I love structure and organization. My daughter told me recently that I’m an occasional obsessive organizer. I get busy, preoccupied with other tasks, and slack off until the obsessive side of me kicks in and opens a spreadsheet. I can at least organize my life on paper. It’s no different with writing. I can write with no roadmap for a while, but when I start feeling around in the dark for the next exit I know it’s time to go back to the outline. Learning to use a scene outline made writing a much easier process and significantly cut down the hours spent revising.

I first learned the process by reading Sandra Scofield’s, The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer. Before reading her book I tended to think of my book in terms of the big picture – the story arc – what my character(s) were learning and how they were changing from beginning to end. I thought in terms of plot, how one event leads to another, beginning of book to end. But all of that information has to be conveyed in terms of scenes for the reader. I learned to think of the book I was writing in terms of a movie. In a movie, characters are not dumped on the set and expected to act for two hours. They move from scene to scene with careful detail paid to the transitions. The transitions help dictate the pacing of the novel.

Planning the scenes carefully helps pace the book so the drama / action / contemplation is perfectly placed to keep the reader turning the pages. The writer doesn’t want the reader exhausted from too much action, or bored from too much narrative. The writer has to know the audience he/she is writing to, and the pace that best fits that audience. Obviously readers of suspense novels won’t put up with near the amount of narrative description as readers of literary novels.

Excel (again)

I’ll go back to my Excel spreadsheet example just because it makes the most sense to me. But a binder or notebook, a Word file, or butcher block paper and Post-it notes would work just as well. For me, it’s a matter of getting the map done so I’m free to concentrate on the writing rather than the stress of where the plot is headed. Each time I’ve written a book I’ve organized it a bit differently, so I’ll stick with my current set-up. Following are the columns for the spreadsheet and a description of each.

Day and Time

This is obvious, but if you are writing a mystery, or a book where chronology of events may be important later, keeping the scene outline by day and time can be a big help. At times, I refer back to this to figure out my time of day. Sometimes I’m not sure if the characters should be eating breakfast in a particular scene – or taking a supper break. This column keeps the days straight.


I tend to get lazy and not use this as much, but I should. The purpose allows you to track whether the scene is action, conflict, set-up, interior dialogue, narrative, romance, drama, etc. It allows you to keep tabs on your pacing and to ensure that subplots aren’t forgotten for too long.


Keeping track of where your scenes are located can help you vary the setting. Too many cups of coffee sipped at the kitchen table get boring for the reader. I always enjoy getting to know a new locale through the various places of interest a book will take me. Varying the settings also allows the characters to interact within their surroundings. A scene between a husband and wife that could have taken place at the kitchen table might play out quite differently set in a Wal-Mart parking lot, the waiting room at the doctor’s office or standing in the bathroom getting ready for work in the morning. Give thought to where the scene could best be set to foster conflict.

Scene Description

Just what the title says – a short description of what will happen in the scene. It can be one or two sentences, or a paragraph or more that clearly describes the people and action – the mini story arc – within the scene. The conflict should be clear in the description though. How will the scene move the story forward? Make sure you stay away from information dumps. Remember the mantra – show don’t tell. The important information that must be conveyed to the reader should be shown through interesting, conflict-thick scenes.

The Wrap Up

I have only touched the surface, but here’s the most important idea behind the scene outline: customize it to fit your needs. The most obvious use is to organize and plan your writing. Using the Excel format allows you to cut and paste rows so a scene you thought would be in Chapter 6 is easily moved to Chapter 10. And, you are able to insert a row to add scenes as necessary. With my current book I broke the spreadsheet into 30 chapters (just a random number) so that I could add scenes now that I want to use later in the book.

Next Time: Scenes in Depth

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