Plot Outlining vs. Chapter Breaks

Hello fellow Scriveners,

I’m curious how all of you organize your thinking about the difference between a plot structure and setting up chapter breaks. I often outline according to principles of plot structure, but when I get several sections into the writing, that structure doesn’t always make for good chapter breaks. I end up splitting some chapters, merging others together, etc., so my lovely Scrivener structure goes through a lot of modification.

While this is certainly a normal part of the writing process, I’ve been wondering how others do it, and whether someone has some tips or a good method I can learn from.


I started using Scrivener a few weeks ago, so this may be more a matter of posting what I do so that someone more experienced can tell me how to make it better.

The novel I am working on in Scrivener has three main plot threads, so I have set up each thread with a different label, hence a different colour in the Binder list and Outline views.

At present, (70K words) I have 112 “chapters” ie text files, and can use the colours and collections as a way to write or revise a particular thread in sequence, or out of sequence. This helps me maintain consistence of character, setting, timeline, and much more. In the movie industry much of this is called continuity.

My previous method was a frustrating collage of post-its on the wall over my desk.

Gotta love Scrivener.

You don’t have to sacrifice a Binder structure you like to chapter organization. You could instead make a chapter-break document (just contains a placeholder chapter heading*) and duplicate that and sprinkle those docs into the places where you think chapter breaks should go.* They are totally moveable if you change your mind, and you don’t have to re-arrange the Binder from the way you like to think about your story.


  • Such as this which would produce a heading with appropriate chapter numbers: Chapter <$t:chapter>

I play around with chapters and structure by using Collections. They allow me to expierment with the narrative order without affect the original order. There can be many of them so if I don’t like one order I can set up a new one and compare them.

I like to do this, also. It’s very easy when each individual document is one discrete scene. Then you can rearrange the scenes to your heart’s content in Collections and the Binder remains completely intact.

Since I’ve only done short stories and novelettes thus far I have not had to deal with this yet, but I have read of several people and published authors who use that very method for tracking plots and subplots. You can also use the binder feature called “collections” to keep these subplots grouped together, so you can pull up each independently of the overall story, and see how they are developing A-Z. Just name the collection after the subplot it is related to and… hand waves

I have only recently begun testing the novel and novella waters, so the thought of using collections to help with establishing chapters had not yet occurred to me. Thanks for the tip ^^

And yes, the single greatest joy of Scrivener for me IS the being able to break everything down to the most basic unit of the scene <3

As was - and still may be - the British novelist Will Self’s:

I just finished the second draft of my first novel; I’m not sure I have tips, but I am happy to share experience and I hope that helps! As background, it is a crossover literary thriller, 22 chapters, 85 “scenes” and 145,000 words (after the re-write).

As a first novel, and having had no creative writing training, this was definitely a voyage of discovery for me. Scrivener, which was created between the two main periods of writing of the first draft, really helped because I hadn’t actually realised that one should write in “scenes”. This is a brilliant basis for real organisation, and the other core Scrivener tools (e.g. binders, collections) build around that. Scrivener has been a powerful friend to me.

However, before getting into Scrivener and actually writing, I have found both in practice and retrospectively, that there are a few conceptual work products needed:

1: biographies of main characters, including how they relate to minor characters
1a: the “dramatic arc” for each character (this again was a revelation to me, and one I kind of worked out as I went along)
2: specific timelines of the key plot threads, and their relationship to real life history (very important in the case of my book)
3: a clear concept of the key themes and the main demonstrations of those - mostly important if you’re aiming at a literary novel
4: a good definition of the key events which will tell the story, detailing the plot, character development, and thematic development. These can provide the base structure for the “post-it notes” or scene cards with which to populate the Scrivener binder and get going.

In reality, I have only found Scrivener of marginal use on point 1 and 3, and no use on point 2. There are timeline software products, and I considered buying Eon, but decided I was too far down the road for it to be useful.

At the outset, I had items 1-3, but not really 4. It was only when I was 60% through the first draft, having restarted writing in 2013, that I was truly able to create the full set of scenes I would ultimately have. Even so, in the second draft I have added 2-3 scenes which I realised were missing, or were useful for entertainment value or character development.

If you have all of this stuff, the question then is, how do I knit it together to make it both coherent and understandable, but also intriguing and dramatic? Telling the plot in a purely linear way is pretty boring, most likely. Note that the joy of a crime novel is the continuous bit by bit revelation of clues, mainly through “flashbacks” experienced through the work of the detective. These clues are never revealed in purely chronological order, and they are sequenced so that there is a rise in tension on the way through.

I found myself organising chapters and scenes around a couple of thoughts:

  1. Some chapters early in the book are entirely focused on the perspective and story of one or other of the three main characters. This establishes who they are, where they are emotionally, and their relationship to the plot and, gradually, to each other. Often I have 3 scenes in a chapter set at very different points in time.
  2. Chapters in the middle section of the book start to blend together scenes focused on the perspective of
    multiple of the key characters. So there may be four scenes, two on one character, two on another. The organising principle turned out to be themes: freedom, lies, truth, etc.
  3. Towards the end of the book, all the chapters contain scenes featuring all three of the characters. In this final act the three days in which all the real present day “action” takes place are played out, but the interweaving of the characters’ scenes and the movement back and forth in time, maintains surprise and suspense.

I found I was able to use the scene set up from the 1st draft 60% version to create a full cork board, and intertwine them according to these principles (actually only clear in retrospect). It held up pretty well, but I have made some significant changes in draft 2, adding 2-3 scenes, and moving some scenes from late in the book to earlier, because they slowed things down in the finale, and add to the clarity of what’s going on in the middle.

Last thing, I also wanted to use the “thriller device” of ending each scene on a bang - a cliff-hanger, or a powerful image or phrase. In my re-write/re-read I came across a few scenes which felt like they went well past the peak, in that regard. I split some of them and in others I just hacked out the stuff after the “climax”. It seems to have increased the pace dramatically.

Sorry this is so long, but hope it is helpful.

Oh, yeah.

It was. Thanks!