Novel Openings in Third Person Omniscient

As someone writing a novel in the third person omniscient point of view, I’ve gotten some conflicting advice about the best way to “hook” the reader. Tales are told of agents rejecting based on the first sentence. The first paragraph, everybody seems to say, is crucial. But most of the so-called rules I’ve seen for how to start a novel are tailored to those written in first person or in third person limited, perspectives in which it’s important to quickly connect to the main character. The omniscient point of view can be completely different.

But you don’t have to just take my word for it. In this post, I will be giving examples of openings from published novels, from famous classics to books published in more recent years. In doing so, I hope to outline a variety of approaches for writers to learn from and perhaps even apply to their own novels.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

This first example is one of the most famous. This one incredibly long sentence conveys a seemingly impossible duality. How can anything be simultaneously the worst and the best? How can it be true that wisdom coexists with foolishness and light with dark? And yet, when we reach the turn of the sentence and find this seemingly impossible time compared with “the present period”, we see a glint of humor that makes it all fall into place. I can almost read the newspaper headlines crying out over everything that’s awful, at the same time that politicians declare that everything has gotten better during their time in office or will get better if only they are elected. In any given time, isn’t it true that “the noisiest authorities” will describe everything according to extremes and nothing by half measures?

This, then, serves to give the reader the impression of a narrator who has insight into the human condition, who knows the present as well as the past and will be able to tell the story of this particular period of the past in a way that makes it real for readers of the present day. The style tells us the narrator will do this eloquently and with the appropriate level of gravity while also providing a degree of levity that will prevent the book from becoming an endless slog through tragedy.

For readers who know this book is set during the period of the French Revolution, and especially those who take a view on those events that is similar to Dickens’, I imagine that they will indeed be drawn in by the promise of hearing the story this narrator has to tell. Expectations have been set, and the attention has been drawn, not by the main character the reader will be spending the rest of the book with but by the narrator who will be guiding the way.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice takes a similar approach, showing a narrator with insight and a sense of humor. This narrator is speaking tongue-in-cheek, with full knowledge of the fact that a man’s level of wealth has little to do with how badly he might want a wife. What it does affect is how much the eligible women (and the parents of eligible women) around him insist that he must want a wife. And that is a beautiful opening to a story surrounding a family full of eligible daughters, with a mother quite insistent on making them the best matches they can make while espousing ideas cut from the same cloth. While A Tale of Two Cities sets the stage for historical fiction, Pride and Prejudice sets it for what is known as a novel of manners, all in a single sentence.

This technique of an insightful opening that captures something important about the book to follow is seen in many other examples also.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

Matilda by Roald Dahl

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Anna Karenina features more than one unhappy family, and its plot depends upon the reader’s interest in examining each and watching the events of their lives play out.

Matilda‘s opening sentence is undoubtedly true of many families, which sets us up to trust the narrator as an impartial observer and judge of children. Because we see so clearly that this narrator would never praise an average or slightly above-average child as having “qualities of genius” in the way that many parents would, the reader is able to trust that the main character Matilda must truly be extraordinary when the narrator cites her as an exception to the rule.

The opening of Their Eyes Were Watching God takes a similar twist, as in the second paragraph the narrator turns to the experience of women, as opposed to that of the men who watch for ships. This book is about a woman, in a time when women are not treated as equals, especially when racism is also thrown into the mix. Yet they still have wishes, as the main character shows while she reflects upon her life, starting with her youthful hopes and ending with the burial she’s just come back from as the first chapter opens. The full beginning does a perfect job of setting expectations, as all the previous ones have, although its promise is for a story very different.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

Comparing this narrator to that of A Tale of Two Cities reveals starkly different viewpoints. The omniscient narrator, while certainly all-knowing, is not a monolith, to be found exactly the same in every single book one reads.

Similarly, the omniscient narrator is not bound to always begin by revealing some truth of the human condition. For a book focused entirely on humor, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starting off in such a way would actually undercut the light-hearted tone. Instead, it starts by showing off how a narrator removed from the world is uniquely suited to make witty commentary on it.

“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

In all cases, these are the sort of openings you wouldn’t be able to have if the story were written in third person limited. Odds are, the main character does not and would never have these sorts of thoughts. The main character does not have an outside view of their own life or an understanding of the future or the opportunity to peer into the lives of others. Sweeping commentaries, satire, and thought-provoking wisdom would all be lost if these books were written in a different way, and their openings would fail if they didn’t reflect exactly these aspects that make their books so strong.

Another example of a book that starts by showing off the powerful narrative voice that will move the story forward is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old—as soon as merely looking in the mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard).”

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Here we certainly see a strong narrative voice, speaking clearly and even a bit conversationally, as if aware of an audience being spoken to. It reveals the problem at hand instantly, in a style that makes the reader really feel that baby’s spite, and the storytelling is all the more strengthened by the narrator’s ability to reveal the thoughts of multiple characters who likely never told anyone else the exact moment that made them choose to run away.

We also see that characters are introduced, though it’s not immediately clear who is going to be the main character or if there even will be only one. What is clear is what the story is about. For the omniscient narrator, it’s not at all necessary to start with a main character. In fact, there are many examples of books starting with another character instead.

“’Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Charlotte’s Web is not a book about a little girl named Fern, although she does feature in it. The main character is actually a pig named Wilbur, and he’s about to meet an unfortunate fate by Papa’s axe until Fern steps in to put a stop to it. This opening, in my opinion, is effective because a child reading the story might not immediately understand why they should have sympathy for a pig. Perhaps they think of pigs as dirty creatures who roll around in the mud and aren’t particularly appealing. It is by watching Fern defend Wilbur that the reader comes to understand that he should be defended, creating an open-mindedness that pays dividends when Charlotte the spider comes into the story as well.

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

Here again, we start with someone other than the main character. The main character is Bilbo’s nephew Frodo, but again this main character’s life is about to change as a result of what is being set up in the first sentence.

This example is also worth noting, I think, because it shows that the narrator can choose to refer to the characters in any way that fits their style. Fern was introduced in a familiar way, by first name only, while here Bilbo is announced with his full name, including his title and where he lives. The narrator can start close to the characters, as in third person limited, or start from farther away in order to give the readers context. This can be especially helpful in a fantasy world or when introducing a character who is not as ordinary as Fern. While she certainly has a special sense of compassion, it’s easy enough to understand that she lives with her mother and father on a farm much like those the reader is already familiar with. Hobbiton, on the other hand, is unlike anything the reader has seen unless they’ve previously read The Hobbit.

That book, incidentally, begins by setting the scene of this delightful fantasy location and giving the reader a much-needed sense of what the characters who live within it are like.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Howl’s Moving Castle is another fantasy novel that begins by telling the reader something important about the world that leads into something important about the character who is going to be focused on.

“In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three.”

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Other fantasy novels might show the uniqueness of a character through a twist on the formula of the “universally truthful” one-liner.

“All children, except one, grow up.”

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

Here, we begin to reach the examples of books that do begin directly with mention of the main character or characters, but it’s important to note that the narrator’s presence is also felt.

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war because of the air-raids.”

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

In this example, all four of the main characters are introduced, but this is clearly done from an outside perspective. The narrator refers to them all at once, from a time in the future, and in the sort of voice an adult uses when explaining things to children. This is another way of setting expectations for how the story is going to be told, as does the “Once there were” wording that calls to mind a fairy tale while not being exactly the same as one.

This is an example that’s particularly heavy on what writers refer to as “telling” as opposed to “showing”. Instead of plainly stating that something is going to happen to the children while they’re away from London because of the war, Lewis could have taken the time to show a scene in which the air raid sirens go off while the children are still in London, show their parents making the decision to send them away, and so on. Some writers I know would probably even say he should have, but in my opinion, that would drag the opening out unnecessarily and would not provide nearly the same level of clarity to younger readers about what’s going on. This isn’t a story about the war. It’s a story about a magic wardrobe that takes the children on an adventure in another world.

The ability to tell the reader what they need to know and move along can actually be a strength of the omniscient point of view, and removing instances of “telling” can destroy the power of the narrator. Writers need to understand that this point of view simply operates differently from others.

The description of characters, in particular, is a way in which the differences can stand out. While in first person novels, the writer may struggle to find an excuse to provide the main character’s physical description, resulting in a lot of looking into mirrors and so on, a writer of omniscient can start the book by simply telling you. And they can tell you through a narrator who sees the character in a different way than they see themselves, showing how you, the reader, might look at them if you were there.

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of today’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.”

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This opening gets right to the point of who the main character is, seeking to catch the reader’s attention with an interesting character in the same way a novel written in first person or third person limited might. The difference is in who’s narrating.

This is perhaps the most subtle of the examples, which is why I saved it for last. There can be a danger for an amateur writer to slip into third person limited, or something closely resembling it, accidentally. It certainly is possible to use an opening like this one and find success with it, but I hope by now you’re able to pick up on the way the narrator is keeping a hand on the wheel throughout.

