How I Use Scrivener to Write a Novel Part One

Part Two

* Disclaimer – I no longer use Scrivener. I now use LibreWrite. While I’m thrilled if you enjoy this post about Scrivener, I really can’t help you with any questions on it. Scrivener is a great program if you are on Mac or Windows, but now I’m on Linux and there is no official Linux port. Please don’t ask me for advice on this post from 2012.

When you are first starting out writing a novel and are not set in your ways, you tend to look closely at how other writers ply their craft. This includes how they structure their novels and what software programs they use. Every writer is different and we all have our own way of doing things. The only way you are going to discover what works for you is to try the methods that others use and see if you like them.

For this post I’m showing screen shots of my actual Work In Progress (WIP), the Space Opera novel, Starveyors. There may be spoilers in the images. If you are a reader and don’t want to have the story ruined for you, perhaps you should skip this post. I’ll do my best to not show critical moments, but if you study these images, you could glean quite a bit about the story. You have been warned.


Many writers have discovered Scrivener and have adopted it as their primary writing tool. I first used it while it was still in beta and realized that the programmer behind it really understood a writer’s needs. There were other Mac based writing programs like Scrivener, but Scrivener was clearly the better of them in my mind. When it finally was available for purchase I began using it for several of my novels.

Scrivener was born on the Mac platform and has now been ported to Windows. The Windows version is slightly behind the Mac in features, but its completely usable and stable. The Windows version has been ported to run on Linux with Wine. Right now its only available as a beta download and expires after a couple of months. So in order to use it on Linux, you have to re-install it periodically. It is also not officially supported by Literature and Latte.

You can get Scrivener for Linux here:

You can get Scrivener for Windows and Mac here:

The Windows and Mac versions are free for a trial period but once you decide to go with them, the price is only $40.00 USD. Quite the bargain, if you ask me.

Setting Up Scrivener

I’m not going to do a basic Scrivener tutorial in this post. There are many such tutorials available on the web, including some great screen casts on the Scrivener web site. I will assume that you already know your way around the program and are more interested in how I use it to write a novel.

Everyone uses this program in their own way and few of us use all the features so if I fail to mention something that you find critical, tell me about it in the comments and then we’ll all know about it.


The first thing I do when I start a new novel in Scrivener is create templates for scenes and for character sketches. The scene template is called every time I start a new scene and it has the font that I prefer to write in. That way I don’t have to reset all that for each scene I write.

Scenes are the component parts of a chapter. Chapter One: Scene 1 – the maid finds a body; Scene 2 – the police show up; Scene 3 – Our intrepid detective arrives and discovers a clue. End of Chapter One. In this example it’s pretty clear the order of the scenes. But when you are deep in a novel and the scenes are not always as obviously sequential, it helps to be able to reorder them. Many times each scene is in a different location or takes place at a different time, like our Mystery example.

Scrivener keeps all these scenes as separate files so that you can move them around in whatever order you like. Then it binds them all together in the compile stage to create the linear story that is a proper novel. That’s a different way to go about things than forcing you to write in order, just like the reader reads it. Word and other word processors are linear and less forgiving when you want to switch around the order of your scenes.

The Character Sketch I use is the default one that comes when you start a novel project in Scrivener. I just fill it in and add to it as needed. Same for the Setting Sketch template. Here is a shot of my current templates. All three are under the Template Sheets folder in the Binder – screen left bottom, highlighted. * Click on all images for larger versions.

When you start a new chapter folder and go to add a document, you can then select your Scene Template and its already set up the way you like it. Very convenient.

Character Sketches

A bit more about the Character Sketches. Below is a view of the sketch I started for Pentos, a politician in Starveyors. I don’t have a photo of anyone who looks like Pentos but if I did, I would put it in that black box to the right. Sometimes the Document Notes will have some ideas for scenes with Pentos. Right now it’s blank.

I try and do Character Sketches for all the main characters and all the characters involved in subplots. For a Space Opera novel, this can create a rather large cast. Sometimes I forget character names and or what they do, so these sketches come in handy for quick reference while writing. I have my cast broken into Good Guys, Bad Guys and Silicants. Sometimes I have a Grays folder, for those characters who are not quite good and not quite bad.

Another trick is to use the Keywords feature of Scrivener to hold the character names. I’ve just started to mess with that feature so I can’t speak about it much at this time.


There is another folder in the Binder that is for storing Images. I usually create the same folders I used for Character Sketches and add a few more folders for Maps, Characters and Starships. Remember, I write the Space Opera stuff, so sometimes I draw pictures of ships and especially maps.

In the Characters folders I sometimes use images from around the net that I find while browsing. Could be an interesting face or an unusual outfit. This is pretty much just an inspiration art folder. I’m not an artist in real life, but sometimes I pretend I am on my own computer. I’m likely to include doodles I’ve done on pencil and paper in these folders too. Just scan them or take digital pictures of the drawings and slot them into the right folder for inspiration when I’m writing.

The one thing I use the heck out of is a map. Specifically a map of my known universe. The map I use for the Star Trilogy has been handed down to me by the Gods as an old, bitmap rendering in Microsoft Paint. I have used a paper copy of that map forever. Last year I finally recreated it using a vector line based program. As far as maps go it is not very impressive. But when you write about multiple planets and empires in space, you better know where your towel is, I mean map. Here is my shinny new map. Good guys in blue and bad guys in red. Undiscovered or unnamed planets are black.

Scrivener also includes a Places folder where you can include templates for locations. This is really handy in Space Opera as I’m often traveling to many different planets and starships during the course of the story.


I’m all about outlining my novels. If I were to pants them, it would take me years to do a single novel. I start with a basic three act structure in a txt file and then throw in plot points. I usually have a main character arc in there to start with and then add in the minor character arcs and subplots as I think of them. Standard story creation stuff.

Before Scrivener I would start an outline in Excel and break it down by chapter. Hitting all the main plot points along the way. Then later on, I would break each chapter down into several scenes. A spreadsheet was useful for this as it let you keep adding or subtracting scenes and chapters as needed.

Scrivener has a built-in outline program and the cool thing about using it over a spreadsheet, aside from the fact that its built into the writing tool, is that you can move your scenes and chapters around as you see fit, much easier than you can in a spreadsheet. In fact you can even view chapters and scenes as note cards and pin them to a cork board and then move them around as necessary.

To be honest, I don’t use it that way at all. I could do without the cork board myself. But the outline is the bee’s knees. To each his or her own. I can see Pantsers really loving the cork board.

Above you see the completed first part of my outline for Starveyors. Since these chapters were written months ago, they are pretty well locked down. So I numbered the scenes sequentially like in a movie script. But further down the outline, where things are more fluid, the scenes are just lettered. Sometimes they are not even in alphabetical order.

When I’m developing the outline I make a point to describe every chapter and scene in the Synopsis area top right of screen. This actually helps you do a decent Synopsis when you are finished. Especially if you make them readable.

I use the Document Notes area in yellow, as a place to jot notes about the scene or chapter so I can remember important bits of plot or character. Every scene has a purpose and sometimes I just write that in the notes area. Hero’s mother dies from wounds sustained by ruthless Sandpeople. Oops, wrong story.

In the General meta data area between the Synopsis and the Notes I just mark scenes as you see in the image. Scene color is blue, First Draft checked and Include in the compile. Nothing unusual there.

I’m going to cut this short here and save the rest for Part Two. This post is already getting a bit long. I blame the screen shots. Anyway, come back for more later.

Part Two