Your scene list is one of the most useful tools you can create as you edit your novel. It can be as simple or as complex as you want to make it. And it will give you so much clarity about your story and the best edits you can make.
How do you actually create a scene list? In this article, I’ll show you three ways to make a scene list, plus how and why to use each one.
This is actually the third installment in our series on scene lists. There’s just that much to say!
In the first article, I covered the why.
Why create a scene list? What will you use it for? Why does it make your editing life easier?
Then, in the second article, I covered the where.
Where will you make a scene list? I talked about the pros and cons of creating your scene list in a document versus a spreadsheet.
And I shared templates for both formats so you can easily create your scene list document or your scene list spreadsheet. You can get those templates by filling in the form below:
In this article, I’m talking about the how.
How do you create your scene list? What information should you include? How long should it be? When in your writing and editing process should you make it?
That’s what I’ll be covering in this article. I’ll share three different ways to condense your novel into a scene list, plus the ways to use each one.
And by the end of the article, you’ll be ready to pull up your manuscript, open those scene list templates, and create a scene list of your very own.
Now, I have a lot to cover. This article is a long and meaty one. So let’s get right to it!
3 Ways to Create a Scene List
There’s no right or wrong here, and I use all of these approaches at different times. I’ll share each one and give you the pros and cons of each.
And these aren’t even all the ways you could create a scene list. This tool is infinitely customizable, so take a look at these three approaches, and then use them as inspiration to create the system that works for you.
1. Describe each scene in as few words as possible.
What you’ll do here is read a scene, then write just a super short description of what happens. “Kelly goes to the store.” “Henry is expelled.” “The cat gets stuck in a tree but does get a bird.”
This isn’t a long, thoughtful explanation of what’s happening or why it matters. It’s just a really quick note that will remind you what happens in the scene.
You can track this in a document or in a spreadsheet—both work well for this.
Personally, this is the strategy I use when I’m reading a manuscript for the first time and doing an initial manuscript evaluation. My goal is to get the scope of the story as a whole into my head, and this is a quick note-taking strategy that allows me to condense the whole book into a really brief outline.
Pros of this approach:
- It’s quick and easy and doesn’t require deep thought. And this is a huge pro! So much of developmental editing is intensive, deep thought work, and this is a totally legitimate way of creating a scene list that also gives your brain a bit of a break.
- It’s short and easy to reference. This is the briefest, most concise version of a scene list of the three that I’m sharing. Which means you can condense a whole story onto just three or four or five sheets of paper, and then remind yourself what happens when at a glance.
But of course, there’s a con to keep in mind too, so let’s talk about it.
- Super short descriptions don’t provide enough context for people besides you to understand. This is a great tool for personal use. But if you create a scene list in as few words as possible and then send it to me, I probably won’t have enough details to understand the story.
Short notes work best for the person who wrote them because you know what they mean to you. But if you want to create a scene list that you can share with other people for feedback, one of the next two approaches is more useful.
Which brings me to the second way to make a scene list:
2. Describe each scene in one sentence that encapsulates the purpose of the scene.
In this scene list, your scene descriptions are a little bit longer—a full sentence, or sometimes two sentences.
I could stop right there. “Describe each scene in one to two sentences” is a great way to make a scene list.
The step I’m going to share next will make those sentences a little more complicated to create, asking for a little more work and brain power as you craft them. But if you keep the following things in mind, these sentences will be remarkably useful summaries of your scenes.
When I’m creating a scene list like this, I aim to include specific information in each one-sentence summary. I analyze each scene to identify three things:
- What literally happens in the scene? In other words, what’s the external action happening in the scene? What are the characters doing?
- What choice does the protagonist make? In every scene, I’m looking for the moment when the protagonist makes a decision, and what that decision is.
- What’s the value shift in the scene? What changes? This is a really important question, but it also takes some practice to start noticing value shifts in scenes. So for more on value shifts, I recommend reading this article.
In other words, I’m analyzing each scene to see what literally happens in the scene and what the scene is really about—why it matters to the characters and the story as a whole.
