How one can Use Scrivener to Write Scenes That Work

Do you want to learn how to use Scrivener?

If you’ve ever felt like a scene doesn’t work in your manuscript, you can use elements of a scene and the book writing software Scrivener, a great tool for writers, to improve your writing project.


The scene is the fundamental unit of story. It’s what drives the story forward, instilling purpose, drama, and emotion.

It’s critical to understand the elements that make it effective and know how to employ them.

In this article, that’s what we’ll examine—what a scene is and how to write an effective one. You’ll also learn how to use an organizational tool, Scrivener, to do this better.

Nothing You Haven’t Heard Before?

I attend church every Sunday. I go with the full realization that I’m probably not going to hear anything I haven’t heard before. I’m conversant with the scriptures and doctrines.

Among other reasons, I go because the repetition helps me internalize and use the information in real ways every day. Immersing myself in the teachings of Jesus Christ helps me employ them automatically in my life.

It works the same way with just about anything you study.

My point, when it comes to creating a scene that works, is that repeated training in the principles will help you internalize the tool, making it readily available for your use when you sit down to write. Be willing to invest time in studying your craft.

What Goes Into a Scene?

A scene is more than just something happening. To be effective, a scene must communicate a change and contain some kind of conflict, moving the characters closer to, or farther from their respective goals.

In his book, The Story Grid, Shawn Coyne says this about scene creation:

“If there is no change, no value at stake, no movement, the scene doesn’t work.”

The corollary is that if your scenes don’t work, neither will your story.

On the Stage and on the Page

In theater, directors block out scenes for the actors to rehearse. When writing a story, it’s a good idea to block the scene for your characters as well. This can help provide impetus, emotional involvement, suspenseful action, and continuity.

But in order to do that, you must understand the elements of an effective scene.

When I sit down to write a scene, I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I do know the scene’s purpose. If the scene doesn’t have a clear purpose, it has no place in the story. I throw it out.

The very word “scene” implies a visual medium, and as writers we are often admonished to “show, don’t tell.” Good advice for the most part in the writing process, though there are times when telling is the better option.

For instance, writers can sometimes trip up their scenes by burdening the reader with unnecessary exposition, dragging the pace with extraneous detail.

Remember the standards of an effective scene—it’s there to show a change by way of conflict. Don’t “show” your character walking six blocks to an appointment. Using a simple summary can be a better way to go, if anything is needed at all.

The purpose of a scene is to show a change by way of conflict. Does something change in every scene of your story?

Here’s How I Work a Scene in Scrivener

If you take the advice I gave above about studying your craft, you’ll get a lot of different takes on how to outline and write a scene. This is what works for me.

I use Scrivener to write my novels. In the upper right of the screen is an index card. This is where you can sketch out the Five Commandments of storytelling Shawn Coyne talks about in The Story Grid, or the Six Elements of Plot that Joe Bunting shares in The Write Structure.

I number the card and briefly fill in information about the purpose of the scene, covering these six elements:

  1. Exposition
  2. Inciting Incident
  3. Complications (Including the Turning Point)
  4. Dilemma (involves the character making a choice)
  5. Climax that results from the choice
  6. Denouement

I don’t get hung up on nailing down any details, just a few hints for me to go on.

My Custom Metadata Provide the Key

Below the index card is a place for metadata. This, for me, is the where the heart of the scene resides. I’ve customized my metadata to include these critical ingredients:

  1. Timeline (so I can coordinate scenes between my multiple viewpoint characters)
  2. Turning point (this is THE KEY element to making your scene work)
  3. Value at stake
  4. Polarity shift

This may strike you as too analytical, but I assure you it’s not. If the scene doesn’t turn—meaning that either a character acts to shift the dynamic, or pertinent information is revealed that changes things dramatically—the scene will not work as it should.

That turning point field in my metadata is my golden nugget.

The scene generally turns on the value at stake. From security to danger. From clueless to informed. From life to death. When this happens, the polarity of the scene shifts from positive to negative or vice versa. If your scene doesn’t feature a significant change in polarity from where it began, it will fall flat.

If you can’t figure out a way to turn the scene, chances are the scene can be deleted or absorbed into another scene.

A Few More Things to Keep in Mind

Because I write mysteries and thrillers, I often suspend a scene, cutting it at the crisis point to create a cliffhanger. Then I insert a scene from a different viewpoint character before going back to finish the climax and resolution of the prior scene.

I use chapter breaks to accomplish this.

It’s important to be aware of genre so you can be sure to honor the obligatory scenes. These are the moments you promised your reader when she first picked up your book, and she’ll be waiting for them.

The trick is to deliver what they expect in a fresh and satisfying way.

Do not neglect to establish setting and viewpoint character early in the scene.

For greatest impact, every word of your story should come through the viewpoint character, filtered through his senses, opinions, and emotions. Until you establish that character and what they’re seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and thinking, the reader doesn’t have a solid ground from which to experience the story.

If your scene involves delivering a lot of information or backstory, your reader will digest it better taken with some action. Have your characters doing something interesting or meaningful, if possible.

In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George calls this a THAD—Talking Heads Avoidance Device—designed to facilitate delivery of blocks of information or dialogue while revealing something about the characters.

Dig Into Learning More

I’ve given you some basics on the elements that make a scene work. Clearly, there’s a lot more depth to be plumbed. If you haven’t read The Story Grid, it’s a great place to start. Check out the podcast, too.

I hope you’ll have fun learning more about how to write a scene that works. The ability to do so is one of the most valuable skills a writer can have in their toolbox. Once you master scenes, you’ll also save valuable writing time in your writing session—and in the editing process.

Use Scrivener as an organization tool to construct a scene that is planned and inevitably stronger than once that is not from the start.

This writing habit will get you far, and a book software like Scrivener will push you to turn blank documents into stories that remind you why you enjoy writing.

Have you ever had trouble writing a scene and didn’t know why? Tell us about it in the comments.


Use your work in progress or one of the prompts below to write a scene, making sure to incorporate the Five Commandments as outlined above. Focus especially on making sure the scene turns, either by character action or revelation of new information.

On an archeological dig, Sarah learns her sponsor lied to her about the purpose of the excavation.

While on a river rafting excursion, Jim’s boat overturns, dumping the six passengers into a rage of whitewater rapids.

At her mother’s funeral, Jamie discovers she has a brother she never knew about.

Write for fifteen minutes. When you are finished, post your scene in practice box below, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers in the comments.

Enter your practice here: