Tools for Pre-writing: Dissecting the Scene Worksheet

I’ve mentioned before how I approach a novel in a hair-splittingly analytical fashion. Several of my Twitter followers have expressed an interest in seeing some of my pre-writing tools in greater detail. I am happy to accommodate. And since this post will be largely nuts-and-bolts, I thought I would lighten the mood at the onset with this photo of a puppy.


In a previous post, I discussed my method for plot outlining, wherein I chart the significant landmarks along the Three Act plot structure. These landmarks are our navigational beacons through which we pilot the plot ship (wow, analogies ahoy!).

So, what about the points between?

I feel it is absolutely vital that every scene along the road should forward the plot, advance character development, or both. One great quagmire of fiction is the “Act II Desert”, in which the initial intensity of the Inciting Event passes, and the protagonist embarks on the journey. Regrettably, this often leads to scenes of exposition, setting portraiture, and idle conversation, causing the plot to spin its wheels in the sand, and the reader to skim pages or put down the book.

However, if each scene has a clear conflict and a direct purpose towards the overall novel, then the Act II Desert becomes something more like an archipelago of plot points, propelling the reader forward. That’s the idea, anyway.

I received a fantastic tool for outlining the scene worksheet from author Meredith Bond, and I only gave it a couple tweaks, so credit goes to her for the format of this spreadsheet. Also, Regency Romance fans, go check out her stuff!

So, let’s discuss her scene worksheet.  Here’s a snapshot of a blank scene worksheet:

My God, it's full of... cells...

Let’s discuss each entry…

Scene Title: I give each scene a title, rather like a chapter title that is bland and descriptive. It helps me to capture at a glance what’s happening in this scene. An example would be “Jack Gets Abducted” or “Jill’s First Tag Team Match”.

Place: This is the physical setting. Often more than one setting is listed if it’s a “moving” scene.

Length: Not the word count… rather, the passage of time from the character’s point of view. For a simple conversational scene, this would be a matter of minutes. For a scene in Act II where there’s an 80’s training montage or a last minute study session in the college library, this would be longer. This helps to track realistic passage of time.

Time: On the clock, per the characters’ point of view. I often write this as 1:00pm – 1:30pm, for example.

Landmark: The role of the scene per my Plot Outline nomenclature, such as “Inciting Event” or “Salvo” or “Dark Moment”.

Date: Per the characters’ point of view, once again. This is surprisingly vital to keep the timeline from overlapping or becoming unrealistic.

POV Character: For any novel with more than one POV, this keeps track of whom the scene is centered on. A single scene can not change POV’s. It simply can’t. If you feel the need to change POV, start a new scene.

Weather: This is part of my pre-writing OCD. I like to nail down what the weather is like, which helps me more fully realize the surroundings of the characters, whether they’re going to run from the car or walk, whether they’re going to grab a coat or a pair of sunglasses. Keeping this in mind helps fully realize the world around the characters.

Character’s Goal: Ah, here we get to the real point. The POV character must have a goal for the scene. If there is no real discernible goal to be accomplished, then the scene isn’t strong enough. Every scene is a conflict between characters, an attempt to get something. Define each scene’s goal STRONGLY.

Prize/Stakes: There must be something tangible to gain, and if the scene is compelling enough, something to lose should the character fail. This basically makes every scene a microcosm of the overall piece. If the character doesn’t have something to gain and lose, then the scene isn’t strong enough.

Problem/What Happens?: Here I outline the very basics of what happens during the scene, which is usually a response to a problem. This problem is typically precipitated by the previous scene… a string of causality that serves as a motor for the pacing of the story.

Opposition: If a scene has conflict, then the POV character will encounter obstacles within the scene. The boring CEO is droning on about the shrimp cocktail while the spunky mail clerk is trying to keep the leggy receptionist from going home with the serial killer. The boyfriend wants to go to sleep instead of talking through the problem. I like to try and fit in at least three attempts towards the goal in each scene.

Strategy: This is the character’s response to each obstacle. The mail clerk points out the cheesecake to the CEO. The girlfriend locks the bedroom door. Don’t let the character give up!

Initial Conflict: Define the overall conflict at the heart of the scene… the mail clerk is trying to save the life of the receptionist. The girlfriend has to confront the boyfriend about his alcoholism.

Turning Point/Disaster: In each scene, there comes a moment when it is obvious that the character will succeed or fail. This is the miniature climax of each scene. Define this, and you’ll have something to write towards.

How does s/he feel at the beginning?: I like to establish the emotional condition of the POV character at the beginning of the scene, so that I can compare it after the scene is complete. If there’s no change, the scene isn’t strong enough.

Purpose of the Scene: Ok, here’s another biggie! Every scene ought to contribute to the plot and/or character development. Try to list three ways the scene justifies its existence. I try not to be too demanding here, because “establishing the protagonist’s relationship with boyfriend” doesn’t sound sexy, but may be vital to the reader’s empathy.

What does s/he have now that s/he didn’t have at the beginning?: If there is something to be gained, then define what was actually gained. It may not be the same. If the character fails in the scene, then that character has gained something negative, such as unwanted attention from the antagonist, or a shortened deadline. Maybe a black eye. Or, the protagonist might have gained something s/he wasn’t expecting, which is the essence of suspense.

How does s/he feel about it?: This charts the emotional impact upon the character, to be contrasted by how s/he felt at the beginning of the scene. Again, no change? Weak scene.

How does the scene move the character toward the goal?: This is more of an examination of character development, as opposed to Purpose of the Scene which is more plot oriented.

What is non-POV character thinking/feeling during scene?: In every scene, there ought to be at least one other character involved. An entire scene with only the POV character is possible, particularly if the conflict is protagonist vs. nature, or some other non-corporeal antagonism. However, too many such scenes can grind a novel to a halt. I like to explore the mind of the non-POV characters, which helps to maintain continuity of the minor cast.

Checklist: Here I tend to check off that I have accomplished Conflict, established setting, included the five senses, injected some emotional element (humor if the novel needs to break tension), ensured I haven’t needlessly ramped up to the scene but began it as close to the conflict as possible, and made sure I made a real palpable ending that will lead directly into the next scene.

So, there you have it. Please note that these are “scene” worksheets, and not “chapter” worksheets, as the two are not necessarily interchangeable. I consider a chapter to be a discrete package of prose that divides the overall novel into digestible bites, though there may be more than one scene in each chapter. A particularly powerful or long scene ought to be its own chapter. And I certainly feel that any chapter should fully contain at least one scene, less the reader be given a needless jarring.

Remember… each scene is a miniature version of the greater novel. They should have their own beginning, middle, and end. They should also interlock into a chain of cause-and-effect, any victory creating a need, every failure requiring new strategy. And most importantly, every scene should justify its existence.

Puppy image credit: nixxphotography

5 responses to “Tools for Pre-writing: Dissecting the Scene Worksheet

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