Here’s an example of what that looks like. This is a sentence from the scene list I created for Looking for Alaska by John Green:
“Kevin, his hair dyed blue from Lara’s work at Barn Night, asks for a truce, but the Colonel warns him the prank isn’t over yet, so talk of a truce will have to wait.”
Now, you don’t know who the characters are from this one sentence because I picked a sentence about a third of the way through the book. But what you do know from this sentence is that there’s been a prank that resulted in Kevin’s hair being dyed blue. He’s now asking for a truce. And the Colonel, the best friend of the protagonist of this story, refuses the truce. Which means the prank rivalry continues.
What literally happens in the scene? Kevin comes to the Colonel and they engage in negotiations about the prank war and a possible truce.
What choice does the protagonist make? For this scene, we’ll consider the Colonel the protagonist, and he decides not to accept the truce.
What’s the value shift? What changes? Truce offered to truce rejected. At the start of the scene, a truce is on the table; at the end of the scene, it’s been rejected—no truce.
And all of that is summed up in that one sentence. I’ll share that sentence again so you can hear how it comes together:
“Kevin, his hair dyed blue from Lara’s work at Barn Night, asks for a truce, but the Colonel warns him the prank isn’t over yet, so talk of a truce will have to wait.”
If I were to write this in as few words as possible, back in that first version of a scene list where the goal is to take quick and easy notes, I’d write:
“Kevin asks for a truce.”
So you can see the different level of detail here. The short version is a really quick note just meant to jog my memory about the scene, and because I wrote it, I know what I’m talking about.
The longer sentence gives more context about what’s going on, it includes the change that happens in the scene, and it gives me enough information to connect this to the larger story.
I understand how this scene is moving the story forward: the Colonel’s pranks on Kevin, which have been part of an ongoing prank war throughout the novel, have worn Kevin down enough that he’s asking for a truce. But the pranks aren’t over yet, so peace is denied.
When you have a full scene list like this, you can hand it to someone who knows nothing about your novel, and if they read it from top to bottom, they’ll understand the whole entire story. It’s kind of remarkable.
Now, I want to pause here and say: do NOT get stuck in perfectionism here.
When you make this kind of scene list, describe each scene in one to two sentences. As you write those sentences, think about what’s literally happening, what choice the protagonist makes, and what changes in the scene.
But do not let yourself get stalled for ages here trying to write the perfect sentences.
This isn’t about being perfect. No part of editing is about being perfect.
This is simply a tool you can use to make your editing life easier. If it’s making things harder rather than easier, find a way to modify.
If you’re a little stumped on the literal action, the protagonist choice, and the thing that changes, that’s okay. Just write two or even three sentences about what you do know.
That way, you’re defaulting to adding extra context. And if you were to hand your scene list off to me, I’d be able to use that extra context to help you identify why the scene matters to your story.
So that’s my big caveat: don’t let this process get you stuck. It’s meant to help you, not freeze you up!
This type of scene list, one where each scene is summarized in one to two thoughtful sentences, is a really robust scene list, and yet also still concise. It works well in both document and spreadsheet formats.
Personally, I find it a little easier to use in spreadsheet format, because I have separate columns for all that information I analyze to inform this sentence.
I have a column for what’s literally happening in the scene, a column for what choice the protagonist makes, and a column for the value shift. So once I fill out those columns, I then use that information to combine them all into a sentence.
But you don’t have to use a spreadsheet for this; you can definitely write a list like this in a document, too.
Now, pros and cons—because we’ve got some big pros and some big cons here. Pros first:
- It’s robust, yet concise, with just the right amount of detail. These sentences are rich with context while still being very short. My full scene list for Looking for Alaska is about 2,600 words, and you can get the gist of the whole entire novel just by reading those sentences. There’s enough information here that you could pass this scene list off to someone else and they’d be able to understand the story and give you thoughtful feedback.
