Scrivener Superpowers

How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice

How to Structure Your Story (for Windows)

Why Structure Matters

(For the Mac version of this tutorial, click here.)

In the blank project you created to follow along during the walkthrough, direct your attention to the Binder on the left hand side. Here you’ll create and organize your story and all material related to its development, such as sketches, outlines, research, drafts, and anything else you wish to keep track of.

The Binder is one of the primary advantages of using Scrivener, and it’s the feature that convinces many writers to make the transition to the program from other writing software. The Binder is your writing desk. It allows you to keep all of your work in one place, stay organized with folders and subfolders, and access your work quickly when you need it.

Bird’s-Eye View

Another benefit of the Binder is that it gives you a bird’s-eye view of your story.

Most word processors don’t have a feature that supplies this kind of visual. Instead, a writer must resort to drawing the story structure by hand, stacking sticky notes or index cards, or using a spreadsheet to lay it out. If the structure changes, as it often does while drafting, extra work must be done to maintain that diagram. Scrivener automates this process with the Binder. If you break down your manuscript correctly (which we’ll cover in a moment), you’ll be able to visualize the story with a glance at the Binder. Scenes will be nested into chapters and chapters into parts, according to how your story is structured.

A bird’s-eye view of structure in the Binder empowers you to spot structural issues early on. Once you know your story, you’ll be able to tell where the key moments are (inciting incident, first plot point, climax, resolution, etc.) and whether they fall in the right place to ensure genre-appropriate pacing. If part two of your book seems sluggish, you might look at your Binder and notice that there are significantly more scenes in part two than there are in part one, part three, or part four. Other obvious storytelling problems such as a climax that comes too early or a resolution that drags on too long are also apparent once you know what to look for in the Binder.

To give a specific example, when I finished the rough draft of my first novel I got some editorial feedback indicating in no uncertain terms that my male point-of-view character had an incomplete story. Sure enough, when I analyzed my draft in the Binder, he had fewer scenes and fewer chapters than my female point-of-view character. I hadn’t realized this obvious issue while I was writing the draft, but my readers did. And there it was, plain as day, in the Binder. If I had been using a traditional word processor with no Binder, it would have been much harder to accept. With the visual in front of me, it was easy to evaluate the criticism objectively and take steps to fix the problem.

Required Folders in the Binder

There are three required folders in every Scrivener project.

  1. The Draft or Manuscript folder, which contains all of the chapters and scenes that comprise your story. Consider anything in this folder officially “on the page.” Everything you type in there will be Compiled in the final book file by default.
  2. The Research folder is one of an unlimited number of containers where you store project-related information. Nothing in this folder (or any other folder) goes into the final book file by default.
  3. The Trash is where files go when you delete them. You can empty the trash if you wish to remove these files permanently. Once you empty the trash, there’s no undo button.

You can’t delete these folders, but you may rename them.

The Binder Is Yours to Command

While a default research folder is included in every Scrivener project, there’s no requirement to stuff all your work in there. Create as many new folders and files as you need and organize them however you please.

I like to have separate folders for Research, Characters, and Settings at the very least. I invariably add new folders as the need arises. Here are some examples of other folders I keep in my Binder: cut scenes, old drafts, sales copy and keywords, brainstorming lists, to-do lists, front matter, series arcs, freewriting, ideas, etc.

I’ve done enough work in Scrivener that I like to start with a set of common folders. You can see what that looks like for me by checking out my No Nonsense Novel Template.

How to Structure Your Manuscript Folder

There’s no right or wrong way to structure your research and development folders. There are, however, best practices when it comes to structuring your Manuscript folder.

To get a firm grasp on how Scrivener is supposed to be structured, we have to go back to a basic structural principle of storytelling.

Scenes Are the Basic Unit of Storytelling

Veteran editor and writer Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, writes that the basic unit of storytelling is the scene: “While it can be broken down into its component beats, the scene is the most obvious mini-story.”

Scrivener is also designed using the concept of the scene as the basic unit of storytelling. The program works best when you break your stories out so that each scene is in its own file, and those scenes are arranged into sections/chapter folders which roll up into part folders. That way, when you’re ready to compile, your Manuscript folder is already structured to take full advantage of the Compiler.

How to Structure a Novel

Many novels abide by a simple structure. A number of chapters containing one or more scenes are arranged in order. If your story is using this simple novel structure, your Manuscript folder will be arranged like this:

structure-novel

The way you title your chapter folders will be important during the final Compile process. For instance, you can tell the Compiler to name your chapters based on what you titled your chapter folders. Traditionally, the titles of scenes are left out, so you can simply number them. However, I name them with a simple sentence, like “hero meets villain,” so that I know what they contain. You’ll thank yourself for naming your scenes later if you end up moving them around while you’re revising.

How to Structure a Novel with Parts

A more complex novel will follow the simple novel structure, except those chapters will be arranged into larger containers called parts. If you are writing a novel with parts, use this structure.

structure-novel-parts

Again, as a best practice, name your part and chapter folders how you want them to appear in the final book file. You can number the chapters automatically during the compile process, or choose to use or not use the names of the chapters, parts, and scenes according to your needs. Naming them now will make it easier for you to navigate your book during the writing process.

How to Structure a Nonfiction Manuscript with Parts

A nonfiction manuscript with parts is similar to a novel with parts. Here’s an example of a nonfiction manuscript generated using the Non-Fiction (with Parts) template that comes packaged with Scrivener.

structure-nonfiction-subheaders

In this example, there are several documents that appear in the manuscript before the first chapter begins, and an endnotes file as well. If your book is structured like this, check out the Non-Fiction (with Parts) template to get you started.

How This Book Is Structured

Like the previous example, the book you’re reading is a nonfiction book with multiple parts. Here’s how the first couple parts of this book appear in the Binder:

structure-this-book

Notice how the nesting dictates where the parts are, where the subheadings are, and where the sections are. Unlike a novel, where I only use the chapter names, for nonfiction books I rely on the names of the documents to generate the subheadings in the final book file.

Where to Put Front and Back Matter

In the screenshot above you’ll also see that I have a Front Matter folder.

Front matter is anything that comes before the beginning of your story: a title page, copyright, table of contents, etc. Front matter goes in a separate folder outside the Manuscript folder. Many templates generate front matter templates for you, so I’d recommend opening a few new projects using the templates Scrivener provides and checking them out. During the Compile process (which we’ll cover in detail in a later chapter) you can choose which folder/file to use as the front matter for your compiled book.

Back matter is a bit different. To have files appear at the end of your manuscript, like calls-to-action, teasers of your next book, and your author bio, you have to place those folders inside the Manuscript folder after the last chapter of your book. There’s no place in the Compile process to select what to include as your back matter.

Structure Smart

Break your story down by scene, arrange those scenes into their containing chapters and those chapters into their containing parts, and you’ll be prepared for revisions and the Compiling process later. Not only that, but you’ll automate the diagramming of your story structure and be able to spot problems with your manuscript early.

Click here for the next chapter in the series.

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About Matt Herron

Matt Herron is the author of Scrivener Superpowers: How to Use Cutting-Edge Software to Energize Your Creative Writing Practice. He has a degree in English Literature, a dog named Elsa, and an adrenaline addiction sated by rock climbing and travel. The best way to get in touch with him is on Twitter @mgherron.

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