If you start very close to a character and the narrator is nowhere to be found, readers will likely be surprised and perhaps even confused when the narrator pulls away to reveal something that character does not know or to focus on another character instead. This was a mistake I made before doing my research.

If you are also writing a novel in this point of view, I encourage you to do yours as well and not to listen to advice tailor-made for other kinds of books. Read some of these examples if they interest you or seek out other ones and learn exactly the techniques these authors used to make it work. Your opening should suit your book, and if you chose your point of view for a good reason, there’s also a good reason to open it accordingly.

How to Create a New Character Sketch Template for Scrivener

The default character sketch template in Scrivener works well enough if you want to track a few key details about the characters in your novel. It can also be edited to add more information or take it away. But have you ever wanted to just start from scratch and create a brand-new template of your own that works exactly the way you like it? This post will show you how.

The first thing to do, of course, is consider what you want your new template to look like. One thing I knew starting out was that there were many things I didn’t like about the Scrivener default template. For one thing, it has headings in bold, which seems just fine until you try to add text and find that it also appears in bold. For example, if you type “Protagonist” after “Role in Story:”, it appears in the exact same font and formatting, meaning headings don’t look like headings at all! For a while, I went to the trouble of highlighting the text I’d added and manually readjusting, but that’s a hassle I don’t need in my life. I decided the best thing to do was to have bold headings on a separate line, with secondary headings beneath it in the same font I would use for adding information. Now I have a bold header for “Identity” with lines beneath like “Name:” and “Gender:”. Much better.

One tip I did take from Scrivener’s default, though, is that you can set the Synopsis section to display a picture instead of text. While this section might typically display an overview of events in a particular scene, here it can be used as a reference photo. For those wondering how to do this, simply look for the up and down arrows in the Synopsis section and click the image as opposed to the notecard.

The synopsis section of Scrivener, showing the option to select an image to display instead of text.

Additional reference photos, documents, and links can be added in the Document References section below, so it’s important to consider what you’d like in the main section of your template as opposed to what could optionally be added here. If you’re not sure how to do this, click the plus sign with the downward arrow. I used the “Look Up & Add External Reference” option because I had images saved to my hard drive. “Create External Reference” can also be used to link to a web page, but I prefer not to use this for anything I can download because websites can change or disappear. I tend to use it instead for links to sites I often use for writing purposes, like favorite baby name sites.

Here’s an example sheet for one of my characters that includes an image of her favorite hairstyle on top and reference photos for the uniform she wears below.

An example of a character sheet in Scrivener, showing character information, synopsis image, and links to reference photos

To open the linked references, I like to right click and use “Open in Default Editor” so that the image comes up in a separate window I can close when finished.

If you want more tips about how to come up with categories for your template or to see a full sample of my template, check out my previous post on creating character sheets for fiction writing.

Once you’re ready to create the template, go down to the Templates section and create a plain document. After that, you can name it, change its icon, and style it up however you want.

Creating a new text document in Scrivener

It’s just that easy! Now, whenever you want to use it, you can create a document as “New From Template” and select the one you made. Use it for as many characters you want and enjoy!

Character Sheet Template for Fiction Writing

Character sheets can be a great way of brainstorming and organizing information about characters. Especially in a book or book series in which there are many characters or certain characters that appear infrequently, it can be an extremely helpful reference for maintaining continuity. In this post, I’m going to lay out some tips for designing your own character sheet and also provide mine as a sample to use if you would like it.

I recently took some time to develop a template that’s specifically tailored to the fantasy/sci fi series I’m writing. Whereas in the past, I had looked up and copied from other examples, making adjustments on an as-needed basis, this time I really sat down and thought about my characters and what’s important to know about them. Because I had a number of characters already well-fleshed out, thinking about how I would describe them really helped me come up with categories I could use more broadly. One of my characters, for example, is left-handed, which is important to a particular scene, and writing that on her character sheet made me realize the dominant hand of other characters could make a difference in certain action scenes and would be helpful to note down.

I use character sheets both as a way to remember information about a character (what color were those eyes?) and as a way to ask myself questions about a new or underdeveloped character. Because of this, it can be really helpful to have categories for everything I want. Because I reference them often, however, it also helps to not have categories I don’t often make use of.

I find it also helps to have the information I search for most often display at the top. I arranged it so that in Scrivener, my preferred word processor, I can see it all without scrolling. Once I do scroll, I see the sort of detailed information that I might need to reference but that I more often use when fleshing out a character. Finally, I have references to their relationships with other characters, which can be a jumping off point to another character sheet. These are all good things to consider when making your own sheet.