- This level of analysis will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your scenes. This type of scene list forces you to reckon with the purpose of every single scene and what each one contributes to your story as a whole. That’s really illuminating work.
For some scenes, the purpose will be clear immediately. For a lot of scenes, you’ll have to work to find it, which shows you opportunities to revise and make it more clear. And you might find that some scenes don’t have a purpose you can find at all, which is a clue that you might need to heavily revise or cut them.
Plus, the analysis you do in order to condense a scene into a single sentence will show you what precisely isn’t clear in the scene. Is there no external action? Does your protagonist not make a choice? Is there no value shift, no change?
All of these are major clues about specific opportunities for revision.
So with all those pros in mind, why wouldn’t you choose to make a scene list like this? Well, there’s one major con:
- Creating this type of scene list is hard, it takes practice, and it takes a lot of time. As you might imagine, an approach to creating a scene list that requires you to first analyze the scene, then condense the information you find into a specific format isn’t quick or easy. It took me a good bit of practice to learn to find this information within scenes, and then more practice to write it all in a single sentence. And you can get stuck in analysis here trying to get your scene list perfect, like a teacher is going to come behind you and mark you off for writing down the wrong symbols in The Great Gatsby or something.
Don’t get stuck here!
Remember a few principles:
First, your scene list is a tool. It is not the manuscript itself. You are not going to publish your scene list or aim to turn your scene list into a New York Times best-seller. It is simply a tool, and its purpose is to help you.
Also, your scene list is a living document. You can always come back and revise your scene list. In fact, your goal later on will be to revise your scene list, to treat it as the sandbox where you play and imagine what you can create in your story. This is not set in stone or permanent in any way.
And finally, keep in mind that the goal here is to condense your story into a short, informative list.
If you can turn each scene into a sentence or two, and if someone else could read that sentence or two and understand what’s going on, that’s it. You’ve done it. You’ve accomplished the goal.
Kick the perfectionism right out. Do not get stuck here. Just turn each scene into a sentence or two, and do your best to capture in that sentence the reason why the scene matters to the story.
And if this whole method of describing each scene in a single sentence sounds prohibitively challenging to you, don’t worry—we’ve got one more strategy coming.
3. Describe each scene in a short paragraph.
In this scene list, you’re going to summarize each scene in a short paragraph. That might be fifty words for a shorter scene, or three hundred words for a longer scene.
Because this summary is so much longer than the single sentence, you have a lot of flexibility to include whatever you like. Describe what you think is important: the events that happen, the things that change, the time that passes, the revelations that are discovered, etc.
This scene list is the longest of all three types I’ve shared. The first kind of scene list might be just three or four pages long. The second kind will be a bit longer, but not too much. This scene list, though, could be ten or fifteen or even twenty pages long.
And when you hand this scene list—really, more like scene summaries—to someone who knows nothing about your novel, they’ll be able to dive in and read the whole story and understand exactly what you intend to create.
This scene list works best in document form. Paragraphs are easier to read and process in a document than in a spreadsheet. And I’d even skip the bullet points for this kind of scene list. Just make a new paragraph for every scene.
Now for some pros and cons. The pros:
- This scene list is easy (or at least, easier) to create. You have a full paragraph to summarize every scene and add all the details that you feel are important. It’s always a challenge to condense a novel into a smaller form. But condensing a scene into a paragraph is easier than condensing a scene into a sentence.
- It’s easy for others to understand your story just by reading this scene list. Even a paragraph of just fifty words includes a lot of detail about what happens in a scene and what you consider important to your story. And when you hand it to someone else, they can get a really full picture of your novel. In fact, I work with a writer who starts every novel by sending me this kind of scene list. We do really intensive structural edits on just the scene list without me ever seeing a full draft, and then she takes that scene list and uses it to write her next draft. It’s a really powerful editing tool and a very accessible way to share your story with others in a condensed form.
And the con:
- It’s long. This isn’t the worst thing in the world. But keep in mind that your goal when you create your scene list is to condense your entire novel, this 80,000- or 100,000-word document, into a much shorter form so that it’s easy to see your whole story all at once. If your scene list starts creeping up in word count to rival your actual novel, it’s not exactly serving that purpose—it’s not quicker to read or easier to review all at once.
