How a Scene List Can Change Your Novel-Writing Life

By the end of this post you will have a nagging urge to use an excel spreadsheet.

Don’t make that face—I know you’re a writer and not a data analyst.  Or if you are a data analyst—I get that you’re on this blog to get away from your day job.


Photo by Kent Bye

But guess what? At the suggestion of Randy Ingermason—the creator of the Snowflake Method—I listed all of the scenes in my novel in a nice little Google spreadsheet.  It changed my novel-writing life, and doing the same will change yours too.

Scene Lists Help You Plan

I tried to write a novel once before without planning in advance—I failed.  So this time around, I committed to having as much of my story organized before writing as possible.

I used the Snowflake Method, which consists of several steps to designing a novel that we can discuss at a later date.

Today we’re focusing on a particular step: the creation of a scene list.

What is a scene list?

It’s literally a list of the scenes in your novel in an excel spreadsheet.

Column 1: POV.
Column 2: One-two sentence summary of the scene.
Column 3: Proposed word count.
Column 4: Actual word count.

The particulars can be revised at your convenience, but that’s how I set it up.  Keep in mind that before you get to the scene list you need to know your major plot points.  The list simply forces you to flesh them out.

For me, this step was incredibly helpful.  By the time I sat down to type, I had something far more detailed than a mere outline guiding me through the process.

3 Examples of Scene Lists from Famous Authors

Want a better idea of what your scene list might look like? Here are three famous examples of scene lists:

1. JK Rowling: The mega-bestselling Harry Potter author’s scene list for The Order of the Phoenix. 

JK Rowling's Order of the Phoenix Scene List

2. Joseph Heller: Remember Catch-22? Here’s the author’s scene list for the novel about no-win situations.

Joseph Heller's Catch-22 Scene List

3. Norman Mailer: The scene list for Mailer’s sprawling, 1,300 page novel Harlot’s Ghost about the CIA.

Norman Mailer Harlot's Ghost Scene List

As you can see, every author creates their scene list differently. The key is to create one.

Scene Lists Keep You On Track

You can’t write a novel in a month—OK, maybe you can.

Generally, however, you are writing your novel over a period of months or even years.  That means you may actually forget what you wrote in those early pages.  Or, you knew you set a sad mood, but have no idea how long you dragged it out—was your start too depressing? Not depressing enough?

The key is to update your scene list as you write—add a row here and delete a scene there so that you can always remind yourself of what happened in your novel with relative ease.  Even outlines can stretch for pages and pages and they are sooo much more difficult to update.

If you have a scene list, everything will be right in front of you, nicely organized and easy to read.

Scene Lists Help You Edit

This is the point where I’m at now—editing. I know there are scenes missing in my novel. I’m also aware that I need to step back and figure out the arcs of some of my minor characters, among many other things.

All of these structural changes overwhelmed me.

What did I do? I browsed my scene list and to find the appropriate spot to add that scene showing my protagonist missing her family or where to drop in a minor character’s view on kale (vital to his existence—just you wait and see).

Scene lists are not only helpful for those who like to plan in advance, they are crucial for writers who like to go with the flow and have the story guided by the character.  Inevitably the latter approach will leave you with serious work on the back end—never fear.

If you write out the scenes into a spreadsheet after you  have completed your novel, it will change your life as doing so will make it easier to 1) identify the problems and 2) fix them.

How about you? Do you use scene lists? Let me know in the comments.


Make a scene list for the first chapters of your novel or for a short story you’ve written—is something missing?  Write the scene and share it here in the comments!

Alternatively, write a scene that involves an excel spreadsheet but the character is not at work—I’d love to see what you come up with!

About Monica M. Clark

Monica is a lawyer trying to knock out her first novel. She lives in D.C. but is still a New Yorker. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter (@monicamclark).

  • Pete Sherwood

    I’m confused why the multi-colored chart at the beginning of this article is a Drupal programming cheat-sheet…Just didn’t think your spreadsheet was complicated enough to post?

    • Monica

      It was pretty! Lol.

