How to Create a Scene by Scene Outline for Your Novel

How to Create a Scene by Scene Outline for Your Novel

This post is the second in a short series about how I plan and outline my novels before I write them. Last week, I shared how I plan out the overall structure of the novel, and this week I am sharing how I create a scene by scene outline.

To outline your novel scene by scene, I first figure out the overall structure of my novel, which I discuss here. Then I move through the story from the opening image to the next logical scene until I reach the end outlining each scene on an index card.

Of course, it isn’t as simple as all that. The information I write on the index card is very specific, so I will discuss the particulars of that below. 

Outline Each Scene with Index Cards

This isn’t going to be rocket science, but if you’ve never used a scene outline before you’ll find it incredibly helpful and easy to follow.

To start with, I create an index card for each scene I expect to write in my novel, and on each and every card, I write the same types of information.

On the lined side of a 4 x 6 index card, I write…

  1. Scene number: I put a number in the top right-hand corner even if it isn’t accurate, even if I know for certain it will change because what if I dropped the cards, or more likely, my children decided it would be fun to throw them around the living room?
  2. POV: Which character’s point of view should this be written in?
  3. Setting: Location that the scene takes place.
  4. Goal: What is the point of view character’s goal? And what are the goals of each character that appears in the scene? 
  5. Conflict: Every scene needs conflict. It can be an inner conflict, a conflict between two characters, or a conflict between a character and its environment. Before using this method, I was surprised to find that not all my scenes contained conflict, a bit of an embarrassing fact.
  6. Disaster: Disaster might be too strong a word for this. KM Weiland calls this a new dilemma. It is essentially a shifting of the problem. Something needs to add a new complication or a twist that the character will have to solve or otherwise deal with in the next scene. Something needs to change or nothing important has happened.
  7. Reaction: What does the character think and/or feel about this new problem?
  8. Decision: What does the character decide to do?

On the opposite side of the index card, I write how I think the scene will unfold. This helps me create an image of the scene while it is all fresh. Sometimes this is brief, and other times I am squeezing in words at the bottom of the card.

Once you have all of this information written out, you will find that your scenes will flow together nicely, are easier to write, and need less revising, at least that was the case for me. If you haven’t tried something like this, try it. You might be surprised by the difference it makes.

Scene Card Example: Harry Potter

Of course, I’ve got to include an example from Harry Potter. When you’re talking about plotting, it is almost impossible not to talk about Harry Potter. It is one of the most thoughtfully plotted out books I’ve read.

Here is an example of a scene card for the first scene of Chapter Two of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I consider this the true first scene of the book as the first chapter reads more like a prologue than a first chapter.

  1. Scene number: 1
  2. POV: Harry
  3. Setting: the Dursley’s home
  4. Goal: Harry – to endure Dudley’s birthday, Dudley – to get as many presents as possible, Petunia and Vernon – to make Dudley happy on his birthday
  5. Conflict: Harry is annoyed by the Dursley’s behavior. There is an inner conflict here as young Harry tries to deal with how he is treated by his only family. There is also a clear conflict between Dudley and Harry.
  6. Disaster: Mrs. Figg cannot watch Harry while the Dursley’s go to the zoo.
  7. Reaction: Feels – Harry is relieved that he doesn’t have to go to Mrs. Figg’s house, and he is excited at the prospect of going to the zoo. Thinks – He had better stay out of Dudley’s way.
  8. Decision: To enjoy the zoo and stay out of trouble.

The back of the card summarizes the scene and is a convenient location to write down important details. It would look something like this: “P. wakes up H. D. whines about how many presents he got. Mrs. Figg bails on babysitting H. V. and P argue about what to do with H. It is decided H. will go to the zoo.” It is the dreary list details, but she turned them into an amazing opening scene (after the first chapter which reads more like a prologue than a first chapter).

If you are familiar with this scene of Harry Potter, you can see how each of these things plays into the scene JK Rowling wrote. The characters’ goals play out in their dialogue and actions. The conflict is central to everything. 

What is the “Disaster” Really?

After looking over how I do the index cards, you are probably thinking that there cannot be a disaster in every scene. This is exactly what I thought when I first started researching this method.

The disaster doesn’t actually have to be a disaster. It is just the word I chose to use to describe this aspect of every scene. It is really just a changing of the problem. 

Let’s look at Harry Potter again to see how this works out. How would this scene be different if Harry had expected to go to the zoo all along?

Harry would start the scene thinking he was going to the zoo and that he should stay out of trouble, and he would end it that way. Nothing would have changed. The scene wouldn’t matter, at least not as much as it should.

Instead, Harry begins the scene thinking he was going to have to stay with Ms. Figg while Dudley went to the zoo, and he ends it with a surprising treat with a dark undertone because we all know something is going to happen between Harry and Dudley at the zoo.

Everything Will Inevitably Change

It is important to note that the whole outline can change in big ways once I start writing. I don’t let my outline control the story. 

Creativity requires flexibility, and I am always willing to change things if it means a better story. You might think that completing an entire outline just to have it change is a waste of time, but for me, it is just part of the process the same way completing a first draft is.

Where Did I Come Up With This?

I couldn’t have come up with this method all on my own, but it also doesn’t come from one specific location.

It is heavily influenced by KM Weiland, and a post a come across on her blog here. She has her own scene outlining method that includes many, but not all the elements that I include.

It is also influenced by James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dialogue. One of the ideas Bell talks about in this book is that in order to write good dialogue, you need to know the goal of everyone in the scene. 

Once I started writing out the goal of each character in the scene, I become obsessed! It makes such a difference to my writing!