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Should you write a scene outline for your novel?

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Outlining a novel might not be the right thing for every writer, but I firmly believe that it’s the best way to stay efficient and write a cohesive story without the headache of rewriting your book a million times.

Making a story work is so much easier (or at least quicker and less labour-intensive) before writing it than after writing, after all. But would having a scene outline help you write a better story?

Before I learned about scene structure, my stories were just a series of events I had put together. I always struggled with knowing how to end a scene (not that I knew what a “scene” technically was, anyway) and I’d often get stuck trying to figure out what should happen in between big events. Learning about making a scene outline showed me what exactly was missing from my stories, and I hope this post will do the same for you.

Related: My method of outlining your novel & Structuring your story the easy way

Why use a scene outline?

If you don’t yet know what a scene is, it’s essentially a unit of action in your story that has a goal and some kind of an outcome. It has nothing to do with chapters, which can easily be made longer or shorter, or even combined, without changing the story. Some books don’t even have chapters. Scenes, however, are the building blocks of your story.

Why you should outline your novel scenes

Scenes are also kind of like stepping stones from the beginning of the story to the end of the story, and that’s why planning your scenes beforehand can help you write your story without getting stuck in the middle. Each scene should lead to some kind of a decision that affects future scenes. All the problems in a scene should be a result of something that has happened earlier.

Fiddling with scene structure and scene outlines might seem futile to writers who aren’t that into creating outlines for the stories to begin with, but I promise it’s an effort that saves you time and heartache later on in the process. Of course, you could still use what you know about scene structure after you’ve written your first draft and add any steps that are missing. if that’s what you prefer.

Scene structure you can use

I’ll be honest: I’m not the utmost expert on scene structure. I’m a big fan but I still struggle with putting some of the things together myself in some of my scenes and I keep having to adjust things in the editing process. Fortunately, Helping Writers Become Authors has so many great, easy-to-understand articles about scene structure and story structure, and I always use that website for quick reference.

The author K.M. Weiland has also written the book Structuring Your Novel which explains it all thoroughly while not being too overwhelming. For a more advanced view on the subject, there is Scene & Structure, which goes a little more in-depth explaining how scenes work.

Scene structure in short

This is how you structure your novel scenes

In short, these are the parts to a whole scene: Goal, Conflict, Outcome, Reaction, Dilemma & Decision. But not every single scene will have every element of the structure, and often they kind of blend into each other and they will vary in length. That’s because writing is not an exact science. Still, having the right framework will help.

The first three parts – goal, conflict and outcome – need to happen in real time and on the stage of your story. It means that we need to be able to “see” what happens and it can’t just be someone’s inner dialogue, and also you can’t skip ahead in time until after the outcome. If you think it’s crucial to fast forward, that might be a reason for a whole new scene.

Goal is what your POV (point-of-view) character wants to happen in the scene. For example, the boy wizard wants to ride the bus to his magic school in peace. He might not say “Wow, I hope nothing annoying happens to me during this bus ride”, but generally we all want peace unless we go about our way to cause trouble. Also, your scene goal should be a step towards your character’s overall goal in the story.

Conflict is the thing that gets between your POV character and their goal. Perhaps Larry’s bus has an engine problem or maybe this guy Drake starts throwing snot at him.

Outcome is the way your character reacts to the conflict. It’s like your goal and your conflict are asking a question that your outcome answers. The outcome can also be called a disaster, because more often than not, you should be stopping your characters from getting what they want. If the road to their ultimate goal is too easy, you don’t really have a story. Let’s just say that Larry’s peaceful journey to school has now been thoroughly ruined and in retaliation, he implies that Drake’s mum is a llama.

Reaction is the part where your character reacts to the outcome or the disaster of the scene. You can show this internally or externally, but it does need to be an emotional reaction. Maybe Larry regrets insulting Drake’s mum because it will only cause more trouble at school.

