Saturday, September 28, 2019

How to Create Workable Scene Outlines for Your Novel

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor and author of writing guides  

Are you on the first or second draft of your novel and feel like it's a bit of a muddle? Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed? Maybe thinking of rearranging or eliminating some scenes or chapters, but the task feels daunting?

Here's a quick and easy way to find some clarity. Below you'll see a template for briefly outlining each of your scenes so you can see at a glance if the order works and if each scene is engaging, meaningful, and drives your story forward.

After you've outlined all your scenes using the template below, cut them apart and play with the order of them. Maybe condense and combine a few, or even eliminate any that don't have enough tension or contribute to the story as a whole. Make notes on the back or on a separate document as to possible rearranging and ways to add more tension, conflict, and intrigue to any scenes that may need it. Possibly even show that scene from the point of view of a different character?

First, what’s a scene?

Although most novels are divided up into chapters, the scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. Each scene is a mini-story, with a main character who faces a problem, dilemma, or challenge. Every scene needs some tension or conflict, even if it's just internal, and at the end of each scene, at least one of the main characters should have gone through some sort of change or be facing a new challenge or dilemma. Otherwise, the scene isn’t pulling its weight and needs to be revised or cut. Every scene needs a mission (goal), an obstacle, and an outcome (usually a question or new problem). For more on scenes, see Jodie’s article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change.”

Remember that, to keep the readers turning the pages, every scene or chapter should end on an unresolved note, a question, a surprise, a shock, a setback, a reversal, a revelation, a new dilemma or challenge, a veering in a new direction, or an unexpected action or event.

A modern novel normally has several dozen scenes. Each scene can range in length from a few paragraphs to a dozen pages or more. A chapter can contain one scene or several. Some authors like to use jump cuts, where they “cut away” in the middle of a scene to go to a different scene, then perhaps interrupt that one in the middle to go back to the first scene and resume where they left off.

Using the Scene Outline:

The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut.

This is a great tool for both plotters and "pantsers". Plotters/outliners can use it to outline your scenes early on in the process; and those of you who prefer to just let the words flow and write “by the seat of your pants” can use it later, to make sure the timeline makes sense and the scene has enough conflict/tension and a change. 

In your outline, keep each scene description to a minimum. Don’t get carried away with too many details, or the task could become arduous. The most important thing is the POV (point of view) character’s goal for that scene, and what’s preventing him/her from reaching that goal, plus new conflicts / problems / questions that arise.

And you can use a different font color or highlight color for each main character, for a quick reference on who was the POV (viewpoint) character for each scene. Also, you can print it up and cut them out to rearrange the scenes, or use a writing software for that.

If in doubt as to who should be the viewpoint character for that scene, most often it’s your protagonist. The point of view character for a particular scene can also, less often, be your antagonist or another main character. Almost never a minor character. If you can’t decide who should be the POV character for a particular scene, go with the character who has the most invested emotionally or the most to lose.

SCENE OUTLINE FORM:           


SCENE 1

Place (Setting):        

Date/Month/Season:

Year (approx.):   

POV character for this scene:

Other main characters here:

POV character’s goal here:

Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):

Main problem / conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:

Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:

(And/or new info, revelation, new question, or, rarely, the resolution of the problem):

         
SCENE 2

Place: 

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character: 

Other main characters:    

POV character’s goal:

Motivation for their goal: 

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):


SCENE 3

Place: 

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character:


Other main characters:   

POV character’s goal:

Motivation: 

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback): 


 SCENE 4


Place:

Etc. Continue for as many chapters and scenes as you have.

Feel free to share one of your scene outlines in the comments below.

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