…but if you want to copy mine, feel free to do so. You will notice that the last two sections are very specific to my particular fictional world, though. You may also notice other information that you won’t be filling in very often for your particular characters, like political party, which matters more in my story because it has characters deeply involved in politics.

I recommend using my template as a jumping off point, something to get you started as you think about what would best suit your particular needs. Everyone has a name, gender, age, and so on, but beyond that, consider your book and your characters. What do you want to know about them? What details do you often forget when writing a scene with a character you haven’t depicted in a while? What character traits are important in your fictional world that wouldn’t be in my template at all? These are the questions that will truly help you create the character sheet of your dreams. Good luck!

My Template

Identity
Name:
Reason for Name:
Nickname/Alias/Code Name:
Reason for Nickname:
Gender:
Orientation:
Religion/Moral Philosophy:
Political Party:

Current Situation
Job Title/School Level:
Lives:
Economic Class:

Appearance
Age:
Hair:
Eyes:
Skin color:
Height:
Weight:
Face:
Body:
Dominant Hand:
Favorite/Most Common Outfit:

Background
Hometown:
Cultural Heritage:
First Language:
Historical Events Witnessed:
Important Life Events:
Regrets:

Skills
Professional Qualifications:
Talents:
Languages:

Qualities
Disabilities/Allergies/Chronic Illnesses:
Strengths:
Weaknesses:

Desires
Primary Yearning:
Goals:
Wishes:
Dream Job:

Favorites

Other
Fears:
Secrets:
Habits:
Hobbies:

Family
Parent 1:
Parent 2:
Siblings:
Children:
Other:

Relationships
Friends:
Enemies:
Significant Other/Partner:
Crush:
Exes:

Magic
Tier Level:
Specialty Spells:
Amount of Allied Magic:
First Spell:
Arrested For:

Tech
Implants:
Genetic Modifications:

Creating a Custom Dictionary for Microsoft Word

As a sci-fi and fantasy writer, I do a lot of world building. I create new words for fictional creatures, places, and concepts. I keep track of them to ensure I’m using them consistently. And I appreciate when the software I’m writing in can help with that, at least in terms of spelling. You probably know that Microsoft Word has a built-in spell checker. You may know you can choose to have the program ignore a particular error or add words to the dictionary when prompted. But did you know that you can create a custom dictionary for each of your fictional worlds and swap them in and out whenever you’d like?

To do this, all you need is a list of your desired words and a program that can create text documents. I recommend Notepad, which came free with my computer and more than likely is on yours as well if you have Windows. On my computer, it can be found under Windows Accessories. Otherwise, I can find it by typing Notepad into the search bar at the bottom of my desktop.

From here, all you need to do is add one word per line, select Save As, and save it with a .dic at the end of the file name and an Encoding of UTF-16 LE. Make sure you’ve changed the “Save as type” to All Files.

Now, in Microsoft Word, go to File and select Options. On the left side, there’s an option called Proofing. Click on it to see a button for Custom Dictionaries. From here you can click Add and select your custom dictionary to have it added to the list.

The windows shown when adding a custom dictionary in Microsoft Word

Any time you want to use your spell checker on a document unrelated to your novel or you want to use a different custom dictionary on a second novel, you can come back and use the remove button. Simple as that!

Once added, you can also use the Edit Word List button to add or remove words without having to open the dictionary file separately. From this same window, you can even add autocorrects for custom words if you’d like them. If there’s one in particular you’re always misspelling, you can pop it right in and Word will fix it for you after you type it incorrectly.

Personally, I find that every little thing like this cuts back on my annoyances substantially. Every time I don’t get a little red line under the name of my fictional country is a time my focus doesn’t get interrupted, and every error the spell checker can catch for me is one less thing to worry about when preparing my final draft to be sent out. I really value putting in a little time upfront to prevent headaches in the long run. If you’re a user of Microsoft Word, feel free to try it out and see if it works for you.

Using Excel Timelines for Fiction Writing

If you own Excel and are looking for a way to store a timeline of events for your novel, this is the guide for you! I’m going to outline two different methods and show how examples tailored specifically to writers. Note that I’m using Excel 365, the latest subscription version.

The First Option

The first method is the easiest I found, which makes use of pre-made graphics. What you want to do is go to the Insert tab, click Illustrations, and then select SmartArt.

Selecting the SmartArt option in Excel

From here, you can choose the graphic that you want. I recommend either the Circle Accent Timeline or the Basic Timeline, shown next to it. Both of these are found under Process.

