How a Scene List Can Change Your Novel-Writing Life

by Monica M. Clark | 138 comments

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.

How a Scene List Can Change Your Novel-Writing Life

Ready to write your novel? Check out our definitive guide, How To Write Write a Novel: The Complete Guide, here.

But guess what? I listed all of the scenes in my novel in a nice little Google spreadsheet. This is one of the steps to writing your book in The Write Structure, and it changed my novel-writing life. Doing the same will change yours too.

For more on The Write Structure process, check out the book here, which is available for a limited time low price.

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 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.

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PRACTICE

Take fifteen minutes to 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!

When you're done, share your writing in the comments, and don't forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

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).

138 Comments

  1. 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?

    Reply
    • 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.

  2. 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).

    Reply
    • 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!

  3. 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.

    Reply
    • 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!

  4. 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).

    Reply
    • 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 . . .

    • Jon Carl Lewis

      How’s it going with the spreadsheets?

    • Jack Strandburg

      Fantastic, Jon! I’m down to 1 spreadsheet file (multiple sheets) and 1 word document for my working templates!

    • Jon Carl Lewis

      Keep me posted on when/how they might be available.

    • Jack Strandburg

      Will do – not sure whether I want to try and market them or not? Got any ideas on how to go about that?

    • Jon Carl Lewis

      What I’d suggest is that you write a little booklet about how to use the spreadsheets and cover the elements of the spreadsheets and state why it is important to use them. Then market it online–make it an E-book–and invite readers to buy your spreadsheet templates or download them for free. Jami Gold at jamigold.com is an author who creates templates for free distribution. But I think she makes her money writing about writing, in part.

    • 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

  5. 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!

    Reply
    • Monica

      Good idea! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Greg Santos

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

    Reply
  7. 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.

    Reply
    • 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 🙂

  8. jiche

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

    Reply
    • Monica

      Thanks! You too!

  9. 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 🙂

    Reply
    • 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!

  10. me

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

    Reply
    • 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.

    • WriterLady

      That’s how I got it! Can’t imagine how I worked without it, either 🙂

  11. 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. 🙂

    Reply
    • 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!

  12. Tanya Marlow

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

    Reply
    • Monica

      Haha, awesome!! Good luck!

    • 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

  13. 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.

    Reply
    • 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

    • 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.

  14. Stephanie Oplinger Arts

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

    Reply
    • Monica

      Good luck!

  15. 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…

    🙂

    Reply
    • Monica

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

  16. Hal Tahir

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

    Reply
    • Monica

      Yay!! Good luck!

  17. 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.

    Reply
    • Monica

      Good idea! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  18. 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.)

    Reply
    • Monica

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

  19. 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.

    Reply
    • Monica

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

  20. 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.

    Reply
    • 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’

  21. 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.

    Reply
    • 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!.

  22. 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.

    Reply
  23. Vicki Boyd

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

    Reply
  24. Reagan

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

    Reply
  25. Jan Jenner

    a word outline does it all for me.

    Reply
  26. Marie!!!

    Hey, what’s a POV?

    Reply
  27. Marie!!!

    Oh! It’s a Point Of View!

    Reply
  28. 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.

    Reply
  29. 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?

    Reply
  30. 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.

    Reply
  31. heidibethsadler.com

    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.

    Reply
  32. 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. 😛

    Reply
  33. 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 workflowy.com. 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.

    Reply
  34. 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!

    Reply
  35. Carrie Lynn Lewis

    Monica,

    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.

    Reply
    • 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.

    • Sefton

      Me too! My scenes lists are always near the end of the first draft. I start with a kind of wishlist if scenes in my head, and only create a formal list when I’m nearly done with writing.

    • Jon Carl Lewis

      Thank you. This was most useful.

  36. Deadmoon

    Can this method be used with short stories?

    Reply
  37. 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”
    Reagan
    http://www.fiction4hisglory.com

    Reply
  38. Natasha Orme

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

    Reply
    • 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

  39. 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: http://tinyurl.com/klxbt4y
    Her husband made a video for her novel. He wrote the song too:
    https://www.youtube.com/embed/P11Ch5chkAc?

    Reply
  40. 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.

    Reply
  41. 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!

    Reply
  42. 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!

    Reply
  43. 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!