      • Pete Sherwood

        Ha, that works for me. I really wanted to dive into the complexity of the spreadsheet and understand the, seemingly extremely organized, color-coding system. Unfortunately, Drupal programming interests me far less than creative writing. Good post, Monica.

    • BuckShaut

      it’s called being lazy.

    • Ketutar Jensen

      You and me, both… yes, it’s pretty but it’s not very good illustration to the article. I would have preferred a visual demonstration to support the idea.

  • Catherine

    Thank you so much Monica for this wonderful strategy! My lack of organization tends to be the bane of my existence, so I believe I’ll give this a go! (even though I really do hate working with Excel…Maybe this will give me the chance to warm up to it a bit?) I’m currently brainstorming about a supensful short story in the style of “The Twilight Zone”, but I only have a rough outline and a few character notes, so this method may really help me. I’ll be sure to give it a try as soon as I have access to a laptop (since I’m stuck on my IPad til I get back home from school).

    • Monica

      Yeah, I would also look into some of the programs people recommended in the comments–those or Snowflake Pro would probably help a LOT with your organization. Good luck!

  • James Hall

    I’ve never had a need to do this. My head seems capable of holding almost everything and remembering the flow of events. When you’ve written several books in a story though, I can see where something like this might be useful.

    My suggestion is not to use Excel though, because that would be icky and messy. Try yWriter. It has the capacity to hold detailed information on characters, settings, and objects. These can be incorporated into each scene. This makes an excellent source for analyzing and reviewing in a much more maintainable way. Though I’ve tried to keep it up-to-date, though, I hate the fact it doesn’t have a spellchecker and so since I type new material into word, it often gets out of date.

    Yet, I will probably completely revamp and enter all information when the book is done. I think it will be most useful during editing and as a reference when the book is complete.

    Nice post.

    • Monica

      Thanks for the tip! I’m learning more and more about the software options out there. I used Snowflake Pro, but I also didn’t realize these other programs even existed!

  • Jack Strandburg

    Without Excel I would be lost. I use it for just about everything although my spreadsheets are a lot more complex (yet simple) and are timeline-based. That way I can validate sequence of events, characters ages at certain points of the novel, and what chapter/scene I expect a certain event to take place and/or be revealed (not always the same time).

    • Monica

      Yes it’s amazing how helpful it can be for organization!! Check out this link I just found–famous authors’ spreadsheets/notes for their books:

    • Evelyn Guy

      Jack, would you want to share a sample of your spreadsheet? I am interested.

      • Terri

        I, too, would like to be able to read it.

        • Jack Strandburg

          Since I have invested (and continue to invest) a lot of time in this process, I am considering marketing it (for a very small fee of course) but first need to see how my idea of a character profile spreadsheet will fly (or crash as the case might be . . . more to come . . .

        • ClaudeR

          Someone do I.

    • Allyson Vondran

      I also want an example of this spreadsheet. It would be very helpful!

    • ClaudeR

      Jack, that’s what I am trying to do, but am not gifted. Would you mind share how you do it? Thanks, Claude

  • Voni Harris

    Great article! I’d add a column for keywords, (Like First Plot Point, Climax, or perhaps some symbol you’re tracking) but I love the concept of using Excel!

    • Monica

      Good idea! Thanks for sharing!

  • Greg Santos

    Anyone have a Google Spreadsheet template they’d like to share?

  • Nessa

    I’m going to give this a try for NaNo in a couple of weeks.I like the idea of using one because i’ve got several drafts sitting around and I can’t remember anything about them and this sounds like it will be helpful in editing them and anything new.

    • Monica

      Haha-yes, it’s hard to imagine that you would ever forget something you invested so much labor into, but it actually does happen! Good luck with NaNo :)

  • jiche

    Thank you for this post…. All the best to you!

    • Monica

      Thanks! You too!