Dilemma is your character’s intellectual response to the outcome, meaning that now that their gut reaction is over, they need to figure out what to do next. This can go on for several paragraphs or it can be just a few words – you need to choose the right way depending on your story and the specific scene. In any case, your character needs to figure out what just happened, what it means to them and what to do next. Larry could be thinking about their social standing and they come to the conclusion that it’s better to be known as Drake’s enemy than Drake’s friend.

ALTERNATIVE: I originally borrowed these parts of the scene from K.M. Weiland, but after that I’ve personally come to a different understanding of some parts of the scene. When a human reacts to something, it goes like this: feeling, thought, action. That’s why I always struggled with the “dilemma” because it’s actually just a part of the reaction, and the reaction needs to happen on the inside first and then also on the outside. You can frame this process in any way that works for you, as long as you understand it and use it in your stories.

Decision is an important part of the scene because it informs what needs to happen in future scenes, possibly the one right after it. The thing with the decision is that you don’t necessarily need to spell it out. Saying that your character “decided to” do something is often not necessary, because your readers will be able to see what they’ve decided. Because deciding to not do something is also a decision, our friend Larry can decide he will do nothing to help the situation with Drake and will accept any consequences that might happen.

Do all the scenes need to be structured the same way?

Nope! Like I said earlier, sometimes scenes collide into each other, especially when there are surprising outcomes or when there’s a lot of action going on.

Sometimes some parts of the scene need to be postponed. For example, if there were multiple big events happening after another, your character likely wouldn’t have the time to react to them internally or think about what has happened and what it means. Just make sure they react at some point because otherwise your readers can find it implausible that your character just keeps going on without having any feelings about anything.

Sometimes the parts of the scene can happen in a slightly different order for your character, but you should always be following cause and effect. You also shouldn’t be putting lengthy introspection in the middle of action because that’s going to slow your story down and it’s going to look like your character is just staring at a wall thinking about stuff while the bank robbery is happening around them. There’s always going to be internalisation of action, as in showing what your character feels or thinks of something, but the reaction to the whole thing that happened needs to happen on its own time.

How I create a scene outline

How you can include scenes in your novel outline

Before I even think about writing an outline for each of my scenes, I need to have a scene list. For me, creating the scene list is one of the most exciting parts of outlining, because that’s where I figure out what really happens over the course of my story. I also use story structure to make sure I have a story and not just a series of random events.

After I have all my scenes, or at least the majority of my scenes listed (sometimes you have to leave room for exploration and surprise), I can start working on the scene outlines. I write only one or two sentences about each of the six (or five) elements of the scene, and I make sure that the scenes flow logically from each other.

Sometimes I have to make some changes to my scene list when I’m outlining individual scenes because I realise there’s something crucial missing in between or something else can be combined or deleted. Sometimes I end up doing some of those things in the editing process, but that’s okay. No matter how meticulously you plan your story, you might still make mistakes, or you could find ways to improve your story that require you to make bigger changes.

Other things to include in your scene outline

There are other things besides scene structure that you can include in your scene outlines. It’s all up to personal preference.

Obviously you have your POV character but you can make a list of other characters that appear in the scene as well as the setting of the scene. You could make a note of the overall mood of the scene and even include pictures and songs to inspire you.

If your story includes some kind of a plot twist, you can make a note for yourself when you need to mention certain things for them to make sense later on. Even without a plot twist, it’s just good writing to not have things appear out of thin air. Even just a brief mention of something that later on turns out to be significant can be enough for your readers, and although you can add it in when you’re editing, you could include it in the scene outline already.

Related: How to create a moodboard for your novel

What if you could outline your entire novel in just 30 days?

Writing an unforgettable story takes time, but you can write your novel more efficiently when you plan it well. With my steps to outlining your novel, you could be ready to start writing your first draft in just 30 days.

Outline Your Novel in 30 Days gives you all the steps you need for outlining your novel and it also comes with multiple bonus lessons that help you understand story structure and other crucial elements of writing a book. Join us today and stop postponing your writing dreams.

What part of the planning and outlining process would you like to hear about next? Let me know in the comments!

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