2 Simple Strategies to Format Your Scene List


Your scene list is infinitely customizable. It can be as simple or as complex as you like.

The first choice you’ll make? What format you’ll use.

My first-ever scene lists were created with paper and pen. But I recommend you use something a little more robust.

How to Create a Scene List

In this article, I’m talking all about scene lists: the practical how-tos for creating what I consider one of the most important editing tools for your developmental editing process.

This is actually the second part of a three-part series on scene lists. It was going to be just two parts, but then I discovered that I have a whole, whole lot to say about scene lists. So now it’s a three-part series.

In the first article, I shared the why: four reasons why scene lists are so instrumental in developmental editing. Click here to read 4 Reasons Why a Scene List is Your Most Powerful Editing Tool.

This article and the next are all about the how. How do you actually create a scene list, one that’s detailed enough to give you the information you need and condensed enough to be a useful editing tool?

And the fun part here is, you have options! There are a lot of different ways you can go about this.

In this article, I’ll share with you two formats you can use to make a scene list.

Then in the third installment in this series, I’ll share three different approaches you can use to create a scene list, along with the best ways to use each one and when in the writing and editing process you should make a scene list.

Plus, because you know I love to be super practical and make everything I share with you as easy to implement as possible, I have a free download for you. I’ve created not one, but two scene list templates.

You’ll learn more about these as I talk about the two formats you can use to make a scene list. But if you want to go ahead and grab the templates so you can pull them up and look at them while I talk through them, you can get those templates now by entering your email in the form below.

Ready to see how to format your scene list? Let’s dive in.

2 Ways to Format a Scene List

When it comes to formatting a scene list, you have options.

If you read the first article in this series, you heard my story of my first-ever scene lists, when I was a Writing Center Consultant at Elon University. Back then, when I worked with students who brought in short papers, I used a yellow notepad and a pen, and I just literally made a list. In fact, when I started editing novels, I used to make a list in a notebook, again with literal paper and pen.

A lot of the beauty of the scene list is that this tool really can be as simple as you want to make it.

When you’re editing your novel, though, I don’t recommend making your scene list by hand on paper. You may print your scene list out eventually (I often print the ones I make), but take advantage of the fact that you can always edit documents on your computer and create your scene list on your computer.

Rather than writing a list on physical paper, I recommend that you create a list in one of two places: a document or a spreadsheet.

And spoiler alert, remember how I mentioned I have two templates for you? I’ve created templates for both formats: one is a template for a scene list document, and one is a template for a scene list spreadsheet.

1. A Scene List Document

A scene list document is the simplest version of a scene list. By “simple,” I mean it’s the most straightforward to create, and it keeps your focus on just a handful of specific information.

When I’m creating a scene list in a document, I create headings for every chapter. Then, within each chapter, I create a bulleted list. Each bullet represents one scene, and so the bulleted list is a list of brief descriptions of each scene.

And that’s pretty much all the information I’m tracking: the chapter numbers and what happens in each scene.

Some pros of creating a scene list in a document:

  • It’s very easy to print. That’s super helpful when you start using your scene list as a revision tool. You can print out your list and then have something tactile and physical where you’re making notes for revision.
  • It’s a familiar way of thinking about story. You’re already used to seeing your story represented in a Word document or Google doc. So seeing an outline of your story in a Word document won’t feel foreign or confusing.

And a con to keep in mind:

  • It limits how much data you can track in an organized and easy-to-reference fashion. You could include more data than simply the chapter number and scenes on your scene list, but a document will get cluttered fast. If you want to track more information, a spreadsheet will help you organize it in a more helpful way.

Which brings me to your second option for your scene list format: a spreadsheet.

2. A Scene List Spreadsheet

A spreadsheet is a great format for tracking your scenes precisely because it allows you to track so much more information.

When I create a scene list in a spreadsheet, I have a column for the chapter number and I have a column for the scene event. In the scene event, I write a brief description of the scene.

But then I can create more columns, as many columns as I like. Other columns you’ll find on my more robust scene list spreadsheets include:

  • Word count. How many words are in each scene?
  • Point of view. What point of view is used in each scene?
  • Timeline. When does the scene happen? It is so helpful to have a timeline to track events over the course of a novel.
  • Elements of story. Does each scene start with an inciting incident, build through progressive complications, have a turning point that leads to a crisis and climax, and end with a resolution? I track all that in a spreadsheet and use that information to find the best edits for each scene.

And more—essentially, if there’s something you want to keep track of throughout your scenes, you can record all that in a spreadsheet.

Which brings me to the pros of spreadsheet scene lists:

  • A spreadsheet allows you to track as much information as you want in an easy-to-use manner. Want to track something new? Create a new column for it and go for it!
  • It’s easy to edit and move around. You can drag and drop your scenes wherever you like, or easily create or delete rows, so when you get into editing the structure of your story, it’s easy to update your spreadsheet to reflect changes.

And some cons:

  • It’s trickier to print. Not impossible to print, but printing a spreadsheet is not the same as printing a document. So depending on how you want to use your scene list, a document might be easier to work with.
  • Most writers aren’t used to thinking about their stories in spreadsheet form. Books are written in documents, not spreadsheets. So while some writers get really excited about seeing all the information about their story organized into a neat and tidy spreadsheet form, others find it challenging to see the creativity and inspiration behind a wall of cells. If you find the idea of creating a spreadsheet for your novel overwhelming, no worries—you can create a scene list in a document and still have a tremendously helpful editing tool.

Now, like I said, I’ve created a scene list spreadsheet template for you, which you’ll find in that template bundle by entering your email in the form below:

And because I know a lot of writers feel really overwhelmed by a lot of columns, I decided to keep this spreadsheet as simple as possible. It tracks just five things:

  • The scene number
  • The scene event
  • The chapter number
  • The title of the chapter (if you title your chapters)
  • The word count of every scene

If you’ve never made a spreadsheet for a novel before, this scene list spreadsheet is a really approachable way to get started. And if you want to track more information, like all the data I mentioned before, you can customize your spreadsheet by creating more columns to track anything you like.

Get Your Scene List Templates

So there you have it: two formats you can use to create a scene list. Neither one is right or wrong, and in fact, I personally use both!

I open a new document and create a simple scene list when I’m reading a manuscript for the first time. And then when I’m diving in to give detailed edits on particular scenes, I use a spreadsheet to closely analyze a lot of information about each scene.

If a spreadsheet sounds exciting to you, create a spreadsheet. If that sounds just wildly overwhelming and creativity-sapping, create a document.

And the best part is, when you download the template bundle, you’ll get both the spreadsheet and the document. So you can play around with them and see what format is most helpful to you at this particular moment with the specific manuscript you’re working on.

Grab the template bundle here:

Next week, I’ll share three ways to fill out those templates with your novel’s scene list. So get excited for that. And while you’re waiting for that episode, be sure to check out the first installment in this series, 4 Reasons Why a Scene List is Your Most Powerful Editing Tool.

And of course, grab those templates. Poke around in them. Brainstorm which columns you might like to add to the scene list spreadsheet.

And I’ll see you back here next week with the next installment of our scene list series. Until then, happy editing!

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