Using Scrivener for non-linear writing

Hi everyone

A request for help with my research project :slight_smile:

I’m currently doing a research project for my online MA in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University (Leicester, UK) exploring the best tools for developing non-linear interactive narratives for the web (and to a lesser extent games). I’ve only recently started using Scrivener but so far I’m enormously impressed and I’ve discovered lots of great features - or ways of using them - that really assist non-linear writing. Here are my favourites so far:
Index cards in corkboard mode - shuffling cards around, seeing the bigger picture at-a-glance
Synopsis on index cards
References - especially internal links and the way they open up in split pane view
Keywords, keyword searches and keywords HUD and the ability to drag a selection of keywords onto an index card
Labels, colour-coded, and being able to tint icons
Status list - an extra layer of structural categorizing/tagging
Binder, folder and document structure
MultiMarkdown - haven’t got so far as using this yet, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to export my internal linking structure to HTML when I’m ready.
I’d really appreciate any comments - or any hints and tips - especially if you know of a useful feature that I’ve missed!

Also it would great if you would share your experiences of using Scrivener with me - especially anybody using it in a non-linear way, e.g. writing for web sites, writing for other interactive media, creative project planning, research, or simply note-taking and collecting stuff for any purpose in a non-sequential way.

P.S. Research ethics - I’d like to be able to use quotes in my written research, so please let me know if you’d rather not be quoted, or would prefer to remain anonymous (i.e. not identified by your forum username). Also, if you participate, you have the right to see any records relating to your involvement in this research.


You should take note of the new (1.0.3) scrivener link notes functionality (command-L). One could easily use this function to construct a narrative that was structured like a binary tree. Known in the literature of Oulipo as a binary story; in popluar culture, a choose-your-own-adventure.


P.S. All writing of any scale is non-linear. It is only the final words that come in linear order.

Thanks Greg, for the tip about scrivener link notes - that’s very useful.

It’s true that probably all writing is non-linear in the drafting stage - one of the reasons why scrivener is such a great writing tool - but for most forms of writing the aim is to end up with a linear structure. What I’m particularly interested in is using scrivener to develop writing that remains non-linear in its published form.

But I’m also interested in anyone’s thoughts on the way they work on their writing in a non-linear way, whatever the intended form of the final output.

For instance, many writers, particularly of fiction, will start writing at the beginning of their story and go on until they get to the end. Stephen King is one such writer - according to his book ‘On Writing’ he rarely does any plotting. If you’re this kind of writer (I don’t mean like S. King, I mean a start-at-the-beginning type), you may not need an app. like scrivener. I suspect scrivener is most useful for writers who construct their narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, in a non-linear way - building it up like a jigsaw perhaps. What do you think?


I used to write beginning-to-end, but the past few years my style has changed quite a bit. Scrivener has made it easy for me to write out a particular part of a book I got a sudden idea for, and then stash it away project until I get to that part in the main draft - without having to create a separate file for it or have it cluttering up my main draft.

I’ve also played around with (not too seriously, I fear) writing cutscenes and in-game narratives for a computer game a friend of mine is visualizing (whether or not he ever gets around to actually making it is another matter… :wink: ) It’s handy to have Scrivener’s non-linearity ability for that, too, because the game is non-linear as well, and each scene or bit of dialog can be kept in an easily portable document of its own within the major project.

Yes Khadrelt, I find the combination of the binder and the index cards on the corkboard really helpful when it comes to the portability of ideas, scenes or story fragments. It’s so easy to shift things around without losing anything or getting in a tangle.

Has your style of writing changed because of using Scrivener? Or did the change in writing style come first and then you looked for a writing tool that was more suited to your new style?


Actually, my change in style is what made me start looking for a writing app like Scrivener. I used to work in Word, and I found myself creating ‘notes’ documents for my books in which I’d keep fragments of later scenes that popped into my head. I decided that wasn’t really working for me, so I started looking for a different kind of application.

My second prompting for a new kind of writing tool was my eternal nemesis - deciding where to make chapter breaks. I don’t write in chapters; I write out the whole book and then cut it into chapters later, which is really annoying to do with one long document. With Scrivener I can keep each scene in its own document, and the Binder provides a great visual layout, making the dividing process much easier.

