Visual Overview for Character / Theme / Subplot

Hey Keith,

  1. I’ve been a screenwriter for some fifteen years now and after going berserk over almost every standard screenwriting program on the market, I have found my peace at the harbor of scrivener.
    I have read your reasons for not implementing those three or four finishing tools (pagenumbers, scene-numbering), so I won’t bugger about that, and with a just tiny grudge, accept having to going back to my most hated FD on the very last day of work for final formatting. The bottom line is a big Thank You for this application and for the focused, buddah-style way you seem to be going about your work.

  2. There’s one thing I have missed ever since I’ve started writing. I guess there is a reason no-one has ever done it, and it’s quite possible that it’s too complex or too specific a feature for Scrivener, but I’ve been dreaming of this for so long that I feel it’s time to drag it out to discussion:

To get an overview of my actual draft I very often feel the need to get some kind of visual representation of the different story lines. It depends on the project, it might be subplots or lines of character-development, or even the way a certain theme comes up along the way. Not so much in numbers (like those FD statistics that seem designed for some kind of astrophysicists), but in a graphic representation on some kind of timeline. (And I’m not speaking of a timeline displaying the synchronicity of events as in Montage)
Just think of it like the timeline in an video editing application: One track for each story line, marking when and for how long a storyline comes up. Assignable colors, maybe. Right to left represents the overall length of the script.
It would be neat, but not even necessary to have an x-scale for word-/page-/or scene-count. The whole point would be to get an easy overview of how things are distributed, whether something gets lost in the story for too long a time, or other things get to crammed up, or at what point and just how often some issue comes up.
The way screenwriters do this nowadays is by intuition (which is essential, but delicate when you’ve had a drink too much the day before) or by counting pages (which leads back to all those writing-gurus trying to sell their formula, hence FD’s hated statistics feature). A visual approach would provide a quick, intuitive overview at a glance, independent of your total page- or word-count.
Sometimes I do it on paper, but only when I’m really really lost, cause that’s one tedious job.

I’ve imagined it like that:
a) using scrivener’s labels-feature to generate a timeline, based on the draft and on the relationship between, say, scene- and overall-wordcount. This way one would have a multicolored bar, representing the distribution of each label (to be assigned: characters, subplots, themes, etc) with a color, the length of each colored block representing the “weight” of the scene in the total draft.

Though this one might seem like just a step from tinting your scenes in the binder-window, it would seem really helpful for me to get an overview.

b) a different version could be to have a software count of characternames or pre-assigned Keywords, and translate those into such a timeline. I guess that might sound like a programmer’s nightmare, but in a perfect world, that would be the perfect overview, because you output a timeline similar to a multitrack video edit: one track for each character / theme /plotline, providing a much richer and more realistic look on how your stuff is distributed across the draft.
This would rid the writer from the obligation to chose one label per scene (while many good scenes play out different issues in one action).

I personally group my scenes into folders, representing the sequences / chapters, and those again into others representing acts. So if simply the beginning of a new folder showed up on the timeline, that would even be a quick way to visualize a sequence-/act -structure.

Anyway… it’s just a thought. But now I’ve done my share of procrastination for the day, so I can get back to work.

Hope I’ve managed to get my point across. Curious to know what you all think.
All the best,


Have you looked at Aeon?


P.S. Welcome aboard Scrivener.


Thanks for the thoughtful post. I have thought about this a lot, and really what you are talking about is something very similar to Storylines in Writer’s Café:

It’s a very slick implementation of a timeline based on characters with coloured lines.