An Excel window showing the options for SmartArt Graphics

With the Circle Accent timeline, you can use different levels of a bulleted list to show events in different ways. I used three levels, the first one representing the date, the second one representing major events that happened that day, and the third level giving additional details for those events as necessary. Some details here are more vague than they truly would be, in the interest of not giving away more than the basic opening of my book, but I’m sure you can see how you might make use of it for your own novel.

A timeline showing the events of two days with diagonal text next to representative circles

The Basic Timeline works the same way, but shows things in a different format, with an arrow and more bullet points. It might be better suited to more simple timelines than the one I have in this example. If you just want all of the events in order, without keeping track of how many days have passed since certain things happened, you can probably do away with the dates and list each event as a separate, top-level bullet instead.

A timeline with an arrow shape and bullets beneath each point on it

The Second Option

The second method is more complicated, but, in my opinion, much more useful for long and detailed timelines. It gives so much more functionality than the basic option, and once I figured out how to use it, I loved it.

It starts with putting all of your events into a standard Excel table. Make sure you include headers. This will matter later on down the line. I recommend having at least a column for date and a column for the events. I also added a column for characters and a column for sequence of events within the day, which you’ll also see the usefulness of later.

If you want to be able to insert a timeline later, you should format the date as a real date as opposed to what I did here, however. Go for something like August 17, 2022.

An Excel table, containing columns for date, character, event, and sequence

What you want to do next is highlight the table, go to Insert, click PivotTable, and select From Table/Range.

Inserting a PivotTable

This will open a popup with the range of data (if you highlighted everything, this will be prefilled for you) and a few other options. I recommend just going with the default and hitting OK.

This will open a new sheet, with a little window on the side called PivotTable Fields. This is where your table headers should be showing. Clicking the checkmark next to all of them will add them to a table that gets automatically created for you. You can then click and drag them to create the order that things get shown in. You can now see that my sequence column is ensuring that each event shows in the proper order of the things that happened to that character on that day. I had to click and drag it from the Values to the Rows, so if you’re doing the same thing, you should expect that step as well.

A PivotTable of all the events, ordered by date, then sequence, then character

A Grand Total shows up by default, which doesn’t make sense for this type of data. You can get rid of it by going to the Design tab on the top of the screen, clicking Grand Totals, and selecting the option to turn them off.

Now I’m going to show you why I made a column for character. There’s actually an option with this type of table to filter based on whatever column you want. Because I created one for character, I can now focus in on what happened just to that character over the course of the book or over the course of their life if I want to include backstory (and you know I do!).

This is done by adding what Excel calls a Slicer. Go to PivotTable Analyze at the top (make sure you’ve clicked on the table if you can’t see it), and select Insert Slicer.

Inserting a Slicer in Excel

This brings up a popup that allows you to select the column(s) you want to be able to filter by. I selected character, and just like that I gained the ability to select the one I want to see and have the table update for me. You can also select multiple characters at once using the Multi-Select option, which looks like a little checklist. Or you can hold down Shift while clicking on an additional character.

A PivotTable filtered by character

Now then, I promised a timeline, didn’t I? From this point, you can insert one, although it will work much differently from the first option I showed. Instead of giving you a graphic with all the events listed along it, it actually works a lot like the slicer. It allows you to select a certain date or period of time and focus in on only the events that happened then.

To add one, just go back to PivotTable Analyze and click on Insert Timeline.

The Insert Timelines popup for PivotTable

The popup will prompt you to select the date column. After hitting OK, you’ll have a little box where you can view by years, quarters, months, or days. You can select the day/month/quarter/year you want or click and drag to select a range. In the example here, I’ve selected only August 17th.

An example of selecting a date using the timeline box for PivotTables

And there’s the basics! There are plenty of other options for you to explore if you would like. For example, you could check out the filtering capabilities next to the Row Labels heading by clicking on the funnel image. If you decide you don’t need these, you can have Row Labels not display at all by turning off Field Headers under the PivotTable Analyze tab. Similarly, if you don’t need to be able to collapse and expand things using the +/- boxes, you can turn that off in the same place.

Conclusion

Feel free to play around and create what works best for you and for your novel. As for me, I think I’m going to use this PivotTable with days of the week and made-up years (because my novel doesn’t take place in the world we know) and seed out all the character backstory information I could ever want. Because my novel doesn’t focus on just one character, this is going to be incredibly useful for me as I try to ensure consistency. Hopefully you’re able to find a method that works for you and the book you’re trying to write as well!

