Organizing: Lining Up Your Scenes

Note: Regularly, I get this great E-zine in my e-mail inbox by Randy Ingermanson. The newsletter is always chock-full of great advice for authors. This article I found to be  particularly helpful and informative for organizing the scenes in a novel and decided to pass it on. I already use Randy’s approach, though I do so in the context of a free computer program called yWriter5. Check this out if you’ve ever wondered how suspense novelists like me can keep all those pesky scenes organized.

by Randy Ingermanson

One of the hardest parts of organizing a novel is keeping all the scenes straight. Novels typically have 50 to 100 scenes or more. That’s a lot to keep track of! Here are some typical problems you’ll face in managing all those scenes:

* Deciding what happens in each scene
* Deciding what order to present your scenes
* Deciding how long each scene should be
* Deciding on the point-of-view (POV) character
* Deciding whether to cut a scene
* Deciding how to edit a scene

It’s hard to keep all the scenes in your head at one time. In fact, it’s probably impossible, since humans are made to keep only a few things in the mind at the same time.

I solve this problem by creating a “scene list” — a list of all my scenes with key information about each one. You can do this however you like.

The low-tech easy way to do it is by using 3×5 cards. Just write the important information about each scene on one card and then spread them out on the kitchen table or the living room floor.

I prefer to throw more technology at the problem by using spreadsheet software. For our purposes, a simple way to think of a spreadsheet is a list of items, where each item can have several parts.

When I make a scene list, each line in my spreadsheet keeps track of the important information about one scene. Here are some typical things I track:

* The POV character
* The date the scene happens (and maybe also the time)
* What happens in the scene
* How many pages I think the scene will take
* How many words I actually wrote in the scene

Each of the above goes into a different column of the line. Since spreadsheets are divided up into rows and columns, this is extremely easy to do. If you’ve never worked with a spreadsheet before, don’t panic. Find a techie friend who knows how to use spreadsheets, show them this article, and ask them to show you ONLY what you need to know in order to make a scene list. It should take less than ten minutes to learn the essentials.

You can make a scene list any time you feel like it. Many writers like to make one before they write their first draft. Others prefer to write their first draft and then make a scene list to help edit the manuscript.

I make a scene list before I write my first draft, but I keep tweaking it as I write. When it’s time to do revisions, I use the scene list to make a strategic plan for editing the manuscript.

The beauty of a spreadsheet is that you can save copies of it and try out new ideas. If you decide you don’t like the new scene list, you can throw it away and make a new copy of the original and try again.

Let’s look at each of the basic problems I mentioned at the start of this article, and see how you solve each of them using a scene list.

Problem 1: Deciding what happens in each scene

Each scene in your scene list should tell you what happens in the scene. Write one or two sentences –just enough to show you at a glance what the scene accomplishes. By boiling each scene down to its essence, you can get an overview of your story by running your eye down the scene list.

Problem 2: Deciding what order to present your scenes

Normally, you start out by putting your scenes in chronological order. This is one reason each scene should track the date (and possibly time) of the scene.

You’ll find that some of your scenes may overlap in time, if you have several POV characters. You’ll also find that sometimes it makes sense to put the scenes out of order. In these cases, it’s very easy to move the scenes to a new order. (A spreadsheet allows you to easily move entire rows as units.)

Sometimes, you don’t know what the chronological order should be — all you know is what happens. The scene list lets you move things around until you get the ordering right. Then you can assign dates and times if you need them.

Problem 3: Deciding how long each scene should be

You don’t have to track how long your scenes are. You can just trust to luck that your book will have neither too many words nor too few. But knowledge is power, so if you can estimate how many pages each scene will be, then you can make your spreadsheet add up all the estimates and tell you roughly how long your novel will be. If that’s useful for you to know, then do it. Otherwise, don’t.

Once you’ve written your manuscript, you can have your word processor count the words in each scene and put that number into your scene list. This can be very useful if your editor has told you that you need to cut 15,000 words. You can use your scene list to make decisions on where to make the cuts. If you add a column listing how many words to cut from each scene, your spreadsheet can add up all the cuts and tell you when they add up to the required amount. Then all you have to do is make your target cuts on each scene and you know for sure you’ll hit your mandated word count.

Problem 4: Deciding on the point-of-view (POV) character

I make a column in my scene list that shows who the POV character is for each scene. (If your novel only has one POV character, then you don’t need to do this.) I color-code each POV character, which is easy to do in a spreadsheet. Then I can see at a glance how much air time each POV character is getting.

Sometimes this shows me that Bellatrix has an awful lot of scenes during the middle part of the story and Throckmorton has hardly any, while the reverse is true at the ending. Then I can look at each scene and ask whether I want to change the POV character.

Problem 5: Deciding whether to cut a scene

After you’ve written your first draft, it’s easy to believe that every scene is really necessary. The tragic truth is that some of them may not be. If a scene isn’t pulling its weight by moving your story forward, your scene list will tell you.

Then you have to decide whether to pump some new life into that scene by making something happen, or whether to kill it. If you decide to kill it, then just draw a line through the scene in your scene list. That shows you immediately that in your next draft you’ll delete the scene.

Problem 6: Deciding how to edit a scene

Not all scenes work. If you’ve got a scene that doesn’t seem to be hitting on all eight cylinders, make a note in your scene list on how to fix it. This should take just a sentence or two.

This lets you map out strategically all your revisions before you do anything. If you work on your scene list for an hour or two, you can easily plan all the revisions for an entire new draft. When you have the plan in place, then you can jump into a new draft with confidence that the revisions will all work together to make a better story.

If you’ve never used a spreadsheet and need to learn just enough to do all the tricks I’ve discussed in this article, here is a list of the 12 basic skills that you need to learn. Have a techie friend teach you these and ONLY these:

* How to create a new spreadsheet
* How to save a spreadsheet to a file
* How to open an existing spreadsheet file
* How to create column headers
* How to resize the width of columns
* How to type information into a cell
* How to edit a cell
* How to delete a row (or column)
* How to move a row (or column)
* How to insert a new row between two others
* How to add up all the numbers in a column
* How to change the background color of a cell

You can always learn more about spreadsheets if you need to know more, but these 12 basic skills will get you on the road to creating a scene list that will give you a bird’s-eye view of your story.


Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 17,000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit

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One thought on “Organizing: Lining Up Your Scenes

  1. Issac Maez

    Heya! I’m at work surfing around your blog from my new iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Carry on the great work!

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