The trouble is that something like this would be a third wheel in Scrivener - it just couldn’t be integrated with the other features because the timeline would usually not match the file/folder structure (except in the most linear and flat-structured of projects). And if it’s something that is just going to be tacked on without integrating with the rest of the tools, I tend to think that it would be better to use a separate program, the developer of which is dedicated to specific timeline features. There’s an inherent conflict between a structure-based system and a time+player-based system. There’s no logical way for changes in one system to affect the other (especially given that any given story may be told chronologically, backwards, in medias res or, Slaughterhouse 5-style, all over the place). Dragging and dropping items on a timeline doesn’t necessarily mean that the items should change place in the narrative structure (but the trouble is that some users would want that to happen, others wouldn’t). And even if it should, from a technical point of view, it’s a nightmare. For example, if two events are concurrent on a timeline, how is that represented in a linear way in the main structure? And when items are rearranged in either mode, how does the other mode deal with that? And so on. So the problem is that any timeline system would have to be divorced from Scrivener’s main feature-set. In that case, how could you access it in the interface? The corkboard and outliner represent the contents of the selected folder or container. You wouldn’t want a separate timeline for each container that only affected the subdocuments of that container, but that’s the way Scrivener “thinks”. So the only option would be to have it all in a separate window somewhere, but then that seems a clunky solution to me. And then, supposing you have two concurrent events and the label represents PoV. What happens when you change the label in the binder - that is, when you’re not looking at the timeline - so that the two concurrent events now have the same label/PoV. Suddenly Scrivener has to make a decision about merging them, or moving along following events and so on. As I say, there just isn’t a really good logical approach to mapping a hierarchical system to a timeline-based system; it has to be one or the other. Scrivener is a hierarchical system; Storylines provides a timeline-based one. They are fundamentally different concepts, so even though a writer may use both in trying to work out the specifics of a story they really belong to different tools. (And of course, Scrivener is used by academics and other users for whom a timeline would be of limited use.)

One thing coming in 2.0 is that the outliner will be sortable and you can add custom meta-data, though. So you could add a date/time field and sort by that, to view arbitrary scenes or collections of folders by time.

I hope that makes sense!

All the best,

Wow, that really is an amazingly quick reply…
I’ll have to respond ultra-short, to not let the God of Procrast win my day:

I understand your worrys about the third wheel.
I have had a look at Aeon - which seems a very promising thing.
Yet, I’m not sure if I’ve explained myself well about the x-scale thing: What I’m looking for is a representation of the way things are distributed along the actual draft, along the pages rather than along realtime. The Aeon approach is an approach to the story (what happened when and where) while I refer to the narrative (the way of telling it, or the structure a scientist might use to explain their theory). It’s just that, keeping track of my narrative structure.
Maybe thats why timeline would be the wrong word (I guess I used it for my reference to video-editing, where “timeline” is applied thinking of the time that passes while you see the film, rather than the time when the events actually take place)
Lets call it Story layout. If things come one behind the other in the binder, they’ll represent one behind the other in the Story layout, so there wouldn’t be a risk of mixing stuff up. It would just be another way of looking at the writing, just like cards and outline are. It’s not about “timestamping” your events in any way. Even more, the idea was to have a representation that is automatical, using all the information that is already there in the “chunks” of text used, including the labels added.

The difference to the existing views would be to have a visual representation not only of the order of things, but also of the length (word-count, “weight”) of each event, and possibly a way of seeing how many storylines come together in a scene.

Still, this was really quick. I will have to dedicate a second look and thought to your arguments.
Be honored for your quick and astonishingly thorough response,
best regards,

ah…a quick look at Writer’s café proved you right. That seems like a basic representation of what I meant. But would Writer’s Café be as a good a software as Scrivener?

I used Writer’s Cafe in an earlier version on Windows. It’s fine software, but in my view not as good as Scrivener. It has lots of bells and whistles, of which Storylines is probably the most useful, and no doubt benefits from having an author involved in its development, but in my view its features are not as sharply dedicated as Scrivener’s to the task of getting ideas and words on to paper.

Another application which would almost certainly do what you want is Flying Logic. A year or two ago the author AndreasE, who contributes to this forum, wrote an interesting series of posts in the FL forum on the use of that software for planning plotlines; I expect the posts are still there. However, fiction-planning isn’t what the software was designed for, it has a learning curve and it is not inexpensive.


