Narrative outlines and Scrivener

I know we’re trying to focus on final bug lists for the release but I have an operational question that I hope won’t be too hard to answer.

I’m totally excited by the new version and have actively converted a current novel project for Macmillan to 3.0, that is due for deadline, and I’m glad I did, because the sleek new interface is really helping to bring my chapters together.

Here’s the question:

I’ve always worked off “narrative outlines” for my fiction, that run about 30-40 pages. They are written in “present tense” vs. the “past tense” of the final novel. Therefore, the original narrative outline works as a template for the final chapter, but is separate and distinct and is submitted to the editor months in advance of the final copy.

I’ve struggled to determine the best way of converting a narrative outline to the “final product.” Should I set up my first level file section as the outline, and write the “real” chapter as the second level? Should I attempt to use the synopsis section for the narrative outline? If so, how long can the synopsis be? Can I load the synopsis into an editor?

Or should I build the narrative outline as a separate folder from draft, with it’s own compile format? If so, how can I structure a separate compile format for the narrative outline? It appears the compile app will only compile: the draft folder, individual or selected files, or a composition. It there a way to compile a separate root folder other than draft?

I’m hoping I’m not the only one who faces this challenge, but there seems to be several ways to approach the problem in 3.0 but no real solution.

Any suggestions???

On further research, I may have answered my own questions. There is an excellent gem of information in the new tutorial that may provide the solution to my conundrum. (and potentially others) I highly recommend everyone read the section entitled: “Multiple Books in One Project.”

This provides me with the solution I needed. I can build my narrative outline almost like a separate book, give it its own custom compile parameters, separate and distinct from the main book, so I can present it to my editors. Then, I can link the narrative outline chapters to my “real” novel chapters, via bookmarks and the Quick Reference editors or Copyholders, so that I can begin to rewrite the chapter using the narrative outline as a guide.

Once I figure out the specifics of how this works in Scrivener, I’ll try to write an article for the community, because I believe narrative outlines are a great way to give your editors the information they need to market your book, far in advance of the final draft.

Moved to Using Scrivener forum, since this is a usage scenario applicable to multiple versions. Renamed topic for the same reason.


Katherine, appreciate the heads up, but I might point out that this new “method” of working is only viable and convenient in 3.0, which is why i didn’t manage to figure it out in 1.9. That’s why I posted it in the 3.0 forum. That said, it isn’t really a bug report, so I agree with your decision to move it.

However, I’m not sure where is the best place to post this thread, but it is very “3.0 centric.” Is L&L planning to have a “3.0 specific” forum?

I am curious about two things regarding your use of narrative outlines.

  1. Besides being something you set alongside the chapter you are working on, does that narrative outline literally get turned into chapter text. That is, would you be pasting that text into your working document and working your way through it transforming it in any and every way to become your chapter text? Or is it just a reference?

  2. Why present tense?

I know I should wait for that article for the community — which I do hope you write.


I moved it in part because the same tools are available in Mac Scrivener 3. It may be 3.0-specific, but it’s not Windows-specific. And it’s about a method, not a specific Scrivener command. Hence this is the place for it.

Going forward, any confusion between Win Scrivener 1.9 and 3.0 will sort itself out as more and more users migrate, much as has already happened on the Mac side.


Now that I know the rules for this forum, I’ll try to talk a bit more about narrative outlines. 8)

First, for more information on narrative outlines, I strongly recommend the book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel, by Al Zuckerman. I write Thrillers, and have found outlining to be essential. I didn’t outline my first book and it caused me all sorts of trouble. There’s a constant debate in the industry between “pantsers” and “plotters” as to the best writing method, but I find most thriller writers are plotters and mystery writers can afford to write by the “seat of their pants.”

Why? Thrillers usually contain several plot lines, several points of view, escalating suspense, and complex story lines. Outlines help me in the creative process, and more importantly, help the editor to determine the gist of your story months before the final draft will be available. Since book catalogs must be printed, book covers designed, and salesmen briefed on the main theme of a story far in advance of the book release, the narrative outline provides an excellent “cliff notes” version of the story, for them to use.

Why present tense? Mainly a stylistic decision, but I think it just reads better for an editor. You’re basically telling a professional what you are GOING to write about, so it’s in the present and future. Future tense would be awkward, but present tense makes the story seem more immediate and gripping, IMHO.

Meanwhile, the book itself is basically a story being told by a narrator, (the author) about something that has already happened, hence the typical past tense.

My narrative outlines can typically reach 30-40 pages, so in Scrivener 1.9 I basically wrote them as chapters, one text file per chapter, about one or two paragraphs per chapter. The challenge came when I wanted to start fleshing out each chapter. Converting the existing present tense prose into past tense for the story, seldom works, because you’ll be writing in far greater detail and using a completely different approach to the chapter, so I seldom bother copying the outline text into the real chapter file. But I DO want to see and read the narrative outline while writing the actual chapter.

In 1.9, I used the first level of files under the “manuscript (draft)” folder as my narrative outline chapters, then used the second level of subfolder for the actual chapter. This was tedious because I then had to manually uncheck all the first level files from the compile window. Pretty messy.

3.0 offers so many other approaches, that should make this conversion process easier. I’m still developing a strategy, but suspect it will be something like this:

  1. Create a “outline” folder under “draft” and write the outline as usual, with subfolders as chapters. As noted in the tutorial thread I mentioned above, 3.0 allows you to compile separate folders under draft and treat it as the whole book.

  2. Compile the completed outline using its own custom compile format and send to editor.

  3. Create a new folder, “novel” at the same level as, and above, the “outline” folder to house the real novel. Create all the chapter subfolders under novel that correspond to the outline chapters.

  4. (probably) Bookmark the outline version of the chapter in the REAL novel chapter, then use the Copyholder or Quick Reference windows to view the outline chapter while I’m writing the real chapter.

  5. Compile the final book from the “novel” folder, without the need to manually uncheck folders.

I hope that is helpful and I would love to hear how other writers convert an outline to a finished book!

Thanks for your full and interesting reply!


Thank you for generously sharing this working method with your fellow Scrivenati. I know I’ll find it useful in my own work.
One question: is there maybe a role for Document notes here? For example, pasting the appropriate outline paragraph into the Document Note for each chapter you’re working on?

I think klester’s proposed approach will serve the need better and is more flexible. Particularly since the treatment gets written first and needs to be compiled.