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Plotting a Novel with Scrivener

Here’s how to set up Scrivener’s Binder to prepare to write a novel.

Many writers are pantsers: they don’t plan their novels, letting the plot go where their characters take them; they write by the seats of their pants. Other writers are planners, who create outlines for novels before they start writing. These outlines don’t have to be detailed, and may only contain the key points of their novel, allowing the writer to be flexible as new ideas arise.

If you’re thinking of writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in November, you can use either of these approaches. If you are a pantser, then just write. If you’re a planner, here’s how you can prepare your Scrivener project so, on day one, you can start writing.

Different story structures

There are many different story structures that you can use to plan your novel: the three-act structure, the seven-act structure, or you could use the Save the Cat story structure, which goes into more detail, breaking down a novel’s plot into 15 beats or plot points.

You don’t have to follow any of these approaches, but there are a number of elements you need to include in any novel. At the most basic level, you need a situation, a problem, and a solution. A protagonist is in a certain situation, a problem arises, and they have to solve it. Novels require that a problem be solved, or that conflict be resolved. The protagonist, or hero/heroine, overcomes some difficulty to achieve a goal. (To be fair, experimental fiction exists without these elements.)

However, achieving a goal might not be enough for a good story. For a novel to be satisfying, the protagonist has to change, to grow, to learn from their experiences. They have to interact with other characters, sometimes an antagonist, and they have to make discoveries and have adventures. These adventures don’t have to be the kind where they have to take a ring of power to a mountain to destroy it; an adventure in a romance novel can be a relationship, which may or may not work out.

The key elements of plot

A novel begins with a character in a situation. The character may be in stasis at the beginning of a novel, and what is needed for a story to begin is an inciting incident. This is the moment that a story begins. The inciting incident pulls the protagonist out of the status quo and plunges them into the world of the story.

Sometimes the inciting incident is in the first line of a novel, such as in Paul Auster’s City of Glass, where the inciting incident occurs in the first sentence, and the author tells us so. “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.” In The Maltese Falcon, the inciting incident occurs on the first page, when Sam Spade’s secretary, Effie Ferine, comes into his office and says, “There’s a girl wants to see you. Her name’s Wonderly.” In romance fiction, the inciting incident could be a meet-cute that occurs on the first page, or in the first chapter.

In some cases, a lot of setup is needed before the inciting incident. For some stories, there needs to be enough exposition so, when the inciting incident occurs, readers understand everything needed to make the story flow. In the first Die Hard movie, the inciting incident occurs about 23 minutes into the film (the entire runtime is 132 minutes). We see the main characters, John McClane and his wife, we learn about their estrangement, we see the Christmas party at the Nakatomi offices, and all of this builds up so, when Hans Gruber and his henchmen arrive, we’re familiar with the layout of the building and many of the minor characters.

From this point, the plot develops through a series of events, most of which contain exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Depending on the length of a novel, there can be one set of these events or many. The Lord of the Rings has dozens of events during this phase, but most novels only have a few. Thrillers tend to have many such elements, whereas some novels spread this section out more slowly, allowing there to be more time to discover characters.

Eventually, a novel leads to its crisis. This is the do-or-die moment (literally or figuratively), where the protagonist has to make decisions that lead to the resolution, or dénouement, where plot threads are tied up, and the protagonist realizes what they have achieved, both externally and internally.

Preparing a plot in a Scrivener project

When preparing a Scrivener project for a plot structure, you can use the Binder, Outliner, or Corkboard, or combine all three. You can plan ahead, as in this example using the Save the Cat story structure:

You can prepare each element of your plot, with the understanding that these may change, and you may add, remove, or rearrange the different sections as you progress. But if you are a planner, having your Binder set up in advance can help you move ahead more quickly as you write.

Also, you may decide that you don’t feel ready to write certain scenes of your novel. Since you’ve already prepared the Binder for your overall structure, you can go ahead in the story and write a different scene, then come back when you’re ready to the one you skipped.

If you are doing NaNoWriMo, remember that the goal is not to write a finished novel in one month. What you do in November is write as much as you can, every day if possible, and try to attain 50,000 words. But you don’t have to write from beginning to end, and Scrivener allows you to move around in your manuscript, according to what you want to write, and still have a solid plot structure serving as a skeleton for your novel.

And check out our recent episode of the Write Now with Scrivener podcast, where fantasy and science fiction author Mary Robinette Kowal talks about how she starts all her novels during NaNoWriMo, and our episode where we interviewed Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo.

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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