Edit: Flying Logic would of course only provide the plotlines functionality. It would be necessary to revert to Scrivener for drafting. But I think - I can’t properly remember - that FL exports to OPML, which Scrivener imports.

That’s an interesting idea for a view, basically a proportional, stacked graph of story elements depending on their position and size. You can, entirely non-visually get this information in the Outliner with total word counts turned on, but even for the most mathematical that isn’t going to be as intuitive as reading a graph-like view. In another way, Edit Scrivenings is kind of like this by virtue of the section vertical sizes being directly proportional to the amount of text in each section. :slight_smile:

What you are asking for is, I think, almost more like a “zoomed out” version of Edit Scrivenings that clearly annotated the section demarcations with title, and synopsis maybe. Coloured “bubble boxes” around the text sections which correspond to label—clicking on a section zooms you to that spot in the Scrivenings session.

Amber, that sounds like it.
I have Edit Scrivenings as my standart mode once I go into screenplay writing. Zooming out and converting certain key-issues into colors seems like a good way of putting what I was talking about.

Here’s what I was writing before you posted:

Damn… procrastination goes on. Can’t stop braining about on this today. It’s all your fault, for being quick answerers and quicker thinkers…

Dear H. & K. :

Just imagining:
The Aeon approach would be an fitting representation for Scrivener’s Research Folder,
while the Writer’s Café Approach represents the structure of the Draft Folder.
So moving about a file in the Researchfolder would effectively add a timestamp to the file, which in the Draft would only serve for informative purposes.
The representative problems of the Aeon-style view would be similar to lets say, iCal (two things at the same time kind of overlap sideways), the problems in the Story view are similar to a video editing solution.
I see your point about preferring a third party to implement the whole thing. Which would be fine for me.
Only I wouldnt want to have to manage every change on a project in two different softwares. Which means, I’d only use it if the integration with Scrivener was seamless, think importing exporting the whole project from one to the other without losing information. (Is it only because I don’t have a clue about programming that this seems like another hell to me?)

Well, obviously I would say not. :slight_smile: But their Storylines view is superb and I haven’t seen anything like it. Just to be clear, it’s not technical problem - given the work I’ve done on Scrivener’s corkboard, I could put together a view similar to the Storylines view (although I really wouldn’t want to rip off somebody else’s program of course) - but a conceptual issue of how these are two very different systems that just don’t fit together well. For instance, say you have these documents in the binder:

[code]Folder One

  • Scene a (John)
  • Scene b (Bob)
  • Scene c (John)
  • Scene d (Sally)
    Folder Two
  • Scene e (Bob)
  • Scene f (Sally)

Now imagine these sitting on a Storylines-esque view. Keeping strict order, this might look like this:

John: --- Scene a ------------- Scene c ----------------------------------
Bob: --------------- Scene b ------------------------ Scene e ------------
Sally: ----------------------------------- Scene d ------------ Scene f --

But equally, scenes may run concurrently - the hierarchical view has no knowledge of that. It may be that you intend these scenes to run like this:

John: --- Scene a -- Scene c -------------
Bob: ---- Scene b ------------- Scene e --
Sally: ------------- Scene d -- Scene f --

There would be no way for Scrivener to know the difference. But let’s say we assigned each document a specific timestamp that it used to map out items in this view. Okay, so now it does know the difference - it knows that “Scene a” and “Scene b” happen at the same time. But then what if in the hierarchical view you drag “Scene a” down below “Scene e” because you figure it would work better there? Scrivener then has to look at surrounding documents and try to work out a new timestamp. And what if something is already happening at that time for John? And then, what if you decide that “Scene a” would work better using Bob’s PoV and change the label? Now Bob has two scenes happening at the same time. Does “Scene b” get moved to be concurrent with “Scene c” and “Scene d”, or does “Scene a”? And should it be concurrent at all, or should everything get moved onwards?

After a short time of playing around with the hierarchical view, any work you did in the timeline view would be trashed. You could spend hours setting up concurrent scenes in the timeline view only to ruin all of that without realising after moving a few things around in the hierarchical view.

