My Writing Process: How I Use Scrivener to Outline My Novels

My Writing Process, Pt. 1 of 2: How I Use Scrivener to Outline My Novels

My writing process is a continually evolving thing. Not only does every new story require a slightly different approach–and not only am I constantly learning and refining–but sometimes a new tool comes along and completely revolutizes the whole system. That’s what the writing software Scrivener has done for my writing process this past year.

Scrivener LogoFor years, I’ve been extremely happy with the free organization program yWriter. One of my mottos has always been, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Besides, I kept hearing about Scrivener’s steep learning curve. As much as I love new techie stuff, I kept thinking, I don’t have the time for that! But so many of you Wordplayers kept asking me about it that I finally broke down and bought it.

Three words: Blew. My. Mind.

Seriously, it was as if the designers looked into my brain and took notes while I was outlining my novels–and then designed my dream word processor. Kinda like Extreme Home Makeover–but for writers.

However, it is true there’s a bit of a learning curve. The program is tremendously detailed and thorough. It offers you just about any organizational tool your little heart could imagine–and if you’re like me (and Han), you can imagine quite a bit! So in the interest of helping you take full advantage of this tremendous resource, today and next week I’d like to offer a sneak peek under the hood of how my writing process works when using Scrivener.

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. WeilandThis is how I use Scrivener to outline my novels, using the approach I talk about in my book Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to SuccessThis post isn’t going to teach you how to use Scrivener, so it does presuppose you have some understanding of how the basic features work (e.g., the Binder and Inspector). My goal here is to show you how I actually use the features when outlining. I’ll be using my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer in the example photos. Click on any photo for a larger view.

My Writing Process, Step 1: General Sketches

My first step in outlining is to simply get my ideas for the plot and the character arcs onto paper and start working my way through the plot holes and questions until I have a viable story. This is where I will start figuring out all the major plot points in my story structure. I like to do all my brainstorming longhand in a notebook, and I use a color-coded highlighting system to help me know what I want to transcribe into Scrivener later–and what folder to put it in.

Story Summary

I start with a summary of the story. Usually, this is something I wrote long ago, when the story idea first solidified for me. I stick this in a document at the top of the Binder, so I can refer to it to keep me on track throughout the outlining process. Plus, it’s just fun to get to put some words in the file right from the start!

Scrivener Wayfarer Summary


Structure Folder

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165And then it’s time to start figuring out the story in earnest. Once I’ve worked out the basic shape of the plot, I start figuring out how to fit into the three-act structure (which, of course, I talk about in my other book Structuring Your Novel). In Scrivener, I create a folder called “Structure” and sub-folders for each of the primary structural turning points. This isn’t my actual outline per se, as much as it is just rough notes to guide me when I start fleshing out the outline in detail. I keep this file and all outline-specific files in the Research folder.


I use short summaries of each section, so I can view them at a glance in the corkboard section. (I’ve blurred out most of the cards, because, you know, spoilers!).


Theme File

Theme is something I start working out early in the process, since it’s so inherently linked to the character arcs. I create a separate file for that as well, so I can have easy access to any pertinent thematic notes that don’t fit elsewhere.


Scrivener Tip Corkboard Settings


Orange Notes

“Orange Notes” are how I refer to any pertinent information that doesn’t have an obvious home somewhere else in my outline notes. I call them this because they are highlighted in orange in my notebook. They get their own folder in the Research section as well.


My Writing Process, Step 2: Character Sketches

Outlining Your Novel WorkbookOnce I have a basic sense of the entire plot, I move on to Character Sketches. This is where I will interview my characters, using the list of 100+ questions (which you can find in Outlining Your Novel or the Outlining Your Novel Workbook). I create a folder for Characters, then a sub-file for each major character. Scrivener offers the opportunity to include photos, so I always add the actor I’ve cast as the character.


I also add a file indicating the major archetypes I want to include and which character fulfills which role.


Minor Characters

I like to keep my minor characters in a separate folder in order to streamline the appearance of the Binder and keep my major characters easily accessible. I also include a folder for “Unused Characters,” whom I may have dreamed up early in the outline but never found a home for in the actual story.


