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8 Ways a Scene List Can Make Writing Your Novel Easier

There are as many ways to write a book as there are authors who have written them. Some writers don't outline at all, while others extensively outline a book project before writing the first page. Some plan chapters by outline their novels on the wall of their office (William Faulkner, we're looking at you!), while others like J.K. Rowling compose an extensive scene list like the one we're going to discuss in this article.

Bestselling author J.K. Rowling used a scene list to write the fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
A rudimentary scene list handwritten by J.K. Rowling and used to write the fifth Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

1. A scene list is your novel in Excel spreadsheet form

The easiest way to think of a scene list is to think of it as a detailed outline of your novel in spreadsheet format. Obviously, this can be done by hand (as J.K. Rowling proves) but a much easier way to make it happen is on an Excel spreadsheet.

2. A scene list ensures your novel contains necessary elements

This worksheet for writers, provided by author Jami Gold, is a great resource to help you determine the exact elements needed for each scene to write a well-written novel. As a summary of the worksheet, he notes:

  • Your scene should include at least one of these essential elements:
    • A plot point
    • A character's goal
    • Action to advance the plot
    • Action to increase the tension
  • Scenes should also reveal at least two of the following important elements:
    • Character development
    • A cause of character conflict
    • An effect of character conflict
    • How stakes are raised
    • A reinforcement of the stakes
    • Character motivation
  • Scenes can also reveal these bonus elements:
    • Character backstory
    • World building
    • The story's tone or mood
    • Story theme
    • Foreshadowing

As you are creating your scene list on an Excel spreadsheet, keep these essential, important, and bonus elements in mind for the columns. Doing so will help ensure that each scene you write has the necessary elements needed to keep the plot moving forward the way it should. A scene that is written that doesn't contain any essential or important elements is also a scene that can be considered for cutting when revising the rough draft into a final draft.

3. A scene list is easier to keep track of than post-it notes

The elements involved in a scene list are likely portions of your novel's outline that you've already reproduced on post-it notes, index cards, or a similar variation. In fact, this article published by the WriteOnSisters, speaks of the Wall of Sticky Notes used in the process of screenwriting—a process very similar to novel writing. It's based on Blake Snyder's Save the Cat series—a series I've mentioned often in my articles on plot structure—and helps writers determine the basic beats of the story (aka, the action points of the plot).

Some of the important elements that should be included on your scene list, and suggested columns are:

  • Column 1: The number of the scene within the overall outline
  • Column 2: The name and/or brief summary of the scene
  • Column 3: POV
  • Column 4: The date of the scene within the story
  • Column 5: The setting(s) in which the scene will take place
  • Column 6: Plot of scene
  • Column 7: Character's motivation
  • Column 8: Costume images/ideas
  • Column 9: Prop images/ideas
  • Column 10: Scene elements, as detailed in point #2. (NOTE: For a more detailed scene list, each element in point #2 can have its own column, which is checked according to the purpose the scene serves for easy identification.)
  • Column 11: Proposed word count
  • Column 12: Actual word count

4. A scene list keeps track of POV when your novel contains several

Many modern bestsellers (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins) take advantage of multiple points of view (POV) to keep the reader guessing the truth until the very end. It's a modern, fascinating method of storytelling but one that requires careful planning on the part of the author to ensure that all narratives meet at a certain point and all perspectives make logical sense throughout the course of the narrative.

Using a scene list to keep track with the multiple points of view and the story arc that each encounters throughout chapters is an easy way to ensure that each POV achieves what it should achieve—namely, plot progression or character building.

5. A scene list allows you to organize images and ideas for props, costume, setting, etc.

One benefit of software (e.g., spreadsheet software such as Excel) is its ability to hold multiple media related to a scene. For example, when you find a particular costume online as a .JPEG or .PNG file, you can easily upload it into a spreadsheet column for future reference. Granted—in past times, the same thing was accomplished by printing out the costume image or cutting it from a magazine and pasting it to a physical sheet of paper (or wall, as in Faulkner's case). However, technology has made it so much easier for writers to copy and paste various media—whether an image file, song file, or text file—and place it into a spreadsheet for easy viewing and cataloging. These types of media can all be included in your scene list spreadsheet with simply copying and pasting a digital file.

6. A scene list will keep you on track with your writing goals

One column of your scene list spreadsheet should be reserved for an editorial calendar. Just as Faulkner wrote the various days' tasks on the walls of his study, you can also create a writing calendar for your novel—all without damaging paint and your home's interior.

To stay on a certain schedule when writing your book, we suggest creating a column that represents a timeline for writing your novel. For some writers, this column could be a daily column (e.g., Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc.). For others, this could be a weekly or monthly column—really, it depends on how often you write and the timeline you are giving yourself for getting your novel finished.

In either case, think of a scene list as a timeline for both you and your characters to reach the end of the novel-writing process. Once you determine the exact scenes that are needed from beginning to end in your book, divide them up over the timespan you're giving yourself to complete writing it.

Determine which scenes are needed then divide them up based on your calendar and writing goals
Your scene list can be a timeline to help you finish your novel based on your calendar and writing goals. Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash.

7. A scene list will help when it's time to edit your novel

In the often-troubling, definitely stressful time of editing your rough draft, a scene list will help you view your novel with an eagle-eye viewpoint to determine what—if anything—can and should be cut. In essence, here is a list of the necessary scenes your novel should contain, as noted by Shawn Coyne of Story Grid:

  • The inciting incident at the beginning of your story.
  • The inciting incident at the middle of your story.
  • The inciting incident at the end of your story.
  • A scene that progressively complicates the beginning of your story.
  • A scene that progressively complicates the middle of your story.
  • A scene that progressively complicates the end of your story.
  • A scene that creates a crisis question at the beginning of your story.
  • A scene that creates a crisis question in the middle of your story.
  • A scene that creates a crisis question at the end of your story.
  • A scene that climaxes the beginning of your story.
  • A scene that climaxes the middle of your story.
  • A scene that climaxes the end of your story.
  • A scene that resolves the beginning of your story.
  • A scene that resolves the middle of your story.
  • A scene that resolves the end of your story.

8. A scene list ensures that all chapters are relevant

In his TedTalk titled, How to Write Your Novel in Under 20 Minutes, author Simon Van Booy, winner of the 2009 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, discusses the often-painstaking process of removing irrelevant chapters—otherwise known as chapters that don't advance the plot, characterization, or worldbuilding efforts of your writing:

Write each scene, write each chapter…. put them together and there's your novel. After a year of rewriting, you've got a first draft, congratulations. If you can take away a pearl and it stays intact, congratulations, you've found a superfluous chapter. If you take away a chapter, take away a pearl, and the rest of the string collapses and chapters are everywhere…. it's good, because every chapter needs to drive the narrative forward…and then what do you do? You just keep rewriting until you stop changing things.

Simon Van Booy

Creating a scene list will help identify these "superfluous chapters" early in the editing phase, helping you to remove any portions of your novel that don't serve a purpose in advancing the narrative, characterization, or worldbuilding.

Final thoughts

Now that you understand the basics of a scene list and how it can help you develop your novel, explore the idea and adapt it to your writing however best fits your style. If you're the type of writer that needs to plan everything out in detail before putting pen to the page (or fingers to the keyboard), you can add to the columns as much as needed to help you envision each scene and how it moves the plot forward. Or, if you're more of a "fly by the seat of your pants" type of writer, you can use fewer columns but still reap the benefits of a scene list in each draft and editing stage of your work.

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