And going back the other way is even more difficult. Let’s say that in the timeline view you change “Scene f” to be John’s PoV. So now, in the timeline view, it comes before “Scene e”. should it therefore be moved also in the hierarchical view? You may say no, because it was really only a label change, but someone else may say yes. (And what if the PoVs of the timeline are arranged in a different order? If you’re dealing with concurrent events then there would be no way to show them in the same order as the hierarchical view in that case - imagine the “Bob” line is above the “John” line - “Scene b”, concurrent with “Scene a”, would then be shown first - top-left - in the timeline view even though it is second in the hiearchical view.)

Or, imagine you move “Scene a” on John’s line so that it now comes after “Scene c”. How is that represented in the hierarchy? Should it be moved to the bottom of “Folder One” or to the top of “Folder Two”?

And given that folders are really text documents just with folder icons, what if the user has assigned Folder One or Two to have labels? Now things get really complicated when you start moving things around on the timeline! And what if the folder hierarchy looked like this:

Folder One (Jason)
- Scene a (John)
-- Scene b (Bob)
--- Scene c (John)
-- Scene d (Sally)
- Folder Two (Jemima)
-- Scene e (Bob)
--- Scene f (Sally)

Now there are documents inside documents - all possible in Scrivener - and any movements in the timeline lead to Scrivener trying to fathom where to place a document in the hierarchy. In this example, if on the timeline the user tries to move “Scene a” to after “Scene c”, both “Scene c” and “Scene b” will first need removing from inside “Scene a” (as they are subdocuments of it) - the whole structure you have set up in the Draft folder has to change. You might argue that this sort of structure is not likely, but I can’t legislate against users doing this. :slight_smile:

And as I say, things are only exacerbated further by stories that involve non-chronological storytelling; for such stories, having the timeline mapped to the hierarchical order at all would be useless.

I hope this explains some of the problems involved. I really do like the Storylines way of laying out character storylines across time, but as much as I like it, it just cannot be shoehorned into Scrivener because of the different nature of the beasts.

All the best,

I think I’m starting to get your headache about it, Keith.
Still, I’m not sure if all those really apply for what i refer to. Let me keep calling it “storyview” to avoid confusion. If what we see represents the arc of the actual storytelling, rather than line of events along “historical” timeline, I don’t see any problems about synchronicity, given that as long as you don’t go into layout using textboxes or such, one word will be after the other, one chunk of text either before or after the other one, both in the outline and in the storyview.
Again, the decisive point for me is to have a visual representation of the SIZE of my chunks together with their theme, (characters, places, labels) along the arc of the story. I think Amber’s idea was great, parting from some kind of “zoom out” from the edit scriveners view, thus showing the proportionality while providing it with visual information about its basic content by tinting, stacking or bubbles.

To the hierarchical problems: Why not just keep the hierarchical structure visible in the new View?

Give me a couple of days, I’ll come up with a graphical explanation of what I mean .

One thought (if I understand what you’re saying): in storytelling as in life, size doesn’t necessarily mean significance.


I don’t really understand how this would be useful, to be honest. At least not to any other users. :slight_smile:

I don’t understand that either - how would that be possible?

Hugh, I agree. That’s precisely why I feel it’s helpful to zoom out and look at it from afar: is the size of my chunks still in tune with the significance it takes in the whole?

I think the size thing is probably a need in the likes of why others long so much for a page-count or such. It’s just that -maybe especially in screenwriting, given that you write for a linear, steady-running medium- there is a real importance to the amount of words, pages, time, you spend on one subject, and how much on the other. It’s about the relationship between the significance of something and the space used on it.

I have a friend writing next to me in the library, who’s doing his thesis in a natural science. It was actually after talking to him, and finding that we both longed for something like this, that I started this threat.

I have no intention at all to get pushy here, so allow me to decelerate my contributions a little,
and as soon as I have some time, come up with a visual sketch of what I mean.

