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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. 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.

scenelist5

Photo by Kent Bye

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.

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?

PRACTICE

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!  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).

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  • 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?

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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).

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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!

  • http://www.vozey.wordpress.com/ 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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).

  • 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!

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

      Good idea! Thanks for sharing!

  • http://GregSantos.com/ 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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!

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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 :)

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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.

        Thanks!

  • me

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

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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.

  • 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. :)

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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!

  • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

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

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

      Haha, awesome!! Good luck!

  • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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!! http://flavorwire.com/391173/famous-authors-handwritten-outlines-for-great-works-of-literature/3/

    • 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.

      • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

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

  • http://www.birgitterasine.com/ 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.

    • http://ajabbiati.com/ 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.

      –Jim

      • http://www.birgitterasine.com/ 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.

        • http://ajabbiati.com/ 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?

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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!

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

      Good luck!

  • http://ajabbiati.com/ 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…

    :-)

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

      Good idea! Thanks for sharing :)

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  • 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.)

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

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

  • http://mojitoandme.com/ 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

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

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  • 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ Monica

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

  • 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.

    • http://www.illegalwriting.com/ 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!.

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  • 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.

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  • Vicki Boyd

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

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