Drafting novels with Scrivener

After my last tutorial on Scrivener's fundamentals, I delve into drafting novels. I cover templates, structure, styles, and more!

| Tutorials | 17 min read

This is Part 2 in the series, A Guide to Scrivener.

NOTE: This tutorial series covers Scrivener 3 for macOS Mojave. The features shown in this tutorial should apply to the forthcoming Scrivener 3 for Windows. Where differences occur, I will try to point them out.


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In my last tutorial, I introduced Scrivener's user interface (UI) and covered some of its fundamental concepts and core features. In this post, I'll describe how to use Scrivener to draft and manage a novel from inception to finishing the first draft.

I'll note up front that what I'm about to share isn't the right or only way to draft a novel in Scrivener. My aim isn't to enforce a particular method, but rather to show how to use Scrivener and adapt it to your needs and preferences.



Starting with a template

Templates can help you get started with your writing project and minimise the learning curve. Use one of the built-in templates, and it removes a lot of the headache of structuring, creating metadata, and compiling your manuscript.

So, they can also save you a lot of time; however, you don't have to use one. Scrivener ships with a blank template for those who prefer to work their way, and are familiar enough with the app.

Built-in templates

Scrivener ships with several templates to help you get started writing your novel. When you first open Scrivener or create a new project, the app presents with the template picker. The screenshot below shows the Fiction tab on the macOS version of Scrivener.

Scrivener Template Picker (macOS)
Scrivener Template Picker (macOS)

The three pre-installed fiction templates include Novel, Novel (with parts), and Short Story. The Novel template provides a help file (make sure you read it!). It includes a basic starting structure, front matter, compile settings, and even basic templates for adding your character and location reference sheets.

The Novel (with parts) template is mostly the same, adding support for authors like to divide their stories into major parts.



Pick one and become familiar with it. The templates provide a decent foundation without forcing you to adopt a particular method. If the default templates aren't enough for you, then you can create your own, or use one of the many templates created by other writers.

Creating templates

Templates are great and all, but what's perfect for one person might not suit everybody. If you start with one of the built-in templates or use one created and shared by another author online, it may likely cramp your style. You might have a particular structure you like, or you create elaborate and detailed character sheets. Maybe you're a metadata and keyword fiend with an elaborate taxonomy that's a pain to recreate each time you start a new project.

The good news is Scrivener allows you to create custom templates. You can either start completely from scratch or change one of the existing templates.

Templates work as a regular Scrivener project. You open a project, make the changes you need, and then save it as a template by going to File -> Save as Template…

You can change settings, add metadata and keywords, create front/end matter blocks. You can create your character and location sheets document templates, and have them all persist for you between projects. Not only can this benefit series writers, but anyone who embarks on a multi-book publishing career.

Third-party templates

Thanks to the ability to create custom templates, many writers create and distribute templates for free on blogs and forums. Google' scrivener templates' and you'll find dozens, if not hundreds.

One of Scrivener's stated design principles is that it does not impose a particular narrative structure on its users. It won't force you to use the Hero's Journey! The same goes for its supplied templates; they are there to structure the project, not your story.

However, many authors enjoy writing to a structure, and templates can include that reconfigured structure in the Binder. A Google search will find you templates for the aforementioned Hero's Journey, as well the Snowflake Method, Save the Cat, and the 8-point story well represented.

If you come across a template you like, you can download it to your computer and import to Scrivener either using the Template window (see below). Alternatively, you can copy the template directly to Scrivener's project directory using Finder (macOS)1 or Explorer(Windows)2.

Importing project templates (macOS)
Importing project templates (macOS)

Project Settings

Before you write, it's worth tweaking some of your project settings, especially if you are using one of the built-in templates where the defaults are sparse.



Scrivener has two settings panels, one for controlling Scrivener's behaviour, the other for configuring your project. I touched on some import application settings in the last tutorial. It's time now to introduce the project settings.

Project settings are available from the Project -> Project Settings… menu.

