Making sense of chaos with Scrivener

I switched over to using Scrivener as a tool for writing and editing books a couple of years ago. It’s taken me a while to get familiar with the interface, but I stuck with it as it seems to be a much more suitable environment for editing complex stories than my previous favourite: Microsoft Word.

I took one of the Scrivener for beginners courses a while back and noted it should be capable of enabling you to keep track of which scenes contain characters and locations, but at the time, couldn’t get my head round how to actually do that.

I should have made more of an effort to learn how! Fallen Warriors has an element of complexity to rival a standard Tom Clancy. A dozen characters in multiple locations with events happening simultaneously. It was a struggle to keep track of what was going on.

I resorted to sticky notes, spreadsheets and elbox grease to get the novel completed, but was determined that I would suss out how to use some of the more advanced Scrivener features.

Tagging characters and locations in a scrivener scene

I’m indebted to Rog (@pigfender) for his post: Tracking characters with Scrivener keywords

It’s actually really easy to do and I’ve started tagging characters and locations in the scenes I’ve written for the Fallen Warriors sequel.

I won’t rehash the pigfender post here as Rog does a really good job of explaining it, but here’s some insight into how I’m actually following his instructions:

I needed to do two things to make this work, first add a tag for each character who appears in a scene and one for the location(s) in the scene to the Document notes section of the Inspector window:

And also create Project Keywords (from the Project menu) to match those tags exactly:

Now, if you’ve read Fallen Warriors then you might notice a couple of reveals in the pictures above… Shhhh (I’ve blanked out the working title as I’m still not fully sure if I will use it.)

The really cool bit is once you’ve got that all in place, to find all the scenes with a character or multiple characters in them, you can search and you get those scenes back… In order!

This is really helpful for me for so many reasons. One of my characters full name and title is: Detective Inspector Daniel Martin. But he is referred to as Danny, as DI Martin, as Daniel etc. By setting up the tags, I can search using one term and always find him.

Take a look at this clipping from my Scrivener Fallen Warriors manuscript

Now, I don’t want to give too much away from either book in case you’ve not read the first and certainly don’t want to give any plot away from the second, but I set up some keywords in my first manuscript and then did a search for “Emma_Present” – this is what was returned:

I reveal these events in the book description, so hopefully no spoilers there!

If you haven’t struggled to find characters in a long manuscript this maybe won’t be as exciting as I find it, but just getting those three results back is amazing for me. I spent hours each week for weeks just having to find where I’d written about a character. This is a game changer for me!

How do you make sense of the complexity in your books?

6 thoughts on “Making sense of chaos with Scrivener”

  1. Useful idea, but I do not understand why you need to add characters and locations to **both** Document notes and Keywords.

    1. Hi Christopher, That’s a good question. Maybe adding to keywords is redundant… I’m not sure. I’ll have to look into that, thanks

      1. My personal opinion is that adding to document notes would be redundant but using it via keywords is brilliant. With keywords you can look up every time xyz is mentioned, or present.

        Do certain things happen in the tree house? Go to keywords and have it pull every scene or chapter where the three house is the location, and you can read each scene in order. Same with characters.

        Take a story that follows multiple characters pov/adventure. Examples would be George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, or Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera. Now you pull up the keyword where Character A appears, and can read through each scene to make sure the arc flows properly.

        Then again, one of the greatest things about scrivener is its multi use ability. Different aspects of scrivener were created for a general use, but each individual might find a different use that works for their personal project. It’s versatility is brilliant and part of what makes me adore it so much.

        1. Thanks Kas, Yes, being able to search via keywords is amazing. The reason it is sometimes useful to use document notes to hold the keywords is that the search facility will sometimes give strange results if there are spaces in your keywords. The article I link to gives a helpful explanation of this.

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