  • Victoria

    I actually like to write a timeline for my stories with approximate dates and corresponding scenes. It helps me to be sure everything makes sense and is in order. I’ve never thought of using a spreadsheet, but I absolutely love the idea. It would be great to have everything organized like that. Thanks for the tip! I will be trying it out :)

    • Monica

      Yeah, it sounds like a bunch of people make timelines. I didn’t, but that makes a lot of sense. I guess because my story only takes place over about 4 months or so. Anyway, that’s a good tip too–good luck on your writing! :)

      • Victoria

        Yesterday I put all my scenes on a spreadsheet. I absolutely love how organized it looks :) What I did was this:

        1st column: POV
        2nd column: Date
        3rd column: Summary of the scene
        4th column: Word count
        5th column: A place to jot down any changes I need to make in the scene when I’m editing.


  • me

    …Or you could get scrivener, or another word processor made just for fiction writers, and it will do all of this for you.

    • Monica

      Yeah, I actually used the Snowflake Pro software, which I think is similar to what you’re talking about? But not everyone wants to pay for/commit to that, so a spreadsheet provides another option for organizing scenes.

      • Cynthia Franks

        Scrivener is $45 and well worth it!

        • Liz H. Alexander

          And if you finish a Nanowrimo competition, it’s half-price! :)

          • Cynthia Franks

            I finished twice but it was in my I don’t need another word processor stage, so I paid full price.

          • Carrie Lynn Lewis

            Now that’s interesting. I knew Scrivener was a sponsor but didn’t know they offered the software at half price. Cheap as I am (LOL), this is another reason to think about NaNo this year.

  • AndiM

    I totally make a scene list. But I don’t do a spreadsheet. I’m ol’ skool and use notebooks. I generally organize scenes chronologically, and then I’ll list important events that happened that day (i.e. scenes). I find it helps me keep things organized in the project, and if I need to check something that happened earlier, I’ll refer to my scene list so I can ensure that things mesh. Some people, I’m sure, work better with spreadsheets. Maybe some day I’ll get to that point. I’ve retained a lot of ol’ skool practices, because I find physically writing something down helps me remember it better. That’s a habit I picked up in high school back in the day, and it followed me through my undergraduate and graduate careers. :)

    • Monica

      Sure, notebooks work too! I personally liked being able to add and delete rows, etc., but everyone has a different method. Thanks for sharing yours!

  • Tanya Marlow

    You’re right – I do now have the urge to create a spreadsheet… Thank you – this was really useful!

    • Monica

      Haha, awesome!! Good luck!

  • Monica

    Hi everyone! Thanks for all of your comments. I just wanted to share a link to famous authors’ handwritten notes, which includes several spreadsheets. :) I told you–it works!!

    • catmorrell

      Thank you this helped me see what you were talking about. I especially liked Faulkner’s wall method. I am sampling Scapple and I think it is useful for making a thought bubble spreadsheet. Also, I use yWriter and for this NaNo have been plotting my story on it. I am experimenting with pre-planning. Always a pantser, I find editing difficult w/o planning. I think both are needed.

      • Monica

        You’re the second person to tell me about yWriter–I might check it out!

        • Evelyn Guy

          I love ywriter

  • Birgitte Rasine

    Monica, I actually love, respect, and worship Excel. While I use it for just about everything EXCEPT my writing, I can appreciate its usefulness therefor. However, I’m not sold on Column 3, the proposed word count. Personally, I never write to hit a word count, unless a publisher specifically requires a word count, and even then I don’t. (This is strictly fiction, non fiction is different).

    I do word counts only after I write the chapter or scene or whatever it is I’m running word counts on. Otherwise, in my humble opinion, instead of focusing on the scene, I’d be focusing on some nebulous number that has nothing to do with my story.

    I’d love to hear yours or others’ takes on why coming up with word counts before you write a scene or a chapter helps.

    • A. J. Abbiati

      Hey Birgitte,

      I suppose predefining word counts depends on what kind of writer you are and what particular project you’re working on at the moment. If you aren’t a “planner”, the predefined word counts are probably useless. If you are a “planner”, as I am, they might be a little more useful. I don’t preplan a word count other than a “rough average” word count target per chapter/episode. I know, based on preplanning, that my next book (an episodic novel) is going to be 10 episodes, each episode roughly 7K words. So I have a general idea ahead of time, which helps me manage the scope of each episode, making sure I don’t end up with any abnormally short or long episodes… it sort of gives me a broad window in which to plan and operate…. kinda like writing for a TV series.