    Reply
  44. Victoria Dreyer

    I’m an organic writer, and the thought of creating a scene list in advance of writing saps my will to create, but I swear by using a retroactive scene spreadsheet. My last series took place over the course of the year and most of it was outdoors, so even though the date was never mentioned, *I* needed to know it so that I knew what kind of weather the characters would be experiencing. I also kept spreadsheets of the names, ages, birthdates, physical characteristics and even religions of every single character when it was mentioned in the narrative, so I could keep things consistent. Heck, I even keep a style guide for every series so I can remember whether to double or single space my full stops.

    It’s kinda funny, really. I’m 100% organic when it comes to my writing flow – I lose interest in a manuscript the second I know how it’s going to end – but I’m absolutely meticulous about my back-end organising.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Dagnal-Myron

      I’m with you here. If I front load too much, I lose interest in the piece. But if I use something like this AFTER I’m done, it really helps me see the holes in the plot, etc.

    • Victoria Dreyer

      Yeah, me too. Well, sorta. When I first started my series I didn’t do anything, but by half way through the first book I was starting to lose track of everything. So, I went back through and started mapping out the dates, phases of the moon, etc, and charting every piece of information the character’s disclose about themselves to keep things consistent. By the time I finished Book IV, boy was I glad I did! And I’m doubly glad now that I’m trying to write a Christmas short story because it’s been a year since I signed off on those characters, and I’ve kind of forgotten the details. XD

  45. Beth

    I really like this idea.
    My mind has been feeling a bit frazzled as I’ve been trying to go through what I have so far in my novel and I’ve felt quite lost. I’m editing 25 chapters (that’s how much I’ve written so far).
    In my current job I use spreadsheets all the time, and I kind of love them (I’m not sure if that’s a geeky thing or not, but hey ho!)
    Thanks Monica, fantastic idea and I’ll be sharing what I create hopefully at some point in the near future.

    Reply
  46. TAR_Scrum_Master

    This is also one of the reasons that I love Scrivener. I actually break my parts out by scenes and they each have their own custom metadata and I can put the info on the virtual post it.

    Reply
  47. Teresa Reasor

    I do this too, but I call it storyboarding.
    With multiple POVs and romances going it’s a life saver.

    Reply
  48. Anonymoose

    Try yWriter, baby.

    Reply
  49. Kristina Stanley

    Monica, reading your blog motivated me to get myself organized and really analyze how I’m using my spreadsheet.Your blog inspired me to create a blog series called Write Better Fiction that focuses on the use of spreadsheets to help a writer critique their own work. I wanted to say thanks!

    Reply
  50. Orson

    Monica, the J.K. Rowling scene list will be my springboard for one of my most complex sci-fi synopses on which I’m working thus far. I dread losing the reader’s interest so having the list strategy will help. There’s a point where I find myself wanting to take a break then attempt to dive back into the unfinished piece. I could use tips on breaking bad habits like that. The momentum gets lost. I’ll follow you on Twitter.

    Reply
  51. Laurence Almand

    Using spreadsheets and steplines can be very helpful when organizing material. Jackie Susann used a chalk board to control her material and keep track of her characters – but if she had had a spreadsheet back then she probably would have used one.
    Making a thorough outline will give you control over your material and help you chart the flow of your work. Good stories have to flow forward – and an exact outline will help you recognize and cut the slow spots.

    Reply
  52. S.C. Roberts

    Hello Monica – Your article provided an aha moment for me. I’ve been using storyboards to place characters within scenes and keep track of character idiosyncrasies and traits and setting details that needed to be keep referenced further along. I use wads of large sheets of packing newsprint, which I stapled together, secured them to my wall then scrawled upon them as ideas came before they went. Once the story was done, I stored them. Using a spreadsheet, and organizing critical details as your examples illustrated, will be my new approach worth trying. Do you have any idea how much space under the bed that will save?

    Reply
  53. Jack Strandburg

    I am a retired IT professional and use Excel extensively for scene lists, character profiles, just about any aspect of a story or novel. Frankly, I could not get along without Excel and I try to plan out the whole novel in advance before spending time on the draft. My spreadsheet contains drop down lists to help me brainstorm, timelines with formulas to ensure the ages and the timing of events in the novel are accurate. Wouldn’t want to have a four-year old run a company, now, would I?