Scrivener Tip Keywords


My Writing Process, Step 3: Settings and Other Considerations

I also create folders for Settings, Costumes, Animals, and Vehicles (and Weapons, if appropriate). I collect images of each of these as needed while outlining, so that I have a visual library to draw from when writing.


Scrivener Tip Images


My Writing Process, Step 4: Extended Outline

Finally, I’m ready to start my Extended Outline–the nitty-gritty of the outline itself. This is where I work out the story, chapter by chapter–paying attention to the structure of each scene (goal, conflict, disaster) and sequel (reaction, dilemma, decision). Once I’ve completed the Extended Outline in my notebook, I’ll transcribe the pertinent notes (which I highlight in blue) to Scrivener. I use Dragon Naturally Speaking for this step, to save the wear on my wrists from all that typing.

Chapter Folders

This is where I move up into the actual Manuscript section of the Binder and start creating the folders that will become my chapters. I start by creating master folders for the major structural sections, then subfolders for each chapter and files within those folders for each scene. I generally break the scenes into multiple files–one for the scene and one for the sequel.


Scrivener Tip Changing Icons



The Synopsis section of the Inspector is where I record the actual structure of the scene, as well as the date and time in which the scene is taking place.


General Meta-Data

Below that, in the General Meta-Data section, I use the color-coded labels to indicate whether the file holds a scene, a sequel, or both.


Document Notes

Finally, the Document Notes section at the bottom of the Inspector is where I type in the entirety of my outline notes for each scene.


My Writing Process, Step 5: Research

While not actually a part of what I consider the “outlining” phase, I’ll also mention research in this post, since it has to take place before the first draft begins. I create a master folder for my research, then subfolders for each category to allow for easy reference. I also add a master file at the top that records my bibliography.


Scrivener Tip Matching Styles



My Writing Process, Step 6: “Read This” Document

Finally, I add a Read This document at the very top of my manuscript–titled all in caps. This will contain any pertinent notes I want to make sure I’m keeping in mind as I write.


Scrivener Tip Project Notes


Once I’ve completed all that, I’m locked and loaded and ready to start writing! Click here to learn how I then use Scrivener when I’m actually writing my first draft. I hope this will benefit you in finding the right process to organize your own outline notes in Scrivener and use this powerful program to up your writing game!

Tell me your opinion: What is your writing process for organizing your story notes?

My Writing Process, Pt. 1 of 2: How I Use Scrivener to Outline My Novels


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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Your post is very timely for me! I have a similar process as you do when writing, with several file folders starting with the first ‘brain dump’ then drilling down to separate folders for characters, setting, research, plot, etc. I’m just now going through the tutorial for Scrivener and hope to transfer all the files very soon as I begin work on my next novel. It’s exciting and a bit scary to change but I think it’ll be a very effective tool for me.

    I was signed up for your webinar this week but I’m in Thailand so it would have been 3 am my time. I’m looking forward to getting the link to the re-play. Thanks!!!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think you’ll fall in love with Scrivener. Once you get it figured out, it makes everything so much easier.

      Sorry you couldn’t join us for the live webinar! But the replay should be up sometime today.

  2. Thanks so much for this detailed explanation. I use Scrivener, but you gave me some ideas about how to use it better.

  3. Bill Atkinson says

    Thanks for the great post and detailed look at how you have adapted Scrivener to your outlining. Your first book on Outlining has made a huge difference for me in getting my first novel off the ground and now over 100,000 words (I know, I will end up with too many words but it is easy to cut stuff that doesn’t really do the job than it is to come up with new stuff late in revision I think).

    Just a picky question as I am just working my way into moving my one big Word file of a novel over into Scrivener. I see in your bibliography screen capture that you have an “alphabet code” beside each book: AA, BB etc and then move to AB, AC on the next set. Do you set up that code as a keyword linked to specific scenes? Or what do you use it for, just curious.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Awesome! Glad you found the post useful. Scrivener is so useful, but it *can* be a little overwhelming at first without a little guidance.

