Story Structure in Scrivener

In my post about planners versus pantsers I mentioned that I was about to revise a manuscript based on what I’d been reading about story structure. Over the course of my personal transition from pantser to planner I’ve dabbled with different ways to represent the underlying architecture of my plots. I’ve tried Post-it notes stuck to a whiteboard. I’ve tried spreadsheets. I’ve tried timelines scrawled in notebooks. For this revision, I hoped to find a way to keep my architectural blueprint, the story overview, in sync with the text as I moved things around and re-wrote what needed re-writing.

According to these hand-written outlines created by famous authors, the problem is not a new one. A common issue with these kinds of structural aides — as I’ve discovered for myself with my timelines — is that you have to make corrections to your outline as you change things in your manuscript. If you have a look at the outlines you’ll see quite a few lines scribbled out. Emma Darwin blogged about her novel-planning grid and mentioned that she usually starts writing things in pencil, only moving to ink pen when the scene is actually written.

This is all okay, and it certainly works. But the programmer in me cringes every time I find myself repeating a certain action. I move something on the whiteboard, and then go into my writing software and move the scene. It violates the DRY principle: Don’t Repeat Yourself. I believe this holds up as well in writing as it does in programming. If you’re going to do something, do it once and only once. So I looked for a way to get my writing software (the fabulous Scrivener by Literature & Latte) to take the place of my equivalent of Emma Darwin’s novel-planning grid or Alex Sokoloff’s whiteboard and Post-it notes.

I’ve sung the praises of Scrivener more than once. It doesn’t impose any particular pre-conceived structure on me as a writer, which lets me figure out my own way of doing things. I started out using the standard template provided for novels, with chapters showing up as folders in the Binder, and scenes as separate documents within each chapter.

Scriviner project - early stages

Scriviner project – early stages

This works well enough in the beginning. But as the manuscript progresses and the number of chapters grows, the story structure begins to get lost. In this example I’m aiming for a three act structure, with a plot point at the culmination of each act and a mid-point reveal or plot reversal to prop up the second act and keep things moving along. It’s hard to see where these plot points should fall by looking at Scrivener’s cork board or outliner, or even scanning the documents in the Binder.

Scrivener project - adding more scenes.

Scrivener project – adding more scenes.

I found another problem with laying out my chapters and scenes this way when I discovered I needed to add a scene somewhere near the beginning of the manuscript. Let’s say I need to build the tension before the first plot point at the end of Act I to give it more dramatic impact.

Adding a new chapter to Act I.

Adding a new chapter to Act I.

It’s not as much of a problem as it used to be when I wrote everything in (shudder!) Word. Back then I’d have to go through the rest of the manuscript and re-number the chapters. At least Scrivener numbers the chapters for me automatically when I compile the manuscript into a document ready for submission. But it does lead to an untidy chapter structure in the Binder, and that bugs me.

Story structure lost in complexity.

Story structure lost in complexity.

I decided to experiment with another way of structuring my scenes in the binder. Rather than bothering with chapters at the outset, and then spending time later shuffling scenes around from chapter to chapter to get the balance right, I thought I’d create folders for each Act and simply stack my scenes within each Act. Act II is roughly twice as long as Acts I and III, and it has a clear mid-point with its own plot point, so I followed Alex Sokoloff’s lead and broke Act II into two sections — in this case, two folders.

By selecting each of the folders, I can view all four sections at once on the cork board. Each section begins with an opening scene, and ends with a climactic curtain scene or the mid-point climax.

Three Act Structure displayed in columns of index cards on Scrivener's cork board.

Three Act Structure displayed in columns of index cards on Scrivener’s cork board.

Scrivener lets you choose between vertical or horizontal alignment. If you prefer seeing each Act play out from left to right, simply switch to the horizontal cork board alignment using the widget at the bottom right of the cork board.

A different view of the Three Act Structure.

A different view of the Three Act Structure.

Personally, I like the vertical stacks of index cards. It gives me a digital equivalent of my whiteboard, with a column for each section of the manuscript and an index card for each scene. Straight away I get the benefit of seeing the overall flow and pacing of the manuscript. Is Act I too long? Too short? Does my mid-point plot twist fall in the right place, or have I fallen victim to the infamous sagging middle that plagues so many second acts? I also use Scrivener’s keyword feature to note which characters appear in each scene, and I can tell whether I’ve balanced these evenly by looking at the colour chips in the corners of the index cards.

This overview of my plot structure lets me cut scenes or move them around as I see fit, and the changes are immediately reflected in the flow of the manuscript. No more changing things on paper or on the whiteboard, then going back to the computer to do the same thing over again. Then, when I’m happy with the flow of the story and the way my scenes weave together, I can create folders for chapters and let Scrivener look after the numbering.

I love it when a tool makes things easier rather than harder. Don’t you?

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