    Reply
  54. The Novel Factory

    I love the idea of a scene list but can’t stand the idea of doing it by hand and excel just seems so clunky…

    Reply
  55. Ronnie K. Stephens

    I’m late to the party, but this is an awesome strategy. I’ve been struggling to keep tension high in my novel, but lining up scenes like this will help me focus on the pivotal moments without dragging the reader through exposition. Thanks!

    Reply
  56. Tamur Kusnets

    Without reading all the comments I must say, that this scene list is a good thing. But (and this is a matter of taste) I like more military planning timeline where I add scenes and events. For historical novels where sequence is important it seems better. And yes, it is absolutely possible to write a novel within a month. It is good point. And also, you can combine timelines and f charscters and figure out where they cross or barely touch.

    Reply
    • Tamur Kusnets

      I ment in last sentence: timelines of characters.

  57. Stella

    Just came across this post. It’s a great idea. I find it difficult to cross that gulf between knowing what happens in a scene vs writing out the scene itself. Eg I have descriptions like ‘Characters X and Y argue’, ‘Character Y trusts Z about X doesn’t, but I can’t flesh them out. Why do my characters argue? What are their backstories? Maybe it’s a characterisation problem too. I can’t write my plot because I don’t know why my characters act the way they do.

    Reply
    • Archer (´・ω・ `)

      I feel this, Stella. I can’t ever get to know my characters until I write them; plotting beforehand is nice and all, but I always end up editing my plans drastically as I go. It might help to just stop worrying about the outline for a while, and write what you’ve got. Hopefully by the time you’ve done all of that, you will have grown to understand your characters more, and the next events will be a bit more clear.

    • Andy Zach

      Ah. You must know your characters and their back stories before you create dialogue. Sequentially, I imagine their personalities first and then I create back stories that fit those personalities. Once I have a clear idea of who they are, they naturally speak. For example, in my book “Zombie Turkeys” the lead character Sam Melvin, is an easy-going, low achieving reporter/blogger. His boss, editor Lisa Kambacher, is a workaholic, perfectionist, who is naturally critical, judgmental and dissatisfied. I found it very easy to make dialogue for these two.

  58. :Donna Marie

    I absolutely ADORE charts 😀 I’m really attracted to the Snowflake Method and once I really sit down to my novels, I plan to “going there” 🙂 We’ll see!

    P.S. J.K. Rowling’s chart is actually a chapter chart with a breakdown of points to accomplish in each chapter.

    Reply
  59. Williamz902

    I like the idea of a scene list. I find it gives me so many more ideas for the plot, or helps me refine ideas or work out problems before I start writing. Its easy to manage. I often highlight a blank column to show a chapter break. I’ve also added two other columns to the sheet: Reason/Psychology – which tells me what I want to achieve in the scene (make the reader feel sad, or terrified, as well as giving the reason this scene needs to be here (i.e – to fully show a characters fear, or to expand on a secret). If I can’t put in a good reason, I know the scene is just not really doing anything significant and should be there. I also put in a column which I have called “Future Scenes” – which tells me when I need to expand on something: for example, the affair she had needs to be more fully explained in a later scene. Oh, and don’t forget the timeline – I write down a firm date (even if I don’t use it in the book and instead use, “a few weeks later…”. In the time line I also note down the approximate time of day: for instance, early morning, mid-morning, early afternoon, late afternoon, evening, near midnight, etc. This helps because a character who works, can’t suddenly be at home talking to his wife during working hours. It also helps to calculate time that has passed between two events and calculate character ages.

    Reply
  60. E.M. Welsh

    I recently organized my novel into a spreadsheet and it was life-changing. I had been hacking away at it for forever, and then using the spreadsheet I could see that my whole act two was missing (more or less). Amazing how just plugging it in to something could make me realize something I hadn’t noticed just by reading it over and over.

    Reply
  61. soozinsf

    Super helpful thank you

    Reply
  62. Jason Roberts

    Thanks for sharing this info. I’m in the process of writing my first novel and having been doing loads of research to aid in organization. I’m 13 chapters in and the flow of my story is hard to maintain. I use speadsheets all the time. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this. Thank You.

    Reply
  63. Debra johnson

    This was a great time for this, as I am putting together the stories I have written so far this year. Several are from a writing course I am finishing next week. I found an example of one that’s simple, cute, and colorful I will be using. So far there are only about 10 short stories – including the one I posted here recently for feedback. Way better than the 35 I haven’t and wont be finishing….