Section types

Scrivener 3 introduced the concepts of section types. These provide a means of naming the structural components of your manuscript, and they are essential for controlling how Scrivener formats parts of your manuscript when you compile.

In a novel, you will not need more than a handful of section types, and the built-in template has most of them pre-defined for you. However, if you've imported your project from an older version of Scrivener, there might be irregularities.

You can go one of two ways: Section Types or Default Types By Structure. For most novelists, the former is more than sufficient. Using the Structure option is better for more complex non-fiction with a sophisticated, nested hierarchy of headings and sections.

Here's what my Section Types look like in my series, The Lords of Skeinhold3.

Basic section types
Basic section types

That's all I need for my purposes: a means to mark chapter headers, scenes, front (and end) matter and the table of contents.

Note, if this is all a little confusing, I will address this later in greater detail when I look at compiling. For now, it's important to stress that I structure my top-level folders as Chapter Headings and the nested documents as Scenes.

Label List

I don't use Labels much, but for those of you who prefer Scrivener's Corkboard to the Outline View, labels can be invaluable.

Labels provide an easy way to colour-code the parts of your project, and you are free to use whatever scheme you like by altering the Label List in the Project Settings.

Label List Settings
Label List Settings

By default, you get a simple list of colours. However, you are free to rename them whatever you like. So, for a novelist, labelling things as Conflict, Resolution, or Twist might be valuable to you. You could use it to colour-code POV, or a location, or type of document or folder. You get the idea!

Here's an example of how it looks in the corkboard view of my forthcoming novel, The Prince's Bastard. Note the coloured stripe on the side of the index card.

Corkboard showing label
Corkboard showing label

Status List

I use the Status list to track the progress of a document, for example, moving from one draft to another. I find this invaluable from a project management standpoint, particularly when I move beyond the initial first draft. I'm relatively conventional in my choices as I show below.

Status List Settings
Status List Settings

Using this window, you can add, remove or rename statuses to suit your particular workflow. For example, you might add stages noting when beta readers are reviewing your work, or the document is out with your editor.



Custom metadata

I find Scrivener's custom metadata much more useful than labels, probably because I prefer the Outline over the Corkboard view. If the Outline view is analogous to a spreadsheet, then custom metadata allows you to add extra columns beyond what's available.

I use the feature to track things like the POV character, scene location, and so on. If you use Aeon Timeline with Scrivener, the app will add custom event fields here, allowing Aeon to read the events in your manuscript.

Custom Metadata Settings
Custom Metadata Settings

When viewed as an Outline, your metadata can appear as additional columns. For those of you who like the Snowflake method, the Outline is invaluable. You'll be able to complete Step 8 without even having to leave Scrivener for another app like Excel or Omni Outliner.

Outline view with custom data
Outline view with custom data

Discovery, Research and world-building

One of Scrivener's key advantages over competitors like Word, Ulysses and iA Writer is its ability to store vast amounts of ancillary information alongside your manuscript. This ability is invaluable, not only for referencing third-party research material but also your original content created for discovery and world-building.

Note, if you're unfamiliar with the term discovery, it merely describes the activities you do before drafting. I think I first heard the term from Lani Dianne Rich, and I liked it enough that it's stuck. There's overlap, but most writers do the bulk of their musing, planning, research and world-building before sitting down to write the first draft.

If you don't, that's perfectly fine. I've done several Nanowrimo projects where I didn't have time to plan. Instead, I info-dumped my discovery material into the first draft as I was writing. That's perfectly valid, but man, did it make revision a complete pain! I've learnt my lesson.

Collating research

Within every Scrivener project is a place in which you can store just about anything you want. It's called research by default (we can rename it) and is three default top-level folders along with the Manuscript and Trash.

Collating research is simple — locate your source document and drag it in. Scrivener on macOS supports PDFs, Word docs, Rich Text, plain text, Scapple docs, audio files and even videos. You can import and view any file format recognisable by Finder. The Windows version is similarly capable. Couple this ability with Scrivener's split-screen capabilities, and you can easily reference (read, listen, watch) your research material while you draft in a separate pane.

