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Scrivener

How To Outline Your Novel In Scrivener

A while back (okay, a long while back), I wrote about the value of outlining your novel. It’s a great way to get the plot and structure of your book going, and it helps you solve for the big narrative early on. If you’re writing in Scrivener, however, it can be much more than that: an outline in Scrivener is really a living foundation to build your novel on.

To show you how it’s done, I’m going to walk you through the outlining of my amazing romance concept: Pants on FirePants on Fire explores the whirlwind of lies and lust that explodes when Jane falls in love with a dishonest politician. Think Dirty Dancing meets Mitch McConnell. (And now try to un-think it. That’s right. You can’t.)

Writing the Outline

Now that we have a great novel idea, let’s rough out the plot. Open Scrivener and choose a new novel template. In the left panel you can see your Binder. Your Binder is like the trapper keeper you kept as a kid, except it’s easier to organize and doesn’t have a totally radical tiger playing basketball on the cover. You can store snippets, notes, character profiles, wikipedia articles, and whatever else you want in the binder. I’ve got all of my world building for Orconomics and Son of a Liche tucked into my research folder. But for now, we’ll focus on the Manuscript

Everything that’s tucked in the Manuscript object will be a part of your novel (by default.) Everything outside of it will be excluded when you export (or compile) your final document. It’s how you separate all your notes and ideas and scribblings from the actual book you intend to distribute.

Scrivener empty document

Start the outline by painting the story in broad strokes. Create a a folder for each of the major points in the story arc. These folders will eventually be chapters, grouping every document within them together. For now, though, ignore the sub-documents—just get the overall plot down on (digital) paper.

Chapter Outline

It’s rom-com gold, I tell you.

Once you have a good amount of folders set, you can start to create notecards within them. A Scrivener notecard is a placeholder for a scene, with a title, and an optional brief synopsis of what goes on in the scene. You can also add keywords, metadata, and notes to keep track of details.

3_AddScenes

I like to start with a shocking twist.

Personally, I don’t add too much detail when I’m creating my notecards—just enough to remind myself of how it fits into the story. If I need to track something carefully, such as the timing in between scenes, I’ll make a date and time note on each card. And occasionally I have a particular detail or line of dialogue I really like and don’t want to forget; I’ll tuck those gems in the notes as well. But in principle, I want to do as little writing as possible here, and focus on high-level storytelling. That’s my preference, however. You can add as much or as little as you want—this outline is your tool, so use it as you want.

4_write_outline

It even has the guy catching the girl at the airport.

Your outline is complete once you have all the notecards and metadata you think you need to tell your story. But now it’s time to use the outline, which is where the power of Scrivener really starts to shine.

Using Your Outline

Now that you have a complete outline, and are also kind of intrigued by my congressional romance plot, its time to write your novel. It’s a breeze to do—just click on any notecard to open it, and start writing in the large text area in the center of Scrivener. That scene is now an individual document within the Scrivener file, but when you compile your manuscript all of these scenes will be output as one long word document / PDF / ebook / other format.

4_write

The power is in your ability to revise your novel and keep your outline current at the same time. For example, I’ve noticed that the plot of Pants on Fire doesn’t give my heroine a lot of agency. If I wanted to fix that in Word or another word processor, I’d scroll around a long document, move vast chunks of text around, and eventually sort my manuscript out. But unless I went back and updated my outline as well, all of my hard work as structure would be denigrated to a few notes on the plot my book used to have.

In Scrivener, the outline is a living document. You can easily rearrange the chapters and scenes, add new scenes, or remove them entirely just by dragging your folder and pages around in your binder. Your manuscript is automatically updated, because the rearranged files will compile in the new order. You can still see, and modify, the high-level arcs of your book while keeping your outline up to date.

Much better. Now its enlightened. At least by Hollywood standards.

Much better. Now its enlightened. At least by Hollywood standards.

That’s the true power of Scrivener. I use it for the first two or three drafts of everything I write, and then export to Word for collaboration with my editors. The ability to change course mid-novel and see all of the impacted areas at a high level is invaluable. I also do things like color coding documents by their status (a to-write scene is orange, a first draft is yellow, second draft is green, etc.) Scrivener has a lot of really powerful features—more than most writers will use, in fact. But at its core is this mechanic on outlining and planning your document, and then executing the writing.

Outline

Do you outline your novels? Have you used Scrivener before, or are you intrigued by the possibility? Let me know in the comments.

6 thoughts on “How To Outline Your Novel In Scrivener”

  1. Rocky says:

    I’ve been using this exact method for more than just novels. I use it for lesson plans, short stories, office presentations you name it. Anything to allow me to jot down ideas in broad strokes before getting to specifics!

  2. Hi there, really cool idea. I think it is really helpful for structuring the content. But in my opinion it gets tricky if you do a content table for an ebook. By compiling scrivener uses the name of the folders for the content table. But since the folder names are just for internal use this might not what the reader wants to see …

  3. Why use a grey font on a grey background? Why not make your website readable? I was very interested in the subject matter but I won’t bother to squint at this.

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