    Reply
  64. Carl Blackburn

    You may want to head your columns like Shawn Coyne covered in his book “Story Grid” when he created a spreadsheet for “The Silence of the Lambs.” Each scene is analyzed by word count, story event, value shift, pov, period/time, onstage characters, etc. This is a great method for editing your novel…

    Reply
  65. George McNeese

    I hadn’t thought of using a scene list for my short stories. It makes a lot of sense after reading about them. I have a WIP that has some gaping holes. I think the story’s too big for the purpose I had in mind. I wanted it to be semi-short. I think a scene list would help tremendously, help me cut out the unnecessary stuff. I probably have to start from scratch, but using a scene list will give me a more concise story I want to create.

    Reply
  66. Sherryl Ollamha

    I have a notebook with a page per chapter/scene. To begin with, each page has just a notation of the POV character and a brief description of the important things that must happen in the chapter/scene. Plus, a few notes on other characters who should be in the scene. After the first draft of the scene is written, I add notes as to things that showed up in the scene unexpectedly 😛 and this helps me track items, clues and descriptions. The advantage of the notebook is that I can carry it around with me so that I can jot down notes, and if I wake in the middle of the night, again, I can jot down notes.

    Reply
    • Cathy Ryan

      ooooh, Sherryl, I like this.

  67. collie

    writing a novel, I was obliged to use an excel sheet to track my work and logic

    Reply
  68. Bruce Carroll

    Thanks, Monica. Your article left me absolutely TERRIFIED of writing! I’m not even sure what a “scene list” is, and the examples you shared are so crowded I feel as if I am in danger of having a panic attack.

    Just so you know where I, a notorious pantser, am coming from, my outline is ridiculously simple. It is simply a list of the locations for the action, in the order they appear in the book. Heck, most book descriptions I read are more complicated than my entire novel. (To be fair, I don’t enjoy reading overly-complicated works, either. Please don’t include half a dozen main characters, created multiple races of mythical creatures, have a whole lexicon of “magic words” or a bunch of arbitrary rules about how vampires “really” behave, or tell things out of chronological order, thank you very much.)

    I also have a character study for my protagonist and an info dump with a whole bunch of stuff I may or may not use. In addition, I have a few short stories featuring my protagonist which may or may not become part of the novel. But that is all.

    Ironically, I used to picture myself with a huge bulletin board with scraps of colored paper pinned to it and connected to each other with bits of different colored yarn. I think I saw a writer do that in a movie once. But my brain just doesn’t work that way.

    So I’m going to close Excel (I was working on my taxes) and see if I can find any don’t-think-just-write articles to help me out of this funk in which I find myself. Can anyone suggest an article like that? Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Cathy Ryan

      Man, if that works for you, that is so cool! I have finally finished a novel among the many started by pantzing it where I got lost. The revision of this first victory made me realize that I do need more structure at some point. You seem to be able to keep a grip on the entire mass where I could not. Go with it.

  69. Shauna Bolton

    Thank you for introducing a very helpful tool. I wrote a short story that I like very much, but it’s unbalanced. I created a scene list with word count and instantly saw where the problems are and where to focus my revisions. Here’s the opening scene. I planned for 1000 words; I wrote 1354.

    War on the Pecos: Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, 1878

    Abner stood at the edge of the swelling crowd, hands in his pockets, stamping his feet in a futile attempt to warm them. The pale sun, sharp as knives in the cloudless sky, made him squint. Like all sunny January mornings, it was bitter cold, and the people wore their warmest clothes. Those nearby pitied him, for he had neither hat nor coat. Had they known he owned the ranch about to be auctioned off, they would have pitied him more.

    It was Saturday, market day, and Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and Banking did a brisk business. The two-story adobe stretched along Main Street in the town of Lincoln Armed men stood on the tall wooden staircases leading upstairs, watching the crowd. It was the only store in Lincoln County, fully one-fifth of the entire New Mexico Territory, and it ruled the economy with an iron grip. Everyone called the place “the House,” perhaps because they detested the proprietors so much that they refused to speak their names. Wagons lined the street, and ranchers and farmers, in town to sell livestock and home produce before buying supplies, moved toward the House, their families with them. Seeing the crowd, the newcomers joined them.

