Monday, June 20, 2011

Why a Scene List Improves Your Writing

Have you ever created a scene list of your book? Did you form it before or after you wrote the book?

I'm a HUGE fan of scene lists. I always create one before I write the book. Since I'm a plotter, I know the main turning points and have a basic idea of subplots before I begin writing. The entire list might not be fully fleshed out when I tackle chapter one, but 75% of it will be.

Isn't a scene list a lot of extra work? Doesn't it take the fun and discovery out of writing?

Yes, to the first question. No, to the second.

It does take time and energy to fill out a scene list, but we have to figure out our story at some point--why not do it right away? And again, I'm a plotter. I find graphs, charts, and plot worksheets exciting. They don't take the fun and discovery out for me--they allow me the stress-free zone I need to work. If you're a pantster, you might want to plug your ears and leave the room for coffee now.

(If you're confused about what needs to be in a scene or how to plot one, feel free to check out my article, "Plotting the Scene," which is linked.)

So exactly how does a scene list improve your writing? Isn't it just a summary of your book? Why not write a synopsis and call it good?

Scene lists, although time-consuming to create, save you time throughout the life of a project, and they keep your book focused.

A scene list is much more than a synopsis. It's a map. It tells you the exact number of scenes (or sequels) you have in your book. It shows you how many scenes in a row are told from one person's point of view, alerting you that you may need to switch it up. At a glance you'll see overused setting locations (whoops, guess they were in the park five times already!) and vague plot goals. If you have fifty scenes, you'll know you've hit the mid-point too soon if you're writing it in scene thirteen.

Scene lists help you keep track of plot threads, sub-plots, pacing, and proper turning-point placement. They also give you a reference point each day when you sit down to write. That alone saves me ten minutes every writing session.

I've talked about my use of Microsoft OneNote to keep track of all research for a book. One of my pages is the scene list. I open the file alongside my Word document and flip back and forth to make sure I've covered everything necessary in the scene. I also leave notes in the scene list where I've left off for the day. For me, there's nothing worse than staring at a WIP with blank eyes and confusion. A quick peek at my scene list fires my brain, reminding me exactly where I need to pick up the story.

When the first draft is finished, the scene list can be extremely valuable. You can use it for a quick search of your manuscript--when did Aunt Betty give Jimbo the key again? Oh right, scene 23 in chapter 14. If your critique partner, agent, or editor asks you about a plot element and you can't remember the location, you can check your scene list.

Personally, I find the scene list to be helpful after I've completed a book. When I start a new project, I don't always remember off-hand how many scenes and chapters to aim for. It helps to scan an old scene list to refamiliarize myself with the number of scenes, turning point placement, and the types and placement of sub-plots.

Do you create scene lists? Why or why not? I'd love to hear your opinion!

Have a magnificent Monday!


  1. I do keep a detailed scene list in excel with columns for such things as Chapter, Scene, Word Count, Cumulative Word Count, POV, Setting, Description of Scene. But I'm a discovery writer. I write a synopsis before I start writing, and I know basiscally the main plot points of my story and how it's going to end, but I keep my detailed scene list as I go. It keeps me on track and helps me review where I've already been.

  2. I do create an uncomplicated scene list after the first draft. But the idea of creating it as I go would be a huge timesaver in the end.

  3. I am so right there with you! I also create a scene list before I write the rough draft. Each scene includes a GMC and some other important details. I'm all about plotting. I run into scary, impossible-to-escape corners if I don't.

  4. List scenes are novel savers.

    I leave room for surprises, but having these does make me feel like I have a map in my hand and it always helps me rest assured that I'll have enough conflict, etc.

    ~ Wendy

  5. I've never done a scene list per se. I did try, once, writing an incredibly detailed outline, including scenes, before I wrote the story, and then found that it really did suck the joy out of the actual writing process for me. A general outline is good for me, and I always know at least two detailed scenes ahead of where I am currently writing, but anything more than that and my writing gets arduous and dull.

    Although I love the idea of a scene list after the fact, to help me keep track of everything better!

  6. Interesting topic. In the past I have not written a scene list due to not feeling it necessary for short stories. But I have started the preliminary process of a novel, the next step being scene lists and breaking into Act 1, 2 and 3. I'm not sure yet if that is the best process for me but we don't know until we try it!

  7. I had a delicious chocolate Mocha. Back now! :)

    I don't keep scene lists until about half way through. Then I jot them down just to keep me on track during the tricky ride from the twist to the end.

    I know my main plot, sub-plot and some key scenes, but the rest just happen.