      • Birgitte Rasine

        Hi Jim,

        Just read your comment about your spreadsheet and smiled. I’m sure I’d be very impressed! I’m married to someone who can make an Excel spreadsheet do complex yoga poses, so I appreciate what Excel is capable of. We also used Excel when we did our report on social responsibility in the media, as I needed to analyze the data from our surveys.

        As for word counts, I hear you. Yes of course it depends on the kind of work you’re writing — when I blog here for example, there’s a word limit. I’ve written screenplays, marketing materials, articles for magazines, etc etc etc ad nauseum.

        What I was referring to is my own personal work. I never, ever, put forth word counts prior to writing. But I do plan in terms of structure, flow, etc—but I do not believe specific word counts need to be, per se, a part of planning, other than a general idea of the total word count. As you said, it depends on the work you’re doing and the kind of writer you are. More seasoned writers can eyeball a piece of text and know whether it’s too long or too short.

        • A. J. Abbiati

          Love Excel…though it still lacks a few niceties that would make a planning tool even better.

          And yeah….if you don’t have any boundaries (self-imposed or otherwise), why create one artificially?

    • Monica

      I think you’re right–the particular columns aren’t for everyone. The proposed word count helped me a lot in the beginning when I was just trying to get words on the page. Now that I’m editing, I don’t pay attention to those columns at all. Mostly I wrote this post because I think it’s useful to have a list of scenes that you can move around easily.

  • Stephanie Oplinger Arts

    This is a very intriguing idea. I can’t wait to try it out!

    • Monica

      Good luck!

  • A. J. Abbiati

    Hi Monica! Thanks for the post!

    I also use a spreadsheet to accomplish EVERY aspect of my novel planning. I plan out down to the scene segment level and track metadata (POV characters, setting, etc,) and plot, theme, symbol, and other thread points throughout the sheet automatically (though a lot of specialized coding). If you saw how complicated my spreadsheet was, you probably pass out…


    • Monica

      it’s amazing how much more doable writing a novel seems when you’ve figured out a way to stay organized!

  • Hal Tahir

    I’ve been looking for a efficient way to organizing my writing and this fits the description. Thanks.

    • Monica

      Yay!! Good luck!

  • Yvette Carol

    Looks worthwhile, Monica. I tend to write one sentence summaries of each chapter, adding the page numbers. Then I use Larry Brook’s breakdown of which plot points should happen where, to figure out I’ve got everything in the right place.

    • Monica

      Good idea! Thanks for sharing :)

  • Pingback: Saturday Edition: What we’re writing and reading | Live to Write - Write to Live()

  • Margit Sage

    Scene lists are the best! (But, I used to be an Excel monkey, so… it’s not a leap I feel that way.)

    • Monica

      Thanks for sharing! I like to hear the other programs/systems people used!

  • Patricia Storbeck

    Monica, I’m going to write a novel in 30 days @NaNowriMo. Advance planning is not such a great idea in this case as the target is 50 000 words in 30 days. It’s going to be fun to see where my idea take me, as this is my first try at writing anything as big as this.

    • Monica

      The scene list can still help you revise when you’re done!! :)

  • Pingback: » The OutRamp Guide to Writing: Episode #5 - The OutRamp()

  • christine monson

    I do. And they help. I even created a scene board using a simple cork board with index cards that way I can move them about, edit them, and delete them if needed, plus I can see them at a glace.

    • Monica

      Thanks for sharing! I love hearing the other techniques that people use. :)

    • Berna Wellen

      Thnk you for this practical idea Christine! I need to so things…writings on the wall’

  • Dennis Rivera Jr.

    I’ve always been a “freestyle” type of writer; however, as I get serious with my writing, and older in age, I am noticing that this something I need to use. I never thought I will need such thing, but I can see the value. Thanks for posting, and the value it gives to the reader.