Thanks for all your thoughts,

Threat? I thought you said you didn’t want to be pushy. :slight_smile:

No need to decelerate, I’m interested in hearing about what you are proposing, I just don’t really understand it at the moment and am up to my eyeballs in 2.0 code (for the record, 2.0 has a page layout view, by the way).

Thanks and all the best,

that’s what happens when a guy goes smuck writing in a language that’s not his own.
Sure as hell didn’t mean to threaDen nobody, folks.

Thanks, Keith,
to be honest my need to decelerate has a lot to do with me being up to my eyeballs in using your software to finish my draft in time.
Cause procrastination can be a very productive thing - in all but what you’re supposed to do.

Looking forward to 2.0, keep the spririt!

Did you check out Outline 4D (formerly known as StoryView)?

It is, however, for Windows, and at times I’ve tested it, it was quite unreliable - did crazy things on the screen, lost sometimes what I had written… The concept was not too bad, but actually it’s more for analyzing structures than for creating them. (As most story development software is, due to the fact that this kind of programs are usually written by somebody who studies the blockbusters in order to find “the formula”… :wink: )

The nice thing in FlyingLogic is that it arranges it’s items on its own. It’s great when one has to fiddle with complex plots where a lot of ideas like “A has to happen before B”, “as soon as C, he will do D” or “event E will trigger event F” and so on whirl around in one’s head. You simply put all these small chain pieces into Flying Logic and draw arrows until everything is arranged in a long plot chain. After that, actually the best thing to do is to print it out on several pieces of paper, glue them together, spend an evening putting a lot of remarks in red, blue, green etc. on it and create the synopsis from that piece of art.

The learning curve of how to handle the interface is not too steep. Abusing it for story development is easy. To use FlyingLogic as intended, however - as a tool to help on decisions – is another thing; this requires a lot of reading and studying of the manuals.

Wow - really interesting. I think for me there’s definitely something in Ocab’s ideas which I’m attracted to. It’s about a visual, linear representation of the story allowing the writer to get a visual indication of the weighting of various (customizably assigned and defined) story elements relative to one another. (Yes?)

AmberV’s zoomed out Edit Scrivenings view does come close to capturing it, I think, with assignable colours/bubbles whatever.

In my mind, this view would not have to be editable in any way - it would merely be there to reflect in a different view what’s going on in the Binder. Thus Keith’s concerns about synchronicity could be avoided. It’s just so you can “step back” and see how the different story elements “sit”, what their relative weighting and distribution is. At the moment I do something vaguely similar using the corkboard - make the cards small enough so they all fit on screen, and by using colours you can get an idea. But the other thing Ocab mentions which appeals to me is that one scene or sequence (ie one index card) might have more than one theme or character, whereas it’s only possible in this view to assign one colour.

Hope this make sense and that it does reflect your thinking Ocab. I think you guys are very smart. I can hardly keep up with what you’re discussing but I’m sure there’s something in there I like the sound of!


two and a half years later, there’s a development that makes me come back to this thread:
A way to show & visualize Subplots.

There is a new screenwriting software coming up from some folks in Berlin. “Dramaqueen”.
Very interesting stuff. And it seems in some aspects that they also took a close look on Scrivener.
They have some very specific stuff, including a way to set turning points and show your basic plot in a “drama curve”.
But they also did something similar to what I tried to propose in this thread some years ago: A subplot view, where you can mark specific subplots / themes / aspects by color (as if you had little color dots on the binder /outline documents), so you can kind of see their distribution along the project, but there is also a function to only show the text from one specific supblot, to get a good overview of it, without the ballast of all the rest of your text.
Seems a very handy feature to me, not only in screenwriting, but in most long texts. (what some call subplot maybe a certain theme or a certain aspect of their work for others)

Now, what those Dramaqueen guys lack is beige text on black BG for fullscreen, the peace of my eyesight, my savior in long raisin-eyed deadline-runs. So, there is no doubt, I’ll stay with you folks. :wink:

All the best, ocab