On the Mac (I'm less sure about Windows), Scrivener has a neat feature allowing you to import an HTML page using a URL. To do so go to File ->Import -> Web page.

Importing articles from URLs
Importing articles from URLs

In the screenshot, I'm importing the print version of a Wikipedia article. I save it to my Research/Articles folder in the Binder, and the resulting file looks like this:

Imported Wikipedia article
Imported Wikipedia article

Scrivener (and macOS and iOS) are full of these timesaving hacks. I'll write a dedicated tutorial about the workflows I use to speed up my work later in the series.

World-building

The Research folder is also a good location for storing world-building material.

I'm planning to create a separate tutorial about world-building with Scrivener, so I won't belabour the point here. As a fantasy writer, my world and series are sufficiently large enough to justify the use of a separate project. However, if your story is smaller, there's no reason you shouldn't include your world-building within your writing project. There are several advantages, chief among them the ability to view a world-building article right next to a scene in split-screen mode.

Planning and structuring your story

In the last tutorial, I noted that Scrivener allows you to break your manuscript into more manageable chunks. This feature provides key advantages over traditional word processes like Microsoft Word and Apple's Pages. It can make your life so much easier, as your manuscript grows.

In your writing process, you must think about adopting a narrative structure. Scrivener is ideally suited for this task, working well with just about every methodology available.

My thoughts on structure are simple — any structure is better than none. As human beings, we structure the world to make sense of it. Narrative structure is present in our earliest recorded myths and legends to every movie Disney has ever churned out. Even if you are an extreme pantser, chances are you'll subconsciously draft according to the structural patterns you've absorbed through your culture. The only difference between the planner and pantsers is where you choose to do the hard graft.



Writers fall somewhere on a broad spectrum of planning or pantsing (writing by the seat of one's pants). The extreme pantser might start with nothing more than an idea and a blank document and follow the whims of the muse. Meanwhile, the strict plotter will outline the story scene-by-scene from beginning to the end before they even begin.

In either case, Scrivener has you covered. If you are an extreme panster, have at it — I'll talk to you later when you've finished your draft, and you're ready to revise. If you are a planner, you'll want to do a little spadework upfront to capture your story's structure to the level of detail you prefer.

Following is a list of popular structural patterns ranging from the minimal to the most detailed:

  • Classic three-act
  • 7 or 8 story points
  • 3-9-27
  • The Hero's Journey/ Monomyth

These structures exist at the macro level, all dealing with acts and scenes. I won't belabour them here because better minds than mine have done a sterling job elsewhere.

In Scrivener, it's trivial to create a bunch of scenes and organise them in the Binder according to your preferred structural pattern. At its simplest, you could create folders for acts one, two and three, and start hammering out your scenes.

Three Act Structure
Three Act Structure

If you overlay the three-act structures with the popular 7/8-point structure (there are several variations), you might start with something like this:

Typical 7/8 point structure
Typical 7/8 point structure

Fancy yourself as a prodigy of Suzanne Collins, and you could adopt the screenwriter's gold-standard repeating 3-9-27 structure like so:

! 3-9-27 screenwriter's structure

TIP: You might tell from my screenshots, I like to keep different structures in my project's template folder. I find this a valuable reference for both drafting and revision.

The examples I provide above pertain to a story's macrostructure — acts and scenes. However, many writers like to delve even deeper and carve their story into beats or MRUs. Beats are a term lifted from screenwriting, and they describe the smallest narrative unit (usually a conflict event) in a story. The Save the Cat method has made writing in beats increasingly popular.

I don't write in beats, but based on the examples I've provided, you should be able to break your scenes further into beats if you prefer to work that way. If you need help, a quick Google search will surface several Scrivener beat-sheet and Save the Cat templates.