That’s not to say that a long document isn’t helpful! I think that anytime you challenge yourself to summarize your story in any way, you’ll always gain more information about how your story is working and what’s important to you. It’s just a reminder to keep your goal in mind as you create your scene list so you don’t run away with the word count if you’re trying to create a tool that’s short.
So there you have it: three ways to create a scene list.
- Summarize every scene in as few words as possible,
- Summarize every scene in one or two sentences, or
- Summarize every scene in a paragraph.
All of these scene lists are fantastic tools. In fact, I often use multiple kinds of scene lists in tandem, since they can serve different purposes and highlight different information.
Now, before we wrap up, I want to address one more question:
When should you create a scene list?
When in the writing and editing process should you create a scene list?
And here’s what I recommend.
Before you write your first draft, write down everything you know about your story.
If you’re a planner, that might mean creating one of the types of scene lists I just described. You might revel in writing lengthy paragraphs for every scene describing exactly what’s coming.
If you’re a pantser, you might not know the whole story going in. I still recommend writing down anything you do know—if you know that somewhere around the middle, a twist is coming, write that down. But don’t worry about filling in every gap, since you know your writing process involves discovering the story along the way.
After your first draft, though, I recommend everyone create a scene list.
If you’re a planner, this might mean updating your preexisting scene list so that it matches the book you’ve actually written.
If you’re a pantser, this means filling in all the gaps you didn’t know before. Now you know what happens, so put it all in your scene list!
This scene list will be your tool, even your guide, throughout your entire developmental editing process. It’s where you’ll test structural changes before you make them in the actual text. Which means you’ll probably update your scene list after every draft, then plan your next draft using your scene list.
Once you finish developmental editing, you won’t need your scene list anymore. It’s not really necessary for line editing or copyediting, since the structure of your story will be set by the time your manuscript makes it to those stages.
But if you are editing your story’s structure in any way, first, make sure you have a scene list on hand.
Your Turn: Create Your Scene List
All right, that was a whole, whole lot. Like I warned you at the start, this is a really long and meaty episode!
Now it’s your turn. In this three-part series, I’ve shared everything you need to go make your own scene list.
So that’s what I want you to do!
Consider the three types of lists I’ve described:
- Super brief notes about each scene to jog your memory
- A one- to two-sentence description that covers the core elements of each scene
- Paragraph-long summaries of each scene
Think about which one sounds most approachable for you to create.
And think about why you’re creating your scene list.
Is it for your own reference? If so, the super brief notes might be enough.
Or do you want to share it with someone else for feedback? In that case, choose the sentence or paragraph version.
Once you know what type of scene list you’re going to create, decide which format you’d like to use for it: document or spreadsheet?
All three types work well in a document. If you want to use a spreadsheet, I recommend either the super brief notes or the one- to two-sentence summaries.
Next, download the scene list templates by entering your email in the form below. There’s a document and a spreadsheet there, so you can take your pick.
And finally, create your scene list!
The Beauty of a Scene List
This project will likely take you a few hours to complete.
But once you do, you’ll have a concise version of your entire novel that you can use to plan your next draft, or even share with someone else for feedback.
You’ll have a holistic view of the whole entire plot in just a few pages, which makes it way easier to see plot arcs and spot plot holes.
And the time you spend examining each scene and thinking of how to condense it into just a few words will help you see how each scene contributes to the story as a whole—or whether there are scenes that aren’t serving your novel well.
The developmental editing process can be tough. It’s a challenging puzzle trying to see the pieces of a story and figure out how they all fit together. I love anything that can make that process easier.
For me, a scene list does exactly that. It’s one of my favorite editing tools, one I use with every single novel I edit.
I’m excited for you as you create your scene list and discover all the ways it can help you through your next draft. I hope that you find, as I have, that it makes your life easier and your story better!