Writing: Outlining a Scene

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Have you ever sat down to write a scene and just ended up staring at your computer screen for an hour? You’ve outlined your novel, you have a couple notes on what supposed to be happening, but for some reason you can’t truly visualize it. Sure you know that your heroes defeat one of the villain’s henchmen and learn something from him, but you’re unsure about how the scene breaks down. What does the action look like? What sort of witty banter is thrown around between the different characters?

If you’re like me, then you know this feeling all too well. A lot of my novel outlines, when I outline, don’t have extremely in-depth descriptions of each individual scene. I know the purpose the scene serves, and there are couple of things I know I want to touch on in the given chapter, but sometimes when it comes to writing the scenes I end up getting stuck.

Luckily I found this video by Caroline Norrington mostly by chance. She provides a pretty solid worksheet detailing the different aspects of a scene and some things to think about before you sit down to actually write.

The link to the worksheet listed in the video is broken, and I couldn’t find it on her site, so I’m going to do my own little breakdown of this scene outline method on my own…

Dramatic Beats

Action
Reaction
Action
Reaction
Hook

Each seeing in your story should be made up of the elements listed above. It should begin with some kind of inciting incident to which your protagonist has a response. Following that you want to build on the action, and again your character has to respond to what’s happening. Then you probably want to close the scene with a hook that’s meant to keep your readers reading.

Note that action doesn’t have to mean people are involved in a car chase or shooting guns at each other. The level of action is going to be relative to what sort of story you’re writing. In a thriller or adventure novel it might be something very intense, but in a literary novel it might be something very small. Also note that the reaction doesn’t have to be a physical one, it can be an emotional reaction, or mental reaction and analysis to the situation.

Setting

You’ll want to consider the following questions when you’re thinking about the setting for your scene. Having some answers to these questions, especially the last one, will allow you to write a more robust description of the world your characters aren’t happening. Also note that the second question may or may not apply to your specific story. If you’re working within a cultural context that is very familiar to you and would be very familiar to your readers you don’t necessarily have to do any research on this point or think too deeply about what cultural mores are being observed.

1.) Where is the scene set?

2.) Have you researched or developed the cultural background to this setting? If so, what key aspects of your culture does this scene reveal? What mundane details of daily life will you need to know?

3.) What details do you still need to research or create?

4.) What would you observe with your five senses about this setting in this scene?

Characters

Once you have some details on the setting down, you’ll want to consider your characters. You’ll need to know who shows up in the scene, and sometimes this isn’t always obvious. There will be occasions where you need some side characters or random helpers who appear to perform a task and then disappear. Be conscious of what you need to keep your story moving forward and to make a scene work. You’re also going to need to be aware of the mental or emotional state of your character from the previous scene so that your story has a sense of continuity.

1.) Which characters appear in this scene?

2.) What physical, emotional, and mental situation are your characters in at the start of this scene and why?

3.) How do your characters present in this scene? What are they wearing? What state are they in?

4.) What objects/props might your character have in this scene?

Information Revealed

Every scene in your story should serve some kind of purpose, so it is important to know what information you are feeling in the scene and why. This is especially true for mystery style stories where the unveiling of the clues is a large part of the story’s tension. This is also a great time to think about what this scene might be foreshadowing later in the story, if anything.

1.) What key information, clues, or pieces of the puzzle will you reveal in this scene?

2.) What precisely is the information the character or reader understand and is there a misunderstanding or incomplete understanding of that information?

3.) If information is important to the character reaching their goal, what is the price of the information?

Dialogue Beats

This is an additional section I’m adding that was not mentioned in the video, and strictly I don’t think it’s necessary, but you may want to think about some of the dialogue for your scene before you sit down and start writing in earnest. I’d argue this is especially true if they’re going to be segments of dialogue that don’t pertain directly to the plot or the action. Personally I find it’s pretty easy to generate dialogue when it’s very obviously moving the story forward, but it can be difficult to come up with witty banter or personal anecdotes that are meant to unveil something about the characters or their relationships. If you have some basic groundwork for the dialogue you know you want to happen, it can be easier to generate the rest of the conversation for the scene.

1.) Think of a personal story that a character might reveal and how it pertains to the scene.

2.) Think of an inside joke that might be brought up here. Consider the plot points you’re touching on from the Dramatic Beats section, and see if there’s some banter you can shape around those events.

If you’re more of a discovery writer, then you probably want to skip this part, if you’re even using this outlining method at all. If you’re more of a plotter, then having some idea of how the dialogue flows might be helpful to you.

Conclusion

I’m just starting to integrate this method of scene outlining into my writing to see if it helps me get through scenes faster. Hopefully this will be helpful to some of you. Have you tried this, and do you have any thoughts? Is there another method you use that you find more helpful? Let me know in the comments, and good luck writing!

Bonus — For those who like graphics, check out this handy little bugger I made:

Writing Tips Infographic

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3 thoughts on “Writing: Outlining a Scene

  1. This is very helpful! I think I will definately use this with some of my bigger scenes with 3 or more characters and a lot of back and forth. Do you write these outlines ahead of time or shortly before you get to writing (I’m guessing the latter)?

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you found it helpful! And thank you for the reblog as well 🙂

      I generally do them shortly before I start writing the scene, or maybe the day/night before I’m planning to write it. I don’t use them as part of the general outline, I think that would make the outlining process too long, haha.

      Also, if I have a clear picture of the scene, I don’t really need to outline it, so it could be a waste of time if I did it too far in advance.

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