How to Change Indents and Line Length in Scrivener

Today I’m going to talk about a little thing that annoyed me for a while when I was learning how to use Scrivener. I had trouble finding other help articles online for this, so here you go!

The problem, in short, comes when I copy text from Microsoft Word. No matter how little I copy, it seems to change the length of every line, such that it doesn’t match what I have in the rest of the document.

A Scrivener document with different line lengths. The first paragraph wraps at a length much shorter than the second.

The first paragraph here was copied in from Word, while the second was written in Scrivener. The difference is obvious, but how do you fix it?

Luckily, it’s pretty easy to do. You just have to go up to the top menu and click Format, then Ruler. There’s also a keyboard shortcut (Control + Shift + R). Either of these methods will give you a ruler to play with.

A Scrivener document with a ruler displayed at the top.

Now you can see that the length of the line is being controlled by the little arrow that shows up right where all the line breaks are. To fix it, all you have to do is highlight the section, the click and drag the arrow to the place where you want the line to break. Problem solved!

As a bonus, this is also how you can add or remove an indent at the start of each paragraph (using the downward facing arrow at the start of the ruler) or indent each line after the first (using the upward facing arrow at the start of the ruler). Behold your options!

A Scrivener document with different ruler settings applied to the first paragraph than the second. The first line is indented half an inch. Subsequent lines are indented a sixth of an inch.

I hope this helps you get the formatting you’re looking for! It definitely saves me from quite a bit of annoyance.

Word Counts and Progress Tracking in Scrivener

One of the features I use the most in Scrivener is the word count functionality. Sure, Microsoft Word and Google Docs will both tell you how many words are in your document, but Scrivener really takes it to another level. I’m going to be showing off my favorites and giving suggestions for how you can make use of them yourself.

Scrivener's Project Statistics, showing word counts for the manuscript and the selection, as well as the page count for each

Here in Scrivener’s Project Statistics (accessible under the Project menu), you can see word and character counts but also the page count in two different formats. Under Options, you can change how many words should be counted as a page, as well as what should be counted as part of the manuscript. This means you can have extra sections, like a reader’s guide for pronunciations and definitions of fantasy words, without having to manually subtract the word count for them while trying to determine how long the actual text of your novel is. You can also easily highlight a selection of scenes or chapters to see how long just those are, which can be particularly helpful if you’re trying to find chapters that are longer or shorter than the others or find out if you’re spending too much time on the exposition, a particular sub-plot, etc.

Scrivener's word count target for the document, showing 981/1000 words in this case

You can also set word count goals for each scene, which you can set ahead of time if you’re writing a first draft and have an idea of how long you want it to be or after the fact if you’re revising. Personally, I use this to set a maximum number of words because I have a problem with expanding while I revise. Having something like this helps me keep the writing under control, by forcing me to go back and take out the sentences and words that aren’t really serving a purpose. This can be edited at the bottom of every text by clicking on the little circle at the bottom right-hand corner (shown beside the green progress bar in the image above).

If you like goal setting, you can really take it all the way with the Project Targets window, one more option to be found under the Project menu. Here, you can set a target word count for your entire manuscript, as well as for your session (which starts when you open the program and continues until you close it, unless you choose to click Reset). For everyone who likes to target a certain number of words per day, this is an excellent option. For people like me, it will even count backwards as I try to push my manuscript back down to 120,000 words or less following my latest round of revisions!

All of these are little things, but I find that they really improve my writing experience. If you have Scrivener and haven’t explored it fully, I hope I’ve helped you find some new features to try. If you have, feel free to leave a comment about how you make use of these. Everybody has a different process, but I’m sure we can all learn something from each other.

Happy writing!

How I Use Scrivener for Novel Writing

I’ve used a few different types of writing software over the years. The first program I used was simply the only option available to me at the time: Microsoft Word. It was the early 2000’s, and my family had one desktop computer and no internet access. Microsoft Word was the program I’d been taught to use in school, and I still use it often. It has the advantage of familiarity, which leads to ease of usability, but it also has some disadvantages when it comes to working on a novel.

As I began working on long form fiction more and more, I found myself getting into the habit of saving multiple versions of the same piece. Towards the end of my time using it this way, I had taken to a naming system reminiscent of software versioning. I had Working Title 1.0 and Working Title 1.1 and Working Title 2.0 and so on for as many different rewrites as I had wanted to create as separate documents. I didn’t want to delete my first draft, especially because I often wanted to just experiment with changes. I often created a version 1.1 in order to try a new approach, only to abandon it because it didn’t pan out. Later, when I did a full rewrite, it became version 2.0, but I didn’t want to delete my experiments either. They often had something about them that I still wanted to find a way to incorporate, and sometimes they had helped give me a better understanding of the characters or the world that I wanted to be able to go back and reference. The problem, of course, was that it became annoyingly difficult to keep track of which version was which, especially when returning to a project after a long break.