Now I just need to find an application that will come up with good titles for me…

Same here. After studying and then teaching literary nonfiction, I needed to build those kinds of stories around scenes instead of thematic outline points. Scenes, of course, can be moved around, whereas most of the standard articles I write are pretty linear. I certainly don’t NEED Scrivener to write and juggle scenes, but it sure makes it easier. (I’m sure it’d be even easier if I could just figure out how to use the Corkboard in my process instead of just the Binder.) Then I found that Scrivener made standard journalistic writing easier as well. Now I use it for everything.

Incidentally, I posted a notice about Scrivener on a literary nonfiction journalists list and several members have reported being fascinated by it. Then some of the non-Mac types complained that there was nothing like it for their inferior platform, which led to a discussion about some Windows alternatives. My suggestion: get a Mac, run Scrivener.

Over the past week or two I’ve been using Scrivener to develop my non-linear interactive fiction for the web and comparing it to other software (e.g. Copywrite, VoodooPad, OminiGraffle) and Scrivener has quickly become my writing tool of choice. I’m using it in combination with a trusty (non-digital) whiteboard and post-it notes for mind-mapping ideas and working through structural possibilities quickly, which is working very well for me. The whiteboard is useful because it helps me visualise a network of narrative possibilities, but I also find Scrivener’s Corkboard extremely useful for giving a project overview.

Thinking about stories in terms of a collection of fragments or scenes is a big part of my approach, so it’s really interesting to me that others are constructing their writing out of fragments and/or scenes too.



I find the Corkboard really useful because I like to use the Synopsis feature to add depth or nuance to the scene/fragment title. Then I shuffle the index cards around to explore their different relationships to each other. Often it throws up new ideas and other times it suggests different ways of structuring the project.

Another really useful aspect of the Corkboard is that if you assign keywords to scenes, when you hover over the index card a little pop-up appears showing the keywords. It’s also really easy to assign keywords to index cards on the Corkboard simply by dragging them from the Keywords HUD panel to the appropriate card.

Thanks for explaining how your process works. I can see how Scriv would be quite helpful in non-linear writing, and I’m beginning to appreciate how the Corkboard might help when I return to my book in progress. A book offers are more options than an article for placing various scenes, and the flexibility the Corkboard (and Scriv in general) affords in allowing me a quick overview could be very useful there. I think I just need to force myself to try it rather than automatically relying on what’s already a terrifically efficient structuring process via the Binder.

In fact, thanks to this and a wonderful earlier post (whose author I’ve forgotten, sorry) I’m resolved to try using the notes and synopsis fields to make my outline (viewable in the Outliner and Corkboard) and then write each scene or exposition section in each document. That will allow me to skip the superfluous intermediate outline step, as I think Keith intended from the outset.

Keep those scenarios coming! Every time I read a tip like this, I’m more more impressed with Keith’s foresight and his program’s flexibility – plus its users’ ingenuity. thanks.

I’ve been thinking about this process of writing in fragments or scenes, of building a collection of fragments and, as Keith says, ‘putting it all together like a jigsaw.’ This seems to me to be a very natural and productive way to approach almost any kind of writing project.

Until I started writing for the web, everything I wrote (articles, stories, screenplays) was linear, but I often felt that the narratives, whether fiction or non-fiction, could have been structured in any number of ways and it’s only the demands of the final published/produced form that dictates a linear arrangement. It may be just a personal quirk of mine, but it often felt like a bit of a straitjacket, having to come up with a definitive linear form - this is the way the story must be; rather than, this is one way the story could be, this is another way the story could be, and here’s another…

I suspect that other writers have felt a similar frustration which has led them to experiment with the linear form, e.g. telling the same time frame events from multiple points of view - e.g. 1950s Japanese film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa or Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train. Or for another twist on retelling the same time frame story, how about the wonderful comedy Groundhog Day (although this clearly has a linear progression)?

Of course, many times linear is the only way a story should go otherwise it loses its power. But does anyone else, especially when they’re writing in fragments/scenes, find the imperative of finding the ‘perfect’ linear order of events frustrating?


Now, with a fifth novel ready to be tidied up for what I hope is the last time, I don’t even think about putting my scenes in order until about half-way through.

I used to start at the beginning and grind away, and thank heavens I don’t anymore. I would wind up with the same result, I think, but it was a much more arduous process and I would inevitably struggle with a block or a chapter that didn’t seem to lead anywhere.

Now I just write my scenes and let them accumulate. They start generating their own connection points rather quickly. It sounds random, but when all is done I throw away less material than I do with the grind away method.

My own fondness for the “jigsaw method” is probably why I fell in love with Scrivener so quickly, since Scrivener is tremendously helpful that way.