      The alphabet code in the research section is actually my shorthand for identifying which quote is from which book. I keep a master bibliography file which assigns a code to each title. Then when I’m organizing my notes according to subject (Clothing, Setting, etc.), I don’t have to type out the book’s title and author next to its quote (in case I need to reference it later); instead, I can just type AA and the page number.

      More on my research system here.

      • Bill Atkinson says

        Thanks KM, good idea and one I will follow myself.

        You should probably get a commission from the Learn Scrivener Fast people, the final tipping point in my decision to to sign into the site was the fact that one of the bonus items was the template you have included on structuring the novel. I have it in my Scrivener now and am populating it with my current draft. Thanks.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Awesome to hear you’re finding the template useful! In full disclosure, I actually *am* a Learn Scrivener Fast affiliate. But I’m very particular about products I affiliate myself with or advertise on the site. I only choose products that I’ve used personally and can wholeheartedly recommend. Obviously, Learn Scrivener Fast earns that! I’d still be just as gung-ho about it even if I wasn’t an affiliate.

  4. Howdy!

    Great post. Lots of good information. You’re a master outliner!
    There’s so much to digest. I’ve got a lot more learning to do with Scrivener.
    You’re quite a sharp cookie. Probably an oatmeal raisin.

    How many scenes do you do in your first, second, third acts?
    How does that break down by chapter?

    Thanks for sharing!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t have a set rule for number of scenes, although I try to get to to even out. For Wayfarer, it worked out to be 50 chapters–usually one scene per chapter.

  5. Mikayla Martin says

    I have to ask, what does “negation of the negation” mean?

    Referring to the highlighted text in your “Theme File” picture.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s a principle from Robert McKee’s classic Story, in which he talks about the need to dramatize the various thematic degrees of the story’s Lie and Truth. For example, in the book these screenshots are from, I’m dealing with a theme of “respect.”

      The basic positive aspect of this is simply respect in general (respect for others, others respecting you, etc.).

      What aspect is then contrary to this idea? In this instance, it would be rudeness (instead of treating or being treated with respect, the response is “harmless” rudeness).

      If we take that still further into an outright contradiction of “respect,” we get its opposite: “disrespect.”

      The “negation of the negation” is then the ultimate low, in which the character himself loses all respect not just for others but for himself: hence, self-disrespect.

      The idea is to present a fully rounded theme by presenting some aspect of all these degrees of the thematic principle somewhere in the story (through minor characters, etc.).

      • Christian Imme says

        This goes nicely with the Dramatica theory for complete stories, I think. Theme (and all the other building blocks of story) are evaluated from all angles without heavy-handed moralism or bias so the author gets his message across more subtle.

        I fiddled a lot with Dramatica because sometimes it can help to spur your creativity when it tells you what topics you should address in which section of your story (great book from Armando Saldana-Mora about this btw. ). However I always come up with several story forms that seem to fit equally well so in the end most times I’m still confused (though on a much higher level 😉 ).

        Have you ever used Dramatica (I mean the software) for your stories?

        Apart from the software I do find the theory quite appealing: the extended archetypes, the blending of 3 and 4 Act structure and the explicit separation of players and characters and Main Character vs. Protagonist (although you risk being killed online by Jim Hull if you happen to misinterpret some part of the theory 😉 ).

      • Story! Great read. Very good information. Although focused on screenplays, it still captures the essence of good story telling.

  6. Christian Imme says

    One tip for the keywords: Keywords are one-dimensional only, despite the pure navigational hierarchies in the project keyword management window. So when assigned to scenes they result in one flat list. But if you prefix your different keyword classes (e.g. characters, settings – and I also use symbols (e.g. “red coat”), items (e.g. “crystal skull”) and contexts (e.g. specific gestures, people adressing a specific topic, etc.) – with a class identifier, then you can easily search for scenes which have a keyword of that specific class at all.

    characters: c:Peter, c:Paul, c:Mary
    settings: s:church, s:dungeon, s:haunted-fortress

    Now you can search for “c:” in keyords only and find all scenes where you have at least assigned one character. Those scenes not returned from search obviously lack a character keyword, although you have to spot them manually. However this is easy when you first multi-select a number of scenes and get less scenes from the following search.