    • Monica

      Lots of people are freestyle writers–I don’t think you need to change that. I think in that case a scene list might be good at the beginning of the editing process Although I admit it might take a while to initially put it together, I still think it will be useful!.

  • Pingback: Monday Must-Reads [10/28/13] - YESENIA VARGAS()

  • Pingback: Book Bloggery Week-in-Review (32)()

  • Kristen Pham

    Wow, I love this technique! I was doing something similar with a character list, but I hadn’t thought of taking it to the scene by scene level. I’m going to try it with my next novel. I bet this would also work well for a series, to keep track of the major plot points for consistency.

  • Pingback: Talking About Scenes… | trippingdifferently()

  • Vicki Boyd

    Im a techie, but would NEVER have thought of doing a scene list in Excel. Thanks so much for the idea!

  • Pingback: Fiction Writing Tips Blog Carnival Issue #9 | Fantasy Scroll()

  • Pingback: Guest Article: A Filmmaker’s Odyssey, Part I()

  • Pingback: Is your WIP making you crazy? Try one of these methods! | Three Chairs()

  • Reagan

    I’ve done a scene list, and it really helps those like me who are hopelessly disorganized.

  • Pingback: Today’s Practice: Write a Sentence()

  • Jan Jenner

    a word outline does it all for me.

  • Pingback: 5 links to awesome writing hacks | Icess Fernandez Rojas()

  • Marie!!!

    Hey, what’s a POV?

  • Marie!!!

    Oh! It’s a Point Of View!

  • Amelia Hart

    I like the Scrivener software, because it has a function that allows you to create an overview much like this. I colour-code mine to say how many drafts each scene has had, or if it’s still just notes, half-finished or even just a place holder. That way I never get writer’s block because I always have something to write. If I don’t want to tackle the next scene just yet, or another is crying out to be written down RIGHT NOW I can do it and still know exactly what’s going on where. Scrivener is pretty cheap. Definitely worth a look.

  • Haakon Dahl

    Why not use a real example? I certainly didn’t appreciate digging through the 280 examples of dingbat philosophy-by-crayola that this flickr loon uses just to come back here and find out it’s nothing to do with the topic.
    I like your idea. Is there a live example?

  • Chris Wood

    I’ve been using excel for this for quite some time, and it does work well. Each character has a color, that way I can see when I used that last character and keep them up to date.


    Thanks, Monica. Found your article on Pinterest. I’m creating my spreadsheet as we speak. This will be really helpful and doesn’t cost anything.

  • Guest

    “I know you’re a writer and not a data analyst.”
    Actually, I am a writer in my free time, but my day job is data analyst. 😛

  • Pingback: Outlines with the Goddess | agoddessworks()

  • Phil Harwell

    Here’s a tip for those who don’t like Excel or other spreadsheet software – try Workflowy. It is a website/app that is made for list-making, and makes nested lists easy, and you can mark stuff off as done, which could come in handy when you’re writing your individual scenes.

    Website is located at I know there’s an iOS app and a Google Chrome app. Probably one for Android too. But of course, you can always go back to the website and use it there. It all syncs up.

  • Cynthia Franks

    I always tell people I never out line and after reading your post I know it’s true–I write scene lists! I have always done this. For plays, short stories, TV scripts; everything. I am glad to know my lists resemble JK Rowling’s Here is a photo of one at the start of my novel. This is the main reason I fell in love with Scrivener, it does this so well! Very helpful post!

  • Carrie Lynn Lewis


    I first used a scene list as part of learning Randy’s snowflake method in 2009. That was my first year doing NaNoWriMo, so I did write that novel in a month.

    And it was a mess.

    Where the scene list came in handy was in trying to clean up the mess.

    Since then, I’ve used scene lists at the beginning of the process and have found it’s much better to prevent a mess than to try cleaning up after I make one!

    I like your columns for tentative word count and actual word count. I’ll have to add those the next time.

    My current worksheets have the following columns, left to right.