Another annoyance was that the files became so large that it was difficult to find the part I wanted to edit. Search functionality exists in Word, but often I couldn’t remember the exact wording of a specific phrase, and searches for character names or other commonly occurring words brought back many results to sift through. It certainly didn’t prevent me from working on my novel, but it did make the process more cumbersome.

Eventually, I shifted into using Google Docs, which has automatic version history, as well as features for easy collaboration. I still use this when I’m seeking feedback from a beta reader, but I no longer use it for versioning. Automatic is nice, but it results in so many versions that it again becomes difficult to keep track of which is which. I realize that it is possible to name certain versions, and I probably could make better use of it if I made the effort, but even then it would be inferior to the versioning capabilities that I found in Scrivener.

Version history in Google Docs, showing time stamps for each version of the document

Here in Google Docs, you can see that the document has been saved each time I’ve made changes to it. Times and dates are saved by default, and I can choose to name any that I choose to.

Version history in Scrivener, showing time stamps with titles for each

Here in Scrivener, on the other hand, I choose when I want to save a version. The time and date are filled in automatically, and I am prompted to add a title.

The biggest difference, however, is that Google Docs saves off a version of your entire document. Scrivener saves off a version of your individual chapter or scene. This particular image shows the versions (called snapshots) that I’ve taken of just chapter two of my current novel. The first snapshot shows me trying out a different character perspective. The second shows me keeping track of the version that I had sent to a beta reader as part of my official third draft. Any time I want to do so, I can restore an old version or click into it for reference, and it will affect only the one small part of the novel that I’m looking at. This is very different from Google Docs, in which I would often find myself scrolling through the entire document to find the changes when comparing to an older version. I also find that having to create the snapshots manually ensures that I actually do it when I want to start some major changes, rather than saying, “Ah, it’s saved off automatically, let’s just keep going.”

Since I started using Scrivener, I’ve actually been surprised at how much easier and more pleasant the writing experience has become simply because of having each chapter and scene split out into separate pieces that can easily be compiled together into one whole. I don’t just title my snapshots. I title my scenes, labeling them with the most important thing that happens in them. That way, when I get an idea for an improvement I could make to “that one part where…”, I can find it within seconds. I can keep even better track of things by adding keywords, labels, custom meta-data, and more.

An example of a chapter in the corkboard view of Scrivener. The chapter is shown as a notecard with labels and text.
Chapter One of my current novel, as seen in Scrivener

Here you can see my preferred setup, in which every chapter is represented by a folder and each folder contains one or more scenes. In this view, you can see each scene in the chapter visually represented by a notecard, which has a short synopsis of events, a label that I created to show which character the scene is focused on, a status that lets me easily find the parts I have flagged for updates, and keywords that I use to show which character’s perspectives are included. Because my book is told by an omniscient narrator and has many characters, I often find it helpful to be able to pick out the one character I’ve made a change to and hop through every part he or she is included in to make sure they’re consistent. Features like this make it easy to do exactly the kind of revisions that I want.

Another advantage to this format is that rearranging scenes and chapters is just as easy as a click and drag. No more scrolling through and highlighting multiple pages just to cut and paste. This is another thing that’s saved me more time and effort than I ever would have thought of, and it’s the little things like this that really add up. Since making the switch, I’ve found that every little annoyance I’ve taken out has increased the time that I spend working on my novel, simply because I’m enjoying myself more while I’m doing it.

Another thing that has increased time spent working on my novel is the fact that there are so many things related to my novel that I can work on from within the same file. From labeling, planning, and organizing to creating character sheets and notes related to worldbuilding, even when I’m not in the mood to write I can be making progress on something. And the real secret? Sometimes just working on a character sheet is enough to put me in the mood to write, and then the novel is right there, just one click away. Conversely, if I’m working on the novel and can’t remember how tall a particular character is compared to another or what the name of so-and-so’s second child was, I can pull up the character sheet with just one click and get right back to what I was doing.

A character sheet in Scrivener. Seen on the side are other types of notes.
A character sheet that I created in Scrivener

Scrivener lets you create different categories for your notes, create templates for things like character sheets, and generally store anything you want to keep track of. I have notes on all my characters, lists of magic spells and enchantments, a complete timeline of events, a family tree, a reference for a complicated plan that some villainous characters have in secret, and more. I even use this as a place to store the query, pitch, and synopsis that I created for querying agents, which is very helpful.

