I’ve been spending a bit more time with Scrivener, a writing tool that I picked up a while back and then didn’t do much with for a little while. Having paid actual money for it, though, I figured it was high time I delved into it and actually started using it for a project rather than it being one of those things that just gathers (virtual) dust as a symbol of past good intentions.
I decided that the project I was going to use it for was a visual novel. Regular readers will know that I find this simple but effective form of interactive storytelling to be a fascinating medium, and I have been toying with the idea of writing one for quite some time, usually falling at the first hurdle when I remember I have little-to-no graphical talent, which somewhat precludes me from incorporating the “visual” bit.
But, I figured, no sense worrying about graphics if there’s nothing for them to visualise. So I decided to actually start writing it, and to use Scrivener to plan it out in advance.
Now, when I write, I must confess that I rarely go through a formal “planning” process. This is probably fairly evident in these daily blog posts, which tend to spew forth directly from my brain and out of my fingers in some sort of hideously unorganised stream of consciousness. But it’s the way I’ve generally worked on more formal pieces over time, too. During A-Levels and university, I never “planned” an essay on a piece of paper beforehand. I never used the “outline” function of Word, I never scrawled things on Post-Its and then moved them around. I just wrote, then tweaked, fiddled and moved things around once I’d written a first draft. It worked for me.
That approach doesn’t work so well with long-form fiction, whether you’re attempting to create a linear narrative for a novel or a non-linear branching narrative for a game or visual novel. I have a number of stalled novel projects on the go simply because I’m not entirely sure where they’re going. In some cases, I have an idea of what the end might be, but it’s the stuff in the middle I haven’t figured out. How to get from the beginning to the end, as it were.
So, as I decided to start work on this visual novel project (which, like an irritating PR agency for a company making an iOS game you don’t give a shit about I’m “not ready to talk about yet”) I also figured that I would give this whole “planning” thing a shot. I recalled seeing the spectacularly comprehensive flowchart for Katawa Shoujo (mild spoilers within), and knew that if I was going to put together even a relatively simple VN project, I would have to figure out some sort of way to keep it organised.
Fortunately, Scrivener has delivered just that brilliantly. In order to plan out the basic sequence of events, I’ve used the “corkboard” facility and its special mode where you can drag around virtual index cards as you please. I’ve written short synopses of each scene on each index card and laid them out in a logical fashion to depict the various routes the player might be able to take through the story. Each index card then corresponds to a separate “subdocument” in the whole Scrivener project, allowing scenes to easily be split up and composed a little bit at a time rather than simply being confronted with a daunting blank page and no idea where to start.
Then there’s pleasing little touches that help with the actual writing process, too. When writing in “Script” mode (which I’m using to compose the VN), simple keyboard shortcuts allow you to easily switch from writing actions to character names to dialog and back again. You can create links to other subdocuments or your research (which you can also store within your Scrivener project). You can split the editor window so you can refer to a piece of source material as you write. And when it’s all done you can “compile” your project ready for publishing as a physical product, ebook or other format.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of the features it offers, but already I can see it becoming an essential part of the writing process. Progress on the VN project is going well so far — I’ve synopsised (huh… according to spellcheck that IS a word) the whole of the first “act” of the game and am now starting on in-depth scripting for each scene. Following this, I’ll work on the various diverging paths through the narrative and hopefully end up with a suitably comprehensive document ready to plug into Ren’Py and then flutter my eyelashes at someone who can draw. Following that, who knows? Perhaps I’ll have a finished game one day.