Titles and synopses

When you create a document or folder, Scrivener will give it a generic title. Change it and make it meaningful. I will typically title a scene with a one-line description of what happens, for example, Cadoc Contemplates the Dead.

When I get around to creating chapters (more on that below), I title the folder I use with the chapter's name, for example, Crossing. I do not title them Chapter 1 and so on. This is for two reasons, 1. I might move the chapter and would then have to renumber them, and 2. I let Scrivener's compiler handle the injection of the word 'chapter' and automatically add the correct chapter number.

Besides titles, documents and folders can have a synopsis. The synopsis is a short description of what happens in the scene and is one of the most powerful yet simple tools an author has for drafting their novel.

In Scrivener, you can view and edit the synopsis in several places: the document's Inspector, the Outliner and the Corkboard.

Inspector and Outline showing synopsis
Inspector and Outline showing synopsis

Use a synopsis to establish what the scene is and what needs to happen. Used with the Outline, as I show above, and you can see the complete skeleton of your manuscript in one window. This bird' s-eye view of the manuscript is critical for keeping you on track.

I like to keep my synopses to a paragraph or less, a few descriptive lines at most. If you need more than that, you've got your document notes, which I'll cover below.

Drafting

At last, we get to drafting! It might seem like I took a long time to get to the actual act of bashing out the story itself. All this spadework makes the drafting process less painful, at least for me.

As you've probably worked out, I write in scenes rather than chapters, with one Binder document equating to one scene. Chapters are not a useful narrative unit, at least for me. As a planner, I have the story roughly outlined out before I begin, though things seldom go to plan. Even when I've set out to follow a structure to the letter, the act of draft surfaces new ideas, characters, or even whole subplots. Such is the joy — and pain — writing.

That said, writing one scene per document, allows easy restructuring on the fly. Generally, I don't start sorting scenes into chapters until I begin the second draft, and for that I use a Binder folder instead of a document. Scrivener doesn't mandate this; I just find it visually neater.

As for the act of drafting itself, Scrivener's really not much different from any rich-text writing app or word processor. Open the document, place your cursor and start writing. As I noted in my last tutorial, you can tweak the UI to go full-screen, use dark mode, and have the text view behave like a typewriter. Explore the app, and tweak it to suit your tastes.

Styles

Although Scrivener is a rich-text editor at its core, it didn't have a native style system until version 3. Previously it relied on the built-in macOS style preset system shared across all native Mac apps.

For the novelist, a robust style system isn't actually all that important. Scrivener worked on the principle that one would draft using a single default style, and then the app would format your manuscript upon compile.

Even with the style system available, I still encourage you to write the bulk of your prose in the default style — No Style.

So, if you're writing a novel, you should format 99.9% prose according to this No Style default. This applies for the use of italics too, if you use them to denote inner monologue — format the text with inline character formatting (i.e. press Cmd/Ctrl I). Don't get smart, don't go down the formatting rabbit hole, don't format your scene breaks or chapter headings — that's all done on compile. As I said in the last tutorial, set up your preferences once and forget about it.

The exception is if your novel includes things like song lyrics, quotes or inscriptions. In my book Cadoc's Contract, the protagonist reads the epithet on a gravestone. I formatted this paragraph using the style Centred Text.

Word counts and targets

We all like word counts and targets. Not only are they are a useful mechanism to track progress and estimate a book's size, but they provide a nice morale boost.



For me, when I plan and draft a story, I block in a target word count of 1500 words per scene. That's not to say a scene can't be more or less; it's merely the convention I've adopted. If you are a Nanowrimo veteran, you might prefer the 1667 daily word count as your benchmark. Setting a word count is straightforward, in an open document, click the word count progress bar at the bottom of the panel and update your word count in the resulting modal window.

Document word count
Document word count

Word counts and targets can also appear in the Outline view, which I find useful to eyeball my progress. Green means you've reached your target.

Word count and target in outline view
Word count and target in outline view

Word count is also cumulative. If I go up a level, the parent folder or document will show the total word count and target.

