Why Scrivener Might Be Making Your Novel Worse Instead of Better
An editor’s thoughts on how Scrivener can affect plot cohesion and create confusion in readers
For a lot of writers, Scrivener is the program they wouldn’t be without. Chapter files, character files, research files, a note board for organizing stuff — then when you’re done, just compile it all and — shazam! Your novel.
Except… as an editor who works almost exclusively on fiction, especially on novels in genres such as thriller and historical, I’m seeing a growing number of manuscripts with specific problems. Chapters and sections and ‘bits’ that don’t connect. Characters who jump into a scene and I have no idea who they are, or even where we are in time or setting. Novels where chapters jump around in time, needlessly and confusingly.
The common thing to all of them? Their authors have written using Scrivener.
I’m not dissing Scrivener. For some, I know it’s a huge time saver and a real boon to their writing. But I am seeing more and more that new writers who don’t yet have experience in narrative and character arcs, or why you need to “situate the reader”, or in maintaining cohesion in the plot, are all producing novels that don’t hold together. And they can’t see where the problems lie.
What’s worse is that the writers also can’t work out how to fix these problems. Because going back into Scrivener and continuing to write in bits and scenes and chapters won’t fix the cohesion and arc problems. You simply can’t see what is happening if you don’t have the whole novel in front of you, from go to whoa.
When I say they can’t work out how to fix the problems, this is even after a critique or developmental edit pointing out what the problems are.
Of course you can compile and print the novel out. But that doesn’t solve the “bits” issue. In Scrivener it’s still in bits. The only solution is to compile and load the whole Word file back in, in one piece. Writers may well resist this because they think it undermines their whole reason for using Scrivener.
What readers will say
If you are using beta readers, you’ll know if you have these issues if your readers say things like, “I got a bit confused here and there” or “I wasn’t sure who some of the characters were” or “I had to re-read some bits”. They persevered because they are being beta readers for you. Normal readers will just give up.
I don’t use Scrivener myself for several reasons. One is that I’ve never had the time or patience to learn how to use it properly. I get so far and give up. But the main reason is because I write my novels in one go. I usually don’t even have chapter breaks. I put them in later. So Scrivener isn’t really much use to me. I keep all my character and novel notes in a nice notebook and when I’m working on something in a series, I use the same notebook and keep it all together. That way, I make sure the police detective in Book 2 has the same name etc in Book 4. Yes, I’m a bit old school!
What to check for
If you love Scrivener but you suspect you have these issues described above, there are specific things you need to check for and make sure you are doing:
· Be really sure you have good reasons for not telling your story chronologically. (Thinking you are somehow avoiding flashbacks, or making the story more interesting, are not good reasons.)
· Every time you start a new chapter, make sure you situate the reader as to who, where and when they are in the story. Remember that this might be the chapter where they put the book down for a while. Clue them in.
· Every time you change setting or move ahead in time, situate the reader. You don’t want the reader thinking — Huh? I thought Joe was still in the laundromat…
· Make every character memorable in some way so that the next time they appear, the reader remembers who they are OR put in a little reminder for the reader instead.
· Before you start a new draft (or before you send your manuscript off to a critiquer or editor), after you have compiled your chapters into one file, sit down and read it right through yourself. I’ve seen compiled manuscripts where scenes and chapters have been repeated inadvertently. Read for flow, for consistency and for cohesion. This is hard, because there will be story things in your head that you think are on the page, but often they aren’t. You have to read like your intended reader, not as the writer.
I can imagine Scrivener lovers reading this and fuming at me! If you love Scrivener, that’s great, but it’s worth checking you’re dealing with these issues all the same.