    Scene Number
    POV Character
    Scene Summary
    Chapter (some chapters have more than one scene)
    Day (Monday, Tuesday, etc. because the story took place in about a week)
    Day (1, 2, 3, etc.)

    Being able to look at the scene list and see what was happening helped me keep the timeline straight, too. Because the time frame for the story was so narrow, that was very important.

    • Reagan Colbert

      Wow, that is exactly what mine looks like, Carrie! Although mine takes place over one year. It does help ‘clean up the mess’!

      • Carrie Lynn Lewis

        Doesn’t it, though? It’s so utterly simple and easy to use (not to mention customizable) that I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t think of it myself. My gratitude to Randy Ingermanson for first telling me about it and to Monica for her thoughts.

    • ClaudeR

      Thank you for sharing Carrie.

  • Deadmoon

    Can this method be used with short stories?

  • Reagan Colbert

    I started a spreadsheet a year ago, and it really helped to organize my book. i’m writing a story that takes place over 1 year and has 4 different POVs and countless different plot twists. It became bigger than i could handle! Recently I’ve been neglecting to reference it though. I should get back to it!
    Thanks for the post!
    “in all you do, do unto the glory of God”

  • Natasha Orme

    I do this and I do it on notecards so I can physically move scenes round once they’re laid out too!

    • Debra johnson

      Because I am a visual person I have to see an example of a spreadsheet or index cards (more the index cards – love working with them,) so I can see how scenes can be moved around, cant visually see that in my head.. Help

  • sherpeace

    I actually found it easier to use index cards for each scene. That way you can move them around without needing all those arrows and colors, though I do agree colors always makes it easier to understand just about anything.
    It was really cool seeing what authors like Mailer and Rowling used to keep track of their scenes. Thank you for that!
    Sherrie Miranda’s historically based, coming of age, Adventure novel “Secrets & Lies in El Salvador” is about an American girl in war-torn El Salvador:
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:

  • Pingback: Scene Lists Are Good! | Dark Wine and Shallow Graves()

  • William Seward

    I use yWriter5. Does a lot of what Scrivener can do, works on Windows and Linux (with a little tweaking), and is free. Scene lists are actually part of the main design.
    When I started using yWriter, Scrivener wasn’t available for Windows. Now it is, sort of. It has a free beta version you can use until the paid version catches up.

  • Debbie Rafferty Oswald

    Hi Monica, I first noticed your scene list post on facebook this week through the Writer’s Circle. I always find the Writer’s Circle posts helpful, and think I should print them out for reference, but I never get around to it. Yours, however, has stayed with me, and I have indeed read it through and printed it out.
    If you can believe it, I started the middle grade historical fiction novel I am currently revising for the umpteenth time twenty years ago this month! I’m on my second editor, and have received more rejection letters from agents and publishers than I can count. Both editors have the same message; the protagonist is not driving the story, and the supporting characters are more compelling than the protagonist. I’ve devoted this summer to strengthening the protagonist, but I haven’t been satisfied with my revisions, as the process has felt like putting band aids on a major flaw in the manuscript,
    I want to try the Excel spreadsheet to organize the novel by chapter, scene, scene summary,date, and specifically how the protagonist is driving the story. I want to type the overall theme, and create a separate column for each scene specifying how the protagonist’s actions support the theme. I’m thinking this is the best way to put the protagonist in charge and make sure every scene supports the theme of the story. Thank you for providing the catalyst that has finally lit a fire under me to tackle this revision process!

  • Debbie Rafferty Oswald

    I want to give thanks to Carrie Lynn Lewis for providing a scene list organization format that I have modified to suit the particular needs of my manuscript. Thank you, Carrie Lynn!

  • Pingback: 100 Writing Practice Lessons & Exercises()

  • Pingback: What I'm Reading & Writing Wednesday - Amanda's Nose In A Book()

  • Murielle Marie

    Thank you Monica, I was on a mission today to figure out a way to keep track of my writing/scenes and wanted something that could eventually get me to an outline. I think with a scene list I might have found what I was looking for!