Honestly, I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the things Scrivener is capable of doing. It takes some time to learn, but I found that I was so excited by each new feature I discovered that the process felt like playing more than anything else. If you pick up on software really quickly the way I do, I think you’ll love how robust it is and how many options it gives you. I was wary to spend the money on it at first, especially when options like Google Docs are free, but I really have not been disappointed in it. It fits exactly with my writing preferences, and I would really recommend it to anyone who has a similar workflow to mine.

Critique Circle: The Benefits and Drawbacks

Critique Circle is a website that gives writers an opportunity to get critiques on their work in exchange for giving other writers critiques on their work. It is free to use, but it also has a premium option that you can pay for in order to unlock special features.

How does it work? In a nutshell, you earn credits by giving critiques of short pieces that have been submitted for review. The number of credits you earn depends on the length of the piece. You can then spend credits in order to submit one of your own pieces for review by others. If you submit a piece, it will be added to a waiting list, and you will have to wait until pieces that were submitted before yours are given their chance to receive critiques first. In my experience, this is typically a few weeks at most.

I think the largest benefit of this system is that it incentivizes its users to give critiques to one another. In other aspects of my life, it has been far too many times that I have taken time to read and edit or give suggestions to a writer friend or an acquaintance, only to struggle to find anyone at all who is willing to do the same when I am looking for a bit of feedback. In general, I do enjoy helping other people with their writing, especially when I feel as though I’ve been able to contribute some high quality insights, but of course it is difficult to improve as a writer if you never receive any feedback on your own work. When I submitted pieces to Critique Circle, I got five or six critiques for each of them, most of them quite detailed and a few that definitely helped me see areas in need of improvement.

The largest drawback is that you never know who is going to be reading and critiquing for you. You could get advice from one of the most helpful and experienced users or you could get it from someone who is a complete amateur. Similarly, you can get critiques that are written in a very positive and friendly way and critiques that are written in a very critical way. This can be difficult to handle if you have thin skin, and it can be frustrating if you feel as though you’ve received a piece of advice that is unhelpful or even wrong.

This leads into the second of the drawbacks that I have personally experienced: when attempting to get feedback on a novel using the free version, you are more than likely to get critiques on your second chapter from users who haven’t read your first. I tried to alleviate this problem by providing a summary of all the events of the first chapter that were directly relevant to the second, but I was frustrated to find critiques from people who complained that they were confused about something that had, in fact, been explained in the summary. To be fair, this may be a larger problem with books that involve a large amount of world building, as opposed to genres that would theoretically be easier to pick up from the middle. I also found that I experienced the problem of people not reading the summary much less once I started getting critiques from more experienced members more often, but it was a large frustration for me in the beginning.

If you become a premium member, though, you can solve this problem by recruiting members to join a group that will focus on your novel specifically. The premium member also has the ability to determine who can join the group, which solves the first problem as well. Premium membership also gives you the ability to give and receive critiques on an entire manuscript rather than on short chunks at a time. The downside to this, of course, is that it costs a monthly fee.

I used the free version for a long time before trying the paid version, and I think both have benefits and drawbacks. The question of whether to pay for it or not comes down to the individual writer and what they are looking to get out of the site. Personally, I would recommend starting with the free version to get a feel for things and also to build relationships with other users. Even if a private queue appeals to you, you’ll have to know who to invite into it. Unless you joined the site with a group of writer friends, how else will you know who gives good critiques except by receiving some in the public queues?

On top of that, there are some features that are friendly to new members, enabling your work to receive critiques more quickly than members who have been around for longer, and I’ve found that really understanding how the system works is a good way to get the most out of it.

My biggest tip to those who plan to use the site? Strive to give good quality critiques to others. Many people will return the favor when it comes to be your turn. Besides that, there is a system in which writers can grade how helpful a critique was to them, and users who critique often and score over a certain average can get special badges that show up next to their names. You can bet that there are people on the site who will choose to give critiques to those who have given good critiques to others! Be a good person: give the best advice that you can give. If you want to be a very good person, go back and read the previous chapter(s) before critiquing the current one. It won’t get you any extra credits, but I’m sure the author will appreciate it. Sites like this work best when everyone involved is kind and generous.

I wish the best of luck to all other aspiring writers out there! Feel free to shoot me a message if you decide to join based on my recommendation. If I like the looks of what you’ve written, I might just give you a crit.