  8. Good morning!

    Heather: Same here. Excel is a great tool for scene lists! I love that you keep track of your word count--I do that too. It really motivates me each day. :)

    Laura: It saves me a lot of time. I don't have to worry about "oh, did I hint at the clue of such-and-such sub-plot" because I can do a quick scan of my list and see exactly when and where I placed it (or if I did, indeed miss it!).

    Katie: Me too. Or there won't be any corners, which can be just as bad. Scene lists help me write a layered book without dropping important threads!

    Wendy: Surprises always come up. I love the flexibility of a scene list--I can simply cut/paste a scene to use later or add a new one if needed.

    ELouise: I'm a firm believer in finding what works for you and ignoring what doesn't. If something sucks the joy out of writing--throw it out and don't look back!

    Lynn: That's my attitude too: I might as well try it. If I hate it, I don't have to use it again! Good luck writing novel #1!

    Jessica: Mmm... I just had a Cinnabon flavored coffee. Yes, I am going back for more. :) It sounds like you have a great process!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  9. I haven't done a scene list - this intrigues me actually. I do have scenes in my head and a general progression of where it's going but haven't actually mapped it out. Great thoughts, Jill!

  10. Writing my first novel, and just spent a few months creating an loutline and scene list after the first draft. Next time, I'll start with them. Even though the story may not exactly follow them as I write it, it's close enough so that I always know where I am, where I'm trying to go, and what each scene is supposed to convey.

  11. I recently created my first-ever scene list. (And it was waaaay after I finished the novel and was deep into revisions).

    The point of the scene list for me was to classify each scene as weak (filler, fluff, small talk) or strong (conflict, tension, action, surprise, emotion).

    James Scott Bell says a good novel can be created with three great scenes and no weak ones. So I went through and labeled them as strong or weak and it was super helpful.

    I've never tried it before writing, maybe next time I will.

  12. I do this! I like to print mine out and tape them to the wall in my office--it gives me a visual of the entire book so I can keep the big picture in mind as I work on individual pages :).

  13. I used to keep a scene list, but I didn't know there was a name for it! Now I'm inspired to create a new one for my current WIP. This might be exactly what it needs.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    -Miss GOP

  14. Oh yes, I'm a total scene list junkie! I use Excel (the CPA in me never dies) :), and I agree that it's just as helpful before writing the book as it is after!

  15. Jaime: I had a similar process to yours with my first books. I like the scene list because I don't feel like I'm dropping any balls. It's all there to remind me. :)

    Cathryn: You bring up a good point--I don't always follow my scene list to the letter. It evolves as I write. I may realize a scheduled scene won't work, or that I need three scenes I never anticipated. Regardless, the scene list is a gem!

    Maggie: Another great reason for a scene list--it's easy to spot weak scenes. Great!!

    Cheryl: Love it! I have a huge bulletin board. I might print mine out next time too!

    Miss GOP: Even though at times it can feel like cleaning out an unruly closet (will it ever end? how will I organize all of this stuff?), a scene list clarifies a story. It's a wonder! Try it!

    Sarah: Oh, I know, Sarah. You can take the CPA out of the office, but you can't take the Excel spreadsheet out of the CPA! Ha!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. I've always thought of myself as a pantser, but that isn't actually true. I'm about as spontaneous as a fruit fly. I'm just really lazy and think I can maintain all my lists in my head. When I sit down to make a real one, I write cryptic things I don't understand later like A+Y/father knows/universal odds of creation equation=0, or I fizzle out about halfway through and think "I already know all this, why the anal-retentive behavior?" ;)

  17. Jill: Ha! I hear you! Unfortunately, I've had to cry "uncle" on trying to remember all of the details. The scene list keeps it together for me. But you're right, I have to spell it out concisely. No secret codes! :)

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  18. As you know Jill, I'm not a fictional writer. But I found this topic fascinating and look forward to sharing it with my fiction writing critique partners! Sounds like a very organized, methodical approach to help your writing. I like it! God bless!

  19. Oh Jill…

    1. YES. I've created a scene list. I did so before this big rewrite... 16K. Uh, so maybe some overkill.

    2. I'm in with the other Excel girls here. :-) I have the scene number, chapter number, place in the story structure (Act I, Black Moment, etc.), the description, the date, my scene WC (and goal), chapter WC (and goal), Current WC (This figures out the other WCs), and.. um, okay, so yeah. I'm kinda a spreadsheet junky. The WCs really do kind of help me with pacing.

    3. Your timing is great cause after my WIP doc got corrupted I've been SO grateful I still have my outline to recreate the sections I hadn't backed up!!

  20. Just wanted to say thanks for linking to that wonderful little scene checklist of yours. Very helpful and much appreciated!


I love to hear from you!