Outlining a broadcast script using Scrivener

Someone asked about Scrivener the other day, which is one of my favorite programs. They wanted to know if it was good to use for longform news articles. And it is.

But it got me thinking that the program – which is heavy-duty story outlining and structuring software – can be used for shorter stories, including audio and visual scripts. I went back into my files and found a story I worked with students on where we built a script using Scrivener.

First: Scrivener is a powerful outlining and compilation program. You can use it to organize a novel, a magazine article, a legal brief.  It’s so powerful that I don’t think most people scratch the surface of what it does; they use it to form chapters, move stuff around and write.  Every student that I’ve shown it to as an organizational tool thinks it’s amazing.  It’s especially useful if you think in stories in terms of modules.

The story here is on the emerald ash borer coming to Columbia, Mo. The borer is an ugly pest that drives into ash trees and causes them to die. From a structural perspective, it’s pretty straight forward: Bug comes to trees –> Bug kills trees –> Here’s the story of the war.

But after reporting, the team found itself with a mess of notes of an ideas. I used two functions in Scrivener in make some sense out of it: the corkboard and the compile function. Corkboard allows you move ideas around like notecards to see what works best (it works really well with storyboxing, by the way). Compile lets you take separate sections and turn them into a single Word doc.

We started the corkboard with the basic things we knew had to be in the story: An intro, a toss and an anchor tag (translation: a set up to the story, a push from the set up into the story and an exit from the story).

The first two story sections on the Scrivener corkboard.

The first two story sections on the Scrivener corkboard.

They’re pretty broad and not detailed at all. We haven’t written anything much except for broad notions since we’re just interested in the structure at this point. For the intro, we’ve written down “Ash borer coming to Columbia.” For the toss, we’ve written “Here’s what Columbia is doing about it.” Neither of them are very descriptive, and we could be descriptive, but we don’t want to get too mired in the details right now.

Then we start filling out the story. We know that our first read in the story needs to set up the conflict in more detail than the intro will. And we know that we need interview sound, a SOT (Sound On Tape) that supports the conflict. So we found the right SOT and inserted it into the next slot. In this case, we wrote out the full SOT into the card, so we could move it easily if we needed to. We wrote in another read and then the next SOT.

The second row of notecards in the Scrivener outline

The second row of notecards in the Scrivener outline

 

It went on like that for a few more rows — three cards to the row, each card identifying a specific concept, fact or piece of interview sound. Here’s the next couple rows.

Reads and SOTs in the Scrivener corkboard outline

Reads and SOTs in the Scrivener corkboard outline

Scrivener presents a secondary visual outline in the screen sidebar.

Scrivener presents a secondary visual outline in the screen sidebar.

In the case of SOT 5 (at the right end of the second line), it was originally SOT 4. But it seemed to work better as a transition. So it was a simple click-and-drag to a new location. That’s really the strength of Scrivener; it allows you to move stuff around more easily. Like storyboarding, you can make your mistakes on paper and not in your editing timeline.

We had a couple more rows in there and were done with the basic structure. This was a case where used concepts and facts in the reads, but it was the SOTs that really gave the pieces structure. The students were able to backward-engineer the reads to create strong linkages between SOTs.

One of the things I like most about Scrivener is that you can go from outline to writing in one click and it stays in the right place. Scrivener treats each notecard as a separate section and displays it over on the side.  With one click into that section, it brings up a word processor screen to write in.

By the time we finished outlining where the facts could go and where the sound would go, it became an easy exercise to drop the facts in.  Scrivener’s word processor function is bare bones. You type, it shows up. It’s not so much with the formatting, beyond the basic stuff. And that’s OK.

Once the content was written in — the intro, the toss, the reads and the anchor tag — we used Scrivener’s other most powerful function: Compile. The software takes each section (as seen in the sidebar menu or the corkboard) and puts into a single contiguous Word document. It’s ready for final formatting.

Here’s the full corkboard:

The ash borer's full corkboard outline in Scrivener.

The ash borer’s full corkboard outline in Scrivener.