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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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