    Waiting for the auction to begin, Abner tried to remember how many times his family had lost their land. Indians had burned them out, banks had foreclosed, drought had killed both cattle and crops, and rustlers had stolen the leavings. Now the nightmare was happening again. Sheriff Brady had thrown his gun in Abner’s face and ordered his men to take everything: wagons, livestock, stores, furniture, and household goods. He’d even seized Abner’s horse. The neighbors, unable to look at him, bought his things cheaply. It wasn’t enough. Today, his house and land would be sold. It was all gone. Everything. He flinched when the auctioneer shouted, “Sold!”

    The auction over, people went inside the House to do business. As he walked to Judge Wilson’s table, Abner saw a man standing there, waiting. “Judge! Is this the stinking polecat who bought my land?”

    Judge Wilson looked up at Abner before signing the deed. “No, the buyer isn’t here. This feller paid.”

    The man touched his hat. “Peter O’Malley.”

    Abner stiffened. “Why ain’t he here himself? Ain’t he got the sand to look me in the eye when he takes what’s mine? What right’s he got anyway?”

    “A man has to pay his taxes,” O’Malley said.

    Abner flushed. “With what? Did I ever get cash money when I sold my livestock and produce at the House? Of course not! All I ever got…Hell! All anybody ever gets is credit.”

    “Mr. Dolan could have helped you.”

    Abner spat. “I saw Dolan a few months back. He wasn’t in a lending mood.”

    “So, he didn’t like how you ran things. A man who can’t keep his place don’t deserve it.”

    Abner’s hands clenched. “I have kept my place!” he shouted. “Injuns burnt us out more times than I can count. And I’m still here! My whole family is buried on that land. And I’m still here! I’ve busted my butt since my daddy’s death to make the place pay. Without cash money, nobody can pay his taxes, and you know it!”

    O’Malley smirked. “Looks like you got scalped this time, sonny.”

    “Did the House scalp my daddy, too? The first time he got supplies at Tunstall’s store instead of the House, I found him on the road, lying in the dirt with a bullet in his back.”

    “Injuns did that! Everybody knows it.”

    “Apaches would’ve taken the horses, not the wagon and bob-wire, too. It weren’t no Injuns killed him, and everybody knows that, too!”

    “Judge,” O’Malley said, “muzzle this bull calf before somebody turns him into veal.”

    The judge pursed his lips in disgust. “Why don’t you take the deed and be on your way? The kid’s right. The House has never paid him, or anybody else, cash money, in all the time it’s been here. No man can pay his taxes without cash money. He’s right about that, too. And about keeping his place, he did just fine until you boys ganged up on him. He’s also right about his pa’s death. Most folks in Lincoln County don’t believe Indians killed Phineas, and I’m one of them.” He leaned closer to O’Malley. “You let him be, or I’ll see somebody hangs for it.”

    O’Malley looked hard at the judge before he tipped his hat and smiled. “I’ll tell ‘em, Judge. I surely will.” He picked up the deed and walked into the mercantile.

    Relieved that O’Malley was gone, Judge Wilson turned to Abner. “Well, son, what now?”

    “Can’t say. I’m eighteen years old, my family’s dead, and the House just stole everything I owned. Haven’t eaten since breakfast yesterday, and I can’t even buy coffee. I’m plumb busted.”

    The judge reached into his coat and brought out fifty cents. “Here, take this. And spend it all. You look like a walking fencepost. Bunk at my place until we sort things out.”

    “That’s a kindness, Judge Wilson. I won’t stay long, I promise. I’m done with the whole goddamn territory. I’ve lost my family, my land. The House killed Daddy, and they want me dead, too.
    There’s nothing here but blood and lies. When I’ve made my stake, I’m lighting out.

    An elegant, mustachioed gentleman approached them. “Judge Wilson, good to see you again, sir,” he said as they shook hands. “So, the House is at it again.”

    “They sure are, John. And Abner here is their latest victim.”

    He shook Abner’s hand. “I’m sorry, Abner, I truly am. Your daddy was my friend, and the best foreman I ever had. I’m your friend, too, and I’d like to help you if I can.”

    “Thank you for coming, Mr. Chisum. I’d appreciate anything you can do.”

    “How would you like to strike a blow for your daddy and yourself at the same time?”

    “I sure would, but everything I’d like to do gets me killed.”

