Plot development in Scrivener

Scrivener is a writing environment with extensive flexibility. One of its chief advantages to writers is that it allows you to divide a story or book into its constituent pieces (chapters and scenes), work on them independently, shift them around, and compile the finished product as a seamless manuscript..

This makes it ideal for those of us who outline our plot in advance (plotters). A writer can plot freely or take a more structured approach. For my “Novak” police procedurals, I have adopted a process in which I organize my story threads separately, then integrate them into the story structure.

My first step is to establish the story structure shown by CHAPTERS AND PARTS in the above illustration. For this story, I begin with four parts, each having four chapters. As you can see, I’ve numbered them so that I can identify them in Step #4 below.) Within each chapter, I will begin with four scenes. I’ve set up the structure without adding scenes at the moment. The sole exception is the first scene, “Novak interrupted,” which I’ll explain in a moment.

In Step #2, I establish six THREADS that make up the story. The first three you see under the “threads” section—Murdered girl, Missing Child, and Internal Struggle—are the principal threads and will appear in every chapter. The remaining three are supporting threads I will distribute throughout the story. Notice that I’ve color-coded the scenes in each thread so that I can identify them later. (There is nothing magical about this structure. I could have two principal threads, five or six supporting threads. As you’ll see, this is a starting point.)

In Step #3, I use the “corkboard” view in Scrivener to develop sixteen scenes for each principal thread—one for each chapter. (The corkboard view is shown in the right half of the screen; it looks like an index card and is headed “Novak interrupted.”) I give each scene a title and a brief description. I have expanded the Murdered Girl section of the Threads section to show you what this looks like. I then developed twenty-four scenes in the remaining three supporting threads.

Before moving on, I rearrange the scenes within each thread to ensure that they follow a logical path. I can move them later, but I want to get each sequence as close as possible to how I want them to unfold in the final plot before integrating them into the manuscript outline.

In Step #4, I move each scene in a thread into a chapter. (You can see that I’ve already done so with the scene called “Novak Interrupted.) For the three principal threads, this is a straightforward process. I have sixteen scenes and sixteen chapters. I move Scene 1 of each thread into the first chapter of Part 1, the second scene into the next chapter, and so on.

For the supporting threads, things are not so simple, since the three threads contain sixteen scenes—six in two of them and four in the remaining one. This is where the color coding comes in handy. I first combine all these scenes into one thread, then move them about in corkboard view until they follow a logical sequence. I then distribute these sixteen scenes among the sixteen chapters.

In Step #5, I move the four scenes in each chapter into a logical sequence. I want to begin each chapter with the strongest possible opening and end it with a cliff-hanger. Some of the supporting threads fit more logically around one of the principal threads.

Only now do I start my initial draft. As I write, I rearrange things. I may want to drop a clue here, shift another one there, introduce an important character earlier in the story, etc. Using corkboard view, I may move two of the principal threads into the same chapter, add a scene, modify others, combine or even delete some.

This is important in that I haven’t decided how to resolve my main thread. I like my characters to surprise me. (One reviewer said of the climax of Novak’s Mission, “I didn’t see that coming.” The reason is that I didn’t either. It just happened.)

My initial outline is not hard-and-fast—it’s a starting point. But it ensures that I have a roadmap that will take me from Pittsburgh to Portland. If I decide to make a side-trip to Dubuque, so be it.

There are many ways to outline a story in Scrivener. This one works for me. If you find it useful, or if you have a variation to suggest, please write me.

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