    What I also found useful is to add a few metadata fields:

    ID: to assign each scene a unique ID of some sorts, which will not change even if the scene moves up or down in the scene order and which also lets me refer to a scene when the summary changes, e.g scene [Pete0012].

    Time and Date: I don’t put this info in the card summary because I want to see it in the Outline window simultaneously for all scenes.

    Scene Type: scene or sequel. For the same reason: easy spotting the info in the Outline

    The Label field in my scrivener projects gets redefined to POV, e.g. “Peter 1PP”, “Mary 3PP”, “auctorial”. This gives me the handy coloring feature in Outline and Binder for POV information.

    Also when you export your outline to Excel or so, you can do all sorts of advanced search and filtering having these pieces of information in separated columns instead of being hidden in the summary text.

  7. Excellent Post! I too am a Dramatica fan and see how this fits. Get the spine as you say, fit the bones, and then let your creativity flesh it out. I need to find part2.

  8. Do you still use yWriter in any way? Or have you completely turned to Scrivener?

    Thanks a lot for sharing your process! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s pretty much all Scrivener all the time these days. But I still think yWriter is a great alternative, if you don’t want to shell out the $40 for Scrivener.

  9. BridgeteMarie says

    I have searched and watched Scrivener “How to” many times. Is the data entered into the scene folder suppose to populate the Chapter folder and the Manuscript folder. That is what is happening.

    I have the opening scene in three different folders without my physically doing it. Is that productive? Or a waste of space?

    Thanks for you answer.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’m guessing what you’re seeing is actually just Scrivener showing you the *contents* of the overarching files. All the Chapter folders are in the Manuscript folder, and all the Scene files are in the Chapter folders. So when you click on a master folder, it shows you all the contents.

  10. BridgeteMarie says

    OK. Thanks for the answer. When I first got Scrivener, for some reason I could only enter in Corkboard and the Inspector. The Editor panel would not accept input as if it were write protected.

    I’m entering on another Mac and creating folders. I am re-entering the binder info from the laptop to the desktop. So the multple places made me wonder if that was normal.

    To see the completed first draft (which needs more dialogue) I have to look at corkboard. Clicking on the page icon to the left (inspector is on my right) gets me about half of the story in the editor window.

    I am not very good at reading instructions. I did learn to knit from a right handed book which was quite confusing for a leftie.

    Thanks again for responding.

  11. Debbie Emmitt says

    Thank you. I’m blown away by the generosity with which you share your knowledge and experience. I’m a first-time writer with very limited time due to work and two young kids, but have learnt so much through your downloads and podcast. You’ve made the process of honing my writing skills an absolute joy, and an easier road than it could have otherwise been!

    I’ve just downloaded the trial version of Scrivener, and Stuart Norfolk’s fantastic template, which I highly recommend to anyone just starting out with the program, and can’t wait to put all my Word and Excel notes into one place! Thanks again, Katie, you’re a star.

  12. Just started using Scrivener recently—you have done a wonderful job of outlining how to USE the software. Others have described navigating the tech, which is also helpful. You have put the writing back in prime focus.


  13. Hi, K.M!

    Thanks for this guide, it was extremely helpful.
    One question. I noticed you separate scenes and sequels in different files, which I also intend to do. But, when you compile the manuscript, Scrivener detects these files as separate scenes and adds scene breaks. Sometimes I have multiple scenes and sequels within a chapter and I dont want there to be a scene break between scene and sequel (while sometimes I do and is ok in that case). So how would you advice to organize scenes in this case.

    Thank you very much!

  14. Nadia Syeda says

    Sadly, I’m a young girl without a bank account so I can’t buy Scrivener, but this article is still helpful. I have OneNote on my computer, and I’ll be sure to use this structure while I’m outlining.


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