Scrivener: Sculpting a Story

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Do you write your novels? Or do you sculpt it out of words?

I’ve been working with Scrivener for about two years now, and on my current WIP, it’s finally starting to feel normal. In fact, it’s changed the way I work.

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Before Scrivener

My working method in the before Scrivener days was a mixture of outlining and pantster. I outlined the story, wrote about half of it, stopped to re-outline and then wrote some more. Sometimes, I had to re-outline several times before I made it through a full draft.

Writing in Scrivener enables innovative methods of working. Try it to see your options! | DarcyPattison.com

After Scrivener

For a while, the same process carried on. But my current WIP has been different.

Scrivener is a complicated, multi-faceted program. It’s such a different program from writing in a word processor like MSWord, and so complex, that when I bought the program, I immediately took an online class with Gwen Hernandez (NOT an affiliate link, just a satisfied customer!). She takes you through the many elements that are possible when you use Scrivener.

One of the best things that Gwen said to me was to keep an open mind about how to use the program. She said don’t decide how to use some element of Scrivener. Instead, just work. As you’re working, when you need something – THEN decide how to accomplish what you want, using one of the available options.

The program has so many possibilities, for example, on how to mark up a file so you can find it later: file name, synopsis or summary of the contents, color-coding, notes and so on. You can look at it as if the chapter were file cards, or look at each discrete file, or look at them as a continuous text. What makes sense to one person would confuse another.

It reminds me of my daughter in Algebra class in high school. Her teacher required the dreaded notebook check. My daughter was required to keep every piece of paper given as notes or homework and organize them interleaved in a daily fashion. However, to her, it made more sense to keep the notes in one section by date, and the homework in another section by date. When she turned in her notebook–even though she had every single piece of paper required and organized in a logical way–she was given a zero. She refused the opportunity to reorganize it because, to her, it didn’t make sense.

That’s the beauty of Scrivener. You can organize it YOUR WAY!

How Scrivener is Changing My Writing Process

The biggest change is working in the Scrivener Binder. This time, it feels like I’m sculpting a story. Using the binder, I created 4 acts and set up files with names of what I expected to happen. Using either the Hero’s Journey or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat outline method–sometimes a combination of both–I knew that at a certain point in the story, the main character had to face the villain. In another place, he could relax a bit and enjoy the new world into which he’d traveled. And so on.

That means the binder was a sort of loose outline for what should happen in a well-plotted story.

For a couple chapters (or maybe they’ll be scenes and be combined into a chapter–everything is loose right now), I wrote. But then, I started working all over the binder. I’d write a scrap of dialogue in one place, then jump down to another section and write a reaction to that dialogue. Exciting descriptions were added in appropriate places, then revised to fit the action that was added later.

Without Scrivener’s Binder, I’d be totally lost! With it, I’m able to walk around the story and look at its shape. It feels rather like a sculptor who takes a wire frame and adds clay to rough out a figure. Then, the sculptor refines a bit on the hands, skips to shape of the head, and approximates the way the clothing drapes the body. All the while, I”m walking all around the story, looking at it from different angles and seeing where things connect. Taking off bits here and adding bits there.

For example, an important plot point at one spot was that a supporting character was sick because of anemia. There was an Ah-Ha! moment when I realized that the anemia would get worse. In fact, it could get so bad that she’d need a blood transfusion. Who would be available for that? Since the main character is an alien, he couldn’t donate blood! Her estranged mother, of course, would be the poignant choice. But it had to all happen in the midst of a hand-to-hand combat. Can you see the scene? The doctor–under less than ideal conditions–is trying to put a needle in the mother’s arm to collect blood and as soon as there’s a full bag, well–you know that in fiction, everything has to get WORSE for the main character, right–so the fight gets too close and the bag of blood is split open and they have to start over again. Because the girl is so sick that she needs the blood NOW, or else.

That connection was amazing. The choice of anemia as the illness was a spur of the moment choice, in the midst of trying out some ideas about illnesses. Then, when the anemia needed to worsen (or she needed a different symptom of the illness), it made sense to take it to the extreme and to plop it down in the midst of an action scene to make it more urgent. The estranged mother made it more poignant.

Ah, but where did the estranged mother come from. In other words, I had to track her throughline in the story and account for her movements in every scene. Or else her presence in this crucial scene would feel wrong. How could she contribute to the ongoing scenes I had planned. Obviously, she’s a supporting character and not the main character. When and how would her presence make the story stronger? The question sent me skipping around the scenes in the Scrivener binder again.

The point is that this process is leading me to see things afresh and find unexpected options, which make perfect sense in the context of the story. Had I been writing chronologically, the connection may or may not have happened. I think not.

This method of working is fascinating.

It’s been hard to give myself permission to skip around like this. I’m really enjoying writing this story and hopefully, one day, you’ll enjoy reading it.

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5 Comments
  • Gwen Hernandez
    March 31, 2016

    I love this, Darcy! What a great approach to your writing. I’m so glad the class was helpful for you and that you’re using Scrivener with confidence. (And thanks for the mention. ;-) ) Good luck with the manuscript!

  • Karen Newcombe
    March 31, 2016

    What a great post! I’ve been wondering how other people who use Scrivener manage the difference between a scene and a chapter — they are often not the same thing at all. A chapter break may come in the middle of a scene, or a long scene could take up several chapters. If I’m outlining the scenes in Scrivener, do I need to plan the chapters as well? Or let them emerge organically once the thing is further along? This post definitely give me ideas for looking at the manuscript in a more 360 fashion. Thanks!

  • David
    March 31, 2016

    How DID you track the mother’s through line within Scrivener? I’ve been trying to figure out a good way to do this.

  • Darcy Pattison
    April 1, 2016

    Karen:
    I’m just letting the scenes/chapters emerge orgaincally. As Gwen said, when you get to the point where you feel like you need something, Scrivener has options!

    Darcy

  • Darcy Pattison
    April 1, 2016

    David:
    In the right hand column, there are lots of options for you to track this.
    SYNOPSIS: You could mention the characters in the synopsis.
    STATUS Labels: While the default is status just as finished, needs work, etc, you can actually change this to anything you want.
    CHAPTER color Labels: You could color code the chapters.
    DOCUMENT NOTE: Add a document note about characters.
    KEYWORDS: You could add each character as a keyword.

    Scrivener gives you so many options!
    Darcy