    “The House is hurting because so many go to Tunstall’s now. They’re pushing back hard, and he’s looking for men good with a gun and not afraid of a fight. I still remember how you handled a gun against the Apaches in ’73. I’m sure you’re even better now. As his partner in the enterprise, I’m offering you a job. There’s a bed for you, tonight if you want it, three squares a day, and the chance to get your licks in.”

    Relief flooded through Abner. Chisum’s offer was ideal–room and board with money for his stake. “What kind of licks are you talking about, sir?”

    “I’m expecting a shooting war with the House. It would be better for everyone if we can avoid that, but Dolan isn’t a man to back down and share the wealth.”

    Still stinging from O’Malley’s insults and threats, Abner smiled. I’d like that very much.”

    They shook on it, and Chisum walked away.

    “Hey, John!” Judge Wilson called. “How about telling the boy what you’re paying?”

    Chisum turned and grinned. “Top dollar!” He disappeared into the saloon.

    “Providence is damn strange!” Abner ran his fingers through his unruly, black hair.

    The judge sighed. “That surely was timely, but I wouldn’t call it providential. It won’t be long before the shooting starts. You’ll earn every penny twice.”

    “Doesn’t sound so bad to me.”

    “Are you sure you want to do this? The House has bled Lincoln County for four years. They’re rustlers, cheats, and killers. Both Murphy and Dolan commanded Fort Stanton, and now they’ve got Army contracts to supply beef to Fort Sumner and the Apaches. The Navajos, too. They’ve got Santa Fe and the army in their pockets. Sheriff Brady, too. Now Dolan’s hired Jesse Evans’ gang. They’ll kill anyone who crosses them. Chisum, Tunstall and Alexander McSween are breaking the House’s stranglehold, and a showdown’s coming. You just joined their outfit. Keep your gun close.”

    “I ain’t got a gun. Sheriff took that, too.”

    Reply
  70. John

    I was going to use a spreadsheet like this as seen in Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture.

    Reply
  71. TerriblyTerrific

    Thank you for the article!

    Reply
  72. Cathy Ryan

    I wanted to do this with my new novel project, but kept putting it off. So I’ve started an Excel sheet and entered scenes for the first act. Discovered the beginning of the protag’s internal journey was missing. Here’s what it’s about:

    Lizzie is on her knees in front of the baby’s grave, pulling weeds from around the
    stone. Momma has transplanted clover she brought here with the coffins of the
    two older brothers. The clover hasn’t taken hold yet, so the taller grasses
    must be pulled away. Their brothers’ graves are green covered by the dense
    clover.
    Lizzie had such hope for this child. It was a selfish hope though that this child
    would become a companion for Caleb and remove that burden from her. She feared
    her selfishness caused the baby’s death.
    This is telling, of course, so I’ll work out the showing. It’s a story of survival and the relationship between Lizzie and her brother Caleb through their shared ordeal.
    Now I need to enter the rest of the scenes in the worksheet. Thanks!

    Reply
  73. Michael Prenez-Isbell

    thanks for posting those examples, esp the Mailer and Heller. I expect it in a pop novel like Rowling’s, good to see examples of it in advanced work too.

    Reply
  74. RAW

    Interesting subject!

    In my own novel, I used a large white-board and listed all the chapters in order to get the story flow right. Most of my chapters are of a single scene, and I have 38 of them in my book.

    I expanded the Catch-22 doc in the article and counted the listed scenes. If I counted right, there were 30 scenes, so I think I did all right in my novel at 38. At least I know I am in the right ball park for the number of scenes needed for a decent story.

    I was surprised to see an estimated and actual word count for each scene. I don’t really understand the point of doing that. Each scene contributes something important to the story and accomplishes some purpose. The scene word count is whatever it turns out to be. It seems to me the scene may be short or long, but as long as it accomplishes its task the number of words is irrelevant. Why constrain yourself to a certain number of words?

    My 2 cents.

    R. Allan Worrell

    Reply
  75. Cheryl Steimel

    I use a spreadsheet for all of my books. I’ve added a column for time. If my characters become separated, I want to make sure they meet again on the same day!
    Thanks spreading the word on the wonders of Excel for writers.

    Reply
  76. Mudpie411

    I wish I was better at using Excel. It drives me crazy trying to figure out how to get my columns where I want them.

    Reply

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