How to use Scrivener to plan a book

I’ve written before about my love of Scrivener. And just when I thought I couldn’t love it any more, I find out something else about the program that makes me swoon! I’ve been playing around with Scrivener’s Outliner and I’ve discovered that, especially for a non-planner like me, it’s an excellent tool for helping you create a fluid outline for your book right from the initial phase of having an idea. So, let me explain how to use Scrivener to plan a book.

You don’t need to be a planner to use Scrivener’s Outliner

Ordinarily I don’t tend to plan, my story comes to me in much the same way it does to a reader, page by page. I find this a stressful way to write – I’m organised in every other area of my life I could never understand why my writing process was so chaotic. I would like to plan more. But I would also like to plan in a way that still allows for the beautiful spontaneous surprises of writing a draft to happen.

Which is where Scrivener comes in. You have to remember that Scrivener lets you look at your manuscript in lots of different ways: in the Binder, on a Corkboard, and also in the Outliner. All of these different views are connected to each other, and to the manuscript you’re writing. So, if you change one thing in the Binder, your Outliner is automatically updated. Start to write a new scene and this new scene automatically gets added to the Outliner.

Which means Scrivener’s Outliner lets me plan before I write, and the plan updates itself while I write. I can plan in isolation from the writing process, or I can write, knowing my plan is automatically updated with each new scene, and then I can go back and look at the Outliner and see what effect the new scenes have had on my plan. Planning and writing come together brilliantly.

What does Scrivener’s Outliner look like?

Here’s what the Outliner looks like. You can access it by going into the View Menu and selecting Outline. The Outliner displays the scenes you’ve written as a grid, with each Scene’s Title, Synopsis, Label, Status and Word Count.

You can see the Scene Titles in bold. Beneath each Title is the description from the Synopsis Card. The Label column lets me quickly see which scenes are still just Ideas (the yellow icons), which I need to go back and add more to (the pink icons), and which ones are full scenes (blue icons).

The Status column tells me at a glance where I’m at with my redrafting of each scene, if it’s still a first draft, or a revised draft, a to-do, or a final draft. The Word Count gives me an idea if my scenes are getting too long or too short.

So when I’m starting a new book, every scene I create in Scrivener is automatically added to the Outliner. Or, I can go straight into the Outliner and add in some ideas for new scenes that I’m not yet ready to write. When I view the Outliner, I can see all the information for all the scenes. I can pick one to write. I can think about whether the scenes are in the right order or not. I can get ideas about what’s missing. I can add to the plan, but also the act of writing in Scrivener adds new detail to the plan. It’s an organic process.

Adding new scene information to the Outliner

You can also add new columns of information to the Outliner that you can apply to every scene. For instance, in A Beautiful Catastrophe, some scenes are set in Concord, Massachusetts, and some are set in New York. Some take place in 1922, some in 1925 and some in 1927. Keeping track of this visually is useful to me to make sure I’m not jumping around in setting or time too much.

In case it’s useful to you, for instance if you haven’t used the Outliner but would like to give it a try, I’m going to explain how you add new columns to the Outliner. It might look like a long-winded, complicated process but it’s not. So bear with me, because it’s worth knowing how to do this because I really think it adds to your planning and writing process.

I want to add a Setting column and a Year column to my Outliner. It’s called adding Custom Meta-Data, which is a serious sounding name for a very simple process.

  1. First, go to the Project Menu and select Meta Data Settings.
  2. A dialogue box appears. From the tabs in the dialogue box, select Custom Meta Data tab (see yellow arrow in image below).
  3. To add new Meta-Data, i.e. Setting and Year, click the plus button at the bottom of the dialogue box (see red arrow in image below).

After I click the Plus button, a line will appear where I can add in the new Meta-Data – remember, Meta-Data is just a word to describe the new columns I want to add to the Outliner.

  1. Type in Setting (see yellow arrow in image below). Hit Plus again and type in Year. You could add a POV column and assign a POV to each scene in your Outliner, or add a Character column to keep track of which characters appear in each scene or whatever works for your book. It’s limited only by your imagination!
  2. I want the Setting of each scene to display in Coloured Text in the Outliner. So I’ve ticked the Coloured Text column (see red arrow in image below).
  3. Then I click the Text Colour box (see blue arrow in image below).
  4. A colour wheel appears. Select the colour you want your text to be in the Outliner. I’ve selected red.
  5. Now click OK and go back to the Outliner.

Let’s apply those changes to the Outliner

So, let’s see what the Outliner looks like now. First, we need to tell Scrivener that we want to see our new columns in the Outliner.

  1. Click the double arrow in the top right corner of the Outliner (blue arrow in image below). The list of available data is displayed. Our new Meta-Data (Setting and Year) is on the list and I’ve ticked them (see red arrow below) to display them in the outliner.
  2. The yellow arrow in the image below shows that Setting and Year now appear as columns in the Outliner.

To add information to the new Setting and Year columns, all I have to do is click in them and type. You can see in the image below that the information in the Setting column is in red because we made this text red when we added it above. I’ve added in the Setting to two of my scenes, as well as the year in which they take place.

The benefits of Scrivener’s Outliner

At a glance, I can now see the Setting and Year in which each scene takes place, as well as everything else that was previously in the Outliner. It’s such a great way to get an overview of your manuscript – much more efficient than having lots of post-it notes lying around.

And don’t forget that no matter where I change or update the scene information – if I do it in the Binder, on the Synopsis Cards or directly in the Outliner – it automatically updates everywhere. Everything is connected to everything else in Scrivener.

So, for a non-planner, I get the benefits of seeing my manuscript take shape in the Outliner. This gives me new ideas for new scenes. But I’m not locked in to a rigid plan because any change I make anywhere is applied across the entire manuscript and the outline grows as I write.

So that’s how to use Scrivener to plan a book. Does it sound good to you? I hope I’ve made it sound simple, because it really is. Have you used the Outliner in Scrivener? Did you know it existed? Or have you not yet made the jump to Scrivener?

Natasha LesterNatasha Lester is the award-winning author of two novels If I Should Lose You (2012) and What is Left Over, After (2010). Her third novel, A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald, will be released in April 2016.

Natasha is also a presenter for the Australian Writers’ Centre. She teaches Creative Writing Stage 1 in Perth and 2 Hours to Scrivener Power as an online, on-demand course.

You can also visit Natasha's website here.

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