Outline showing chapter word count and target
Outline showing chapter word count and target

You can also set a goal at the project level by going to Project -> Show Project Targets. The number you set here is independent of the individual document targets you set. You can also set a deadline and Scrivener will automatically calculate the number of words you need to complete each writing session — this is great for Nanowrimo.

Project Targets
Project Targets

Click the Options button to configure your Draft and Session target metrics. The only thing I configure here is to reset my session when I close the project. You also have the option to trigger a new session at a time, or when you open the project on the next day.

Session Target settings
Session Target settings

Notes, comments and keywords

While drafting, I'll often use Scrivener's Notes and Comments to add additional material to an individual document and mark up individual words or sentences with the document itself.

Notes

All documents and folders can contain notes. I use these to store thoughts, bullet points I want to include, bits of dialogue, and sometimes material I've cut. We can add notes in the Inspector, and as far as I can tell there's no limited to the amount of stuff you can throw in there.

What about project-level notes?

A lot of writers might store notes in a more centralised location, like a Notes folder within the Research folder or elsewhere. That's how I've worked for years, but the problem was finding the stuff after I dumped it somewhere.

Scrivener 3 went a long way to help this by overhauling project bookmarks, which provide a means to collating and exposing research material right in the Inspector.

For example, in my Binder, I've got three bookmarked folders for Notes, Characters and Locations. These appear in the Inspector no matter what document I have selected.

Bookmarked notes and references
Bookmarked notes and references

This allows me to look up information while drafting without migrating away from the document or resorting to split-screen. You can even edit the bookmarked document right in the editor which is excellent if you painstakingly keep your reference material up-to-date as your manuscript evolves.



You can even pop the bookmarks out into a floating window, that's Independent of the Inspector. This is useful on a desktop which have larger screens, or if you have the luxury of a second screen.

Bookmarks window
Bookmarks window

Comments

Comments in Scrivener work much as they do in Microsoft Word or Pages, providing a means to mark up your document right at a specific word, sentence or paragraph.

I use comments to add a note to a particular word, sentence or paragraph. Typically, I mark something I need to look up, world-build further, or revisit in a later draft.

Comments are useful for writers who prefer to edit and revise later in a word processor. When you compile a manuscript containing comments to Microsoft Word format, the conversion process retains the comments. Open the complied document in Word, Pages or Google docs, and you'll find your comments waiting for you or your editor.

I almost always create comments by highlighting the word, sentence or paragraph and use the keyboard shortcut (Cmd-Shift-8).

Inspector showing comments
Inspector showing comments

Keywords

Keywords aren't something I traditionally used much, as I relied on well-defined metadata. However, I've seen other authors who've used them for tagging scenes with things like POV or character mentions, and this piqued my interest.

I'm slowly changing my approach, ironically bringing practices I've learnt over from Ulysses, which doesn't have a concept of custom metadata. I've come to like keywords because they are unstructured. Custom metadata is best set up ahead of time, with some thought put into how you will use the feature. Keyword, on the other hand, can be created on the fly and sprinkled throughout the manuscript where you need them.

We can add keywords in the Inspector, and Scrivener tracks all keywords in the Show Project Keywords option, which is handy for changing colours and the name of the keyword itself.

Document and Project Keywords
Document and Project Keywords

Keywords also partner very well with Collections, which I'll address in another tutorial.

What's next

This brings me to the end of this part. As I noted in my last tutorial, Scrivener is a complex app. I've covered a lot

In the next part, I'll take my draft and explore ways on how to revise it into the second draft. After I write the second draft, I share my manuscript with beta readers, so I'll also be covering compiling to Microsoft Word format.

Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!


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  1. Located in /Library/ApplicationSupport/Scrivener/Project Templates 

  2. Located in CUsers\<YourAccount>AppDataLocalScrivenerScrivenerProjectTemplates 

  3. Yes, the whole series is contained within a single project. 

Read Cadoc's Contract