you do that the pivotal scenes show up in the binder, which is on the lefthand side. And those scene sit there, reminding you of what you have to write next. It took very little time for me to adjust. The program is superior to word in so many ways.

      The hardest part of it, is when you get ready to take the scrivener file and turn it into a word document, which you need to do when you’re ready to submit. I still have some glitches there, but they are minor.

  11. Hope you’ve inspired me to give it a try. I am a completely character-driven writer, and I never know where my story is going to go (except generally toward the HEA!) when I begin. But I tend to get lost trying to tease out the structure of my stories. My CP, Joanne Lockyer, who is very structure oriented, has been trying to convince me to give Scrivener a try, but I’ve resisted, since we have such different approaches to the work. Yet, your explanations have made the program seem very accessible and flexible for different styles of writers.

    And if it does even one thing to smooth out my process and make writing a book an easier experience, you’ll have earned my undying gratitude!

    Thanks so much. 🙂

    • Hope Ramsay says:


      It only costs $40 and a small investment of some time to check it out. I haven’t heard of a single author who gave it a try and hated it. I’m sure there are some people who did, but no one I’ve actually met or spoken to. It’s a terrific tool that is flexible enough to accommodate just about anyone.

  12. Katie says:


    Great post! I’m taking a Scrivener class right now so this is perfect timing.

    Katie Graykowski

  13. Hi Hope, I still haven’t jumped into the Scrivener pool, but I soooo want to. My deadlines were so tight this past year that I didn’t feel I could spend the time to learn how to use it. But I think I’m ready to make the leap. I know this is a hard question to answer, but how long would you say it took you to really see a return on your time investment (weeks? months?)? Did you start using the program at the beginning of a new book?

    Thanks for the post. It’s really helpful to see those index cards in action!

    • Hope Ramsay says:

      Hi Tina,

      I started using it toward the beginning of a book. Not the actual start and I would definitely caution people not to do what I did. I ended up importing the word document into the program and that made for more confusion that was necessary.

      So I would advise that you start when you start a new project. The first project I wrote in Scrivener from beginning to end was a short story. And it wasn’t until I started a project in Scrivener that I really began to see how it could help me organize plot.

      Even so, with the project that I imported, I would say that I got the hang of the basics — writing scenes — in a matter of an hour or two — not weeks and certainly not months. I would say a couple of days would do it for someone. It took me time to learn all the bells and whistles. But I figured out the beauty of working scene by scene almost immediately.

      When I got to the end of that project there was another learning curve that I found a bit more frustrating, when you get ready to turn a scrivener project into a finished word document. The first time I did this, I wasn’t so thrilled with the formatting of the final document and had to futz around. (Don’t do this on a deadline like I did.)

      And I still have some quibbles with the process for turning the scrivener file into a word file for my editor. But it’s minor compared to the advantages I get when writing the initial draft.

      I should also mention here in full disclosure. That I do all my revisions in scrivener, but the final edits and then all the copy edits are eventually done only in Word.

  14. Vivi Andrews says:

    Holy wow, I think I just broke out in hives. I’m an organized-but-let-it-surprise-me writer and this level of pre-planning scares the bejeebies out of me. It sounds like a great tool and I’m delighted it’s been such a boon to so many writers – sounds like you’re in heaven, Hope! But for me? Ack! We fear change. 😉

    • Hope Ramsay says:


      Despite all my planning I’m ALWAYS surprised. I never anticipate all the scenes — just the big turning points — and they never turn out quite as I planned. It would be boring if my writing didn’t surprise me.

      But in any case I would not impose my process on anyone, so please don’t break out in hives.

  15. Elizabeth says:

    This is fantastic! I’m taking Gwen’s class right now. Talk about timing.

    I love your Conflict chart. Any chance you could share a full version?

  16. Plotters of the world…UNITE! LOL. I love this! I love you. You have casted some kind of hypnotic spell on me. I can’t stop looking at this post. I’m all giddy inside. LOL.

    Thanks! This is fantastic! ~D~

  17. O. M. G. Hope, this is fabulous! And so timely… I’m about to start a new book and wanted to get back to Scrivener. (I switched to Word back in February when editing mode started up, but miss Scrivener and the freedom to move around.) I’ve never seen how to re-label Scrivener’s basic labels. That’s awesome. I had no idea.

    Thanks so much for this information…I’m going back to digest it further. 😉

  18. Cate Rowan says:

    Hope, what a terrific post! You’ve done a great job showing what’s possible. Scrivener is da bomb. I’ve been using it since it was first in beta, back in 2005, and it helped me “win” NaNoWriMo that year. I’d be lost without it now. It’s made life much simpler, and it has the flexibility to be used by plotters and pantsers alike. World domination for Scrivener! 😀

  19. Kay Hudson says:

    You (and Gwen) are inspiring me, Hope. I’ve used Word forever, sampling other programs and always coming back. Last book was done in Word with an assist from Action Outline. But right now I have about 17 pages of the next project, and I’m thinking this might be the time to try Scrivener. And order Gwen’s book. Thanks for all these ideas!

  20. Lita Harris says:

    Hope, this is a wonderful post. I bought Scrivener when the Windows version was released but I keep finding myself going back to WORD. Your explanation and screen shots of Scrivener convey the power of the software in a manner that brings it to life.

  21. […] the link to Hope Ramsay’s post about using Scrivener for plotting on the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog showed up on the class loop. (Super writing pal Melanie Macek […]

  22. […] taking, this post from the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood, knocked the program into the outta the park. How To Use Scrivener for Plotting – […]

  23. K.B. Owen says:

    Hi, Hope!

    Thanks for the fantastic post on Scrivener. I found you through Natalie Hartford’s blog, and she found you through Raelyn Barclay’s.

    I’m finishing up my second book, and even though this time I’ve been using OneNote along with Word and it’s made the process easier than the first time around, it’s still cumbersome. I’m getting a better idea in this second book how my particular writing process works. I’m definitely scene-driven and plot-oriented (I write mysteries, so I’d better be!), and Scrivener looks like a great way to go.

    My only concern is…how do I learn this? It looks really complicated. I’m not very tech-intuitive, and it took me a while to just learn OneNote (and I haven’t mastered that by any means). How did you figure it out? Did you just teach yourself, or is there some sort of tutorial or class I can follow?

    Many thanks,

  24. A.K.Andrew says:

    I so happy to have found your blog (via Jenny Hansen) I have looked at Scrivener & wondered if it would take so long to learn & be ultimately not much better than a spread sheet to keep track, but you have persuaded me. Always good to hear first hand.
    Thanks for the post.

  25. […] Using Scrivener For Plotting by Hope Ramsay […]


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