The Essential Scene List

Sometimes writing a novel isn’t so much about deep character or tight plot, but about something far more mundane: like keeping track of what the hell you’re writing.

This is a serious concern for novelists, particularly if you have anything else going on in your life, like a real life. All your brain cells cannot be devoted to the novel. You need organizing devices. Some of mine are: the project notebook, a three-ring binder for novel research, a style sheet listing names and places and special words, and most important, a scene list.

(And before you skip this post–if you already use a scene list–skip to the end and read up on the role of the scene list in revision.)

The Ongoing Scene List

The scene list is a numbered summary, in order, of each scene, its POV, and page number. When you start the scene list from day one, it becomes your indispensable guide to what is happening in your plot. It is brief but deep. It will save you from combing your document looking for things and wondering what the last few chapters really covered.

At the end of the writing day I briefly summarize what happened in the scenes I completed: the action, the place, the clues dropped, foreshadowing, new characters introduced, and phrases or words that have special meaning. (Grandfather always calls her piari-Hindi for dear.)

I could not live without this list. (Some novelists call it the chapter list. Since I don’t form chapters until later, I just list scenes. Plus, scenes are the real building blocks of story. Chapters are random–they can be 6 pages or 20-pages of linked scenes. Later, I change my scene list to a chapter list with scene summaries separated by ###.)

The Notational Scene List

Let the scene list be a messy, written-upon document. Keep it printed out and within reach while you write. As you think of a point that should have been in a previous scene, jot a note in the margin of the scene list. “The villagers give her a nick-name, ‘woman of the half moon foot.’” Don’t lose your stride by flipping through the manuscript to make a margin note. Find it quickly on the scene list.

Have you just been visited by an idea for the next scene? That goes on the scene list too, but on the last page. This section is called the step sheet and represents the plot progression of the next 3-4 scenes, if you know them. Don’t number the scenes to come, just put them in the best order you can. “Scene at the gorge with the prince.” “Lt. C steals the box from T’s room.”

And like magic (OK, after grueling work) the step sheet notes become the next scenes in your scene list. Progress!

I know, after your day’s writing, you’re tired. The last thing you want to do is recap what you just wrote. I understand, but do it. It won’t be nearly as easy in the morning, trust me.

Every now and then, reprint the new pages in your scene list. ‘Cause, you know, it keeps getting longer.

Other notations: Day 1, Day 5, Day 32… the time sequence. These go in pencil in the margin. Time of day for a critical sequence: pre-dawn, mid-day, midnight. Also in pencil in the margin where you can quickly find it.

Revision Blindness

If you are reading and re-reading your last few chapters to get a run-up on your next scene, stop this now. Rereading causes revision blindness later, since you will be too familiar with the material. Read your scene list instead. That tells you exactly what you wrote yesterday and the day before. If you have multiple points of view, read the entries in your scene list for the character in whose viewpoint you’re going to write today.

All right, I’m going to give a small dispensation here. If you need a warm-up, go ahead and lightly revise yesterday’s scene. But don’t, don’t keep re-reading your material. Remember that you will be editing this material and want to be as fresh as you can to that task. I know, you re-read to assure yourself that the novel is readable. This is, frankly, nuts. (However I’m as prone as the next person to doing it. But it’s still a bad idea.)

OK, Now Revise

You’re ready for your first big revision? Terrific. You start reading the manuscript, right? Wrong.

Oh, this part is so cool. I just love how this works: You’ve been faithful in keeping the scene list accurate. Now go to this precious document and read it as though it were the story. Voila, instant big picture! Watch for pacing lapses, over-emphasis of minor things, places where your skimmed too fast and need more depth.

Mark those observations in the margins! Is the opening material too sketchy? What new scene would add drama? These are the kind of judgments that are so hard to make when reading manuscript pages, but that almost jump out at you and shake you by the shoulders when you’re reading the scene list in a strategic way.

Of course, eventually you read the manuscript pages. By then you’ve done your structural edit and can focus on virtually the only thing a manuscript reading lets you do: line edit.

So, go forth and write wonderful stories, and keep track of what the hell you’re doing. I think you’ll need a scene list to do it, but that’s just me.

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10 Responses

  1. Tiyana says:

    Progressive scene lists are such a great idea. I am more of an organic writer; too much pre-planning kills my desire to write the book. So, after a million ill-fated attempts at completing a first draft using a myriad of different planning methods, I got lazy with Draft Actual when I chose to go more freestyle and wrote it with only a broad outline–which worked, I guess, because I completed the draft! Only problem was I didn’t summarize the scenes as I went along. -_-

    Now, I have to go back and do those.

    I realize, now, that having a list with short scene descriptions will help in putting together a synopsis later on if/when I’m ever asked for one–after the scenes and their contents have been mercilessly considered for their relevance and vitalness to the story, of course. :D

    The scene list really does help put your story into perspective and makes seeing “the big picture” not quite so overwhelming. (I’m using a free program called yWriter to keep track of mine.) And really, it isn’t so difficult do—if you just sit down and *do* it.

  2. Kay says:

    The scene list is even more vital for organic writers since presumably they have so much more to fix on the rewrite! As I understand the organic approach, you just keep rewriting until the structure emerges.

  3. Tiyana says:

    I think you do initially, until you realize your premise or concept, or whatever it is you feel you have to decipher organically. Then, the necessary structure becomes apparent, and you can refocus the plot from that point on then go back and realign things later if necessary.

    For me, I had trouble realizing a good premise when I tried planning it out manually before I got the chance to thoroughly “discover” my characters; I just couldn’t see it linearly on paper. (Though, looking back, maybe starting with a character journal first could have alleviated that problem.) At one point I decided to rewrite the opening scene in my previous draft, and it changed my entire perspective on my characters; the story then became more character-based than it was plot-based, and I pretty much had to rewrite everything. It wasn’t until I started actually writing in their voices that my concept really evolved and the story I felt I should have been telling all along began to pan out.

    Of course, boning up on plot structure and all the storytelling elements *before* starting a novel helps a lot, too–something I neglected to do on my first several attempts, heh. But it could also be that I’m just weaker at plotting than character development and needed to change my approach to storytelling based on this.

  4. Kay says:

    If it works to start with character to find a premise, I’m all for it. The important thing is to find an original, dramatic and compelling premise. Usually you do that first (it may take weeks, so I wouldn’t give up too early, thinking it wasn’t working) and then ask, Who does this happen too? Then you will be able to tighten up the premise based on the character. If your work is “more character-based than plot-based” then you are probably writing a literary novel. Even so, a compelling premise and plot will not mar a literary novel, and may appeal to many more readers than a more loosely constructed study of character.

    You have to find your own process. But I would at least look at story structure techniques. It is possible to use story structure knowledge in an organic way; it just means a lot of rewriting–which I find tests my patience and produces fatigue and story-weariness. But I do understand that some people are put off by planning.

  5. Your cousin Pattie recommended that I check out your website and am I ever glad I did! Your website is choc full of helpful information for aspiring authors like myself. I can’t wait to check out your books. :P

  6. Kay says:

    Oh, hello back to Pattie! Welcome to my blog, glad to help if I can.

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