Outline -> Scenes

I’d finally figured out a long summary / synopsis of my story.  I felt like I had it all figured out.  I started to write, then I got stuck.

It turned out that my outline explained what was happening well, but I had not worked out how to tell that story solely through dramatic scenes.  There were some scene ideas that had sprung into my head fully-formed, and that was great, but often the outline gave more general explanations of why things were happening, or statements like “G & B meet and are attracted.  It is very romantic.”

These statements are functional in an outline, but then I sit down to write and think – what on earth are they going to do?  I don’t know.  All I know is that I don’t want it to be this:


My latest task has been to convert the first half of my outline for book 1 into specific scenes, each allocated to a POV character, and so I have been giving some thought to this process.

What does a scene involve?

The difference between a clear scene and mere outlining of your plot is that a scene involves specific things visualised in a specific place, so that you could theoretically pick up a camera and film a scene, and you’d know where and what you were filming.

It is the how, what, where, and why of a moment unfolding in time.  It is the difference between ‘A & B meet’ (outline),  ‘A and B meet at an art gallery’ (the hint of a scene but still pretty much just outline), and ‘A is displaying her art at an avant-garde gallery opening in her last chance to get a break before she’s broke.  She finally get a patron,  and also meets B, who is posing as a work of ‘street art’ to get free canapés’ (scene).

Scenes have to accomplish more than be specific:

  • to be justified, they have to also involve a change that impacts the plot (if you write genre fiction, you will be advised to cut any scene which does not have this quality);
  • to be dramatic, they have to have stakes for the main character and involve a change that advantages or disadvantages the character;
  • they immerse you in the experience of being there by involving most of the five senses of the POV character and being limited to that character’s viewpoint and knowledge;
  • a mood / tone for the reader (eg. funny, scary, romantic, melancholy, exciting, eerie etc.);
  • they have a setting (time and place, sense of space, lighting, temperature, cultural context, significance to POV character); and
  • your characters arrive at the scene in a particular mood, in a particular state of physical health, wearing particular clothes, and with particular objectives (for their day/life, not because they realise they are in a scene, obviously).

Devising scenes to work together

It gets more complicated.  When you end up telling these scenes in order together, you want them to vary dramatically, visually, emotionally etc.  If you have some breathless action scenes, you’ll want to intersperse them with some scenes for everyone to catch their breath.  Your characters should have reversals of fortune – mix up the scenes where things go well and things go badly.  If you have multiple POV characters you want to make sure all of them stay in the story, that the timelines for their scenes make sense and fit together – that is to say, you’ll want to think about continuity.

You’ll probably want to include some early scenes that foreshadow later scenes so that your story builds in a purposeful way.  Hopefully your outline gave some thought to the general structure, but likely there’ll be some gaps, particularly in terms of what specifically happens to advance the subplots.

My process

I first sketched my scenes on Scrivener (which has recently been upgraded and now allows you to arrange your virtual index cards along different plot lines – I have done 3, one for each of my POV characters):

Scrivener layout.jpeg

Each of these ‘cards’ has a more detailed scene or notes attached to it.  I had a number of false starts where I developed some subplots that turned out to be overly complicated to illustrate some minor points.  I have a ‘plot heavy’ story where I’m trying to advance the stories of three main characters, so I needed to make sure that most of my scenes did double or triple duty.  I had to abandon some scene ideas which merely advanced a single aspect of the story.

I chucked down ideas I had for scenes which sounded interesting.  Then to devise the remaining scenes, I jotted down what situation the characters were at the start of this section of the story, and then what situation they were in at the end.  This gave me a bit of a road map of what I was aiming for.  I made notes of anything they had to accomplish in the middle, then I came up with ideas for specifically how they could accomplish those things that seemed en route from their starting situation to their end.  It took some trial and error.

Then I refined what I had on Scrivener by transferring summaries of each scene to physical index cards, fixing details as I went.  I laid these out in order (the colours indicate the POV character, and the shorter first column is a brief opening when the characters are younger):25443023_10157060748553569_328478798931880242_n-1.jpg

Next I blu-tacked these to the wall behind my computer, arranged chronologically and by character:25550480_10157063481503569_2559499043439235188_n-1.jpg

I then added smaller cards to note where the subplots appeared.  I colour coded these using washi tape (which is basically thin, decorative masking tape you can get in a variety of colours and patterns).  The cards with the yellow bands running along the top is a sort of uniting subplot around the family’s political situation.  Here is a close-up:


The events on the cards take place over a couple of years.  This meant I would be going through changing scenes, and the characters would be ageing noticeably (being children), so I devised an impromptu calendar (numbered for the years of the current King’s reign) and made a little chart showing Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and how old each of my main characters are as the years turn:


This then allowed me to quickly add notes tracking the season and how old the characters were in various scenes:



The idea of laying it out like this is to help me easily see how the scenes fit together.  I can   consider each subplot separately and check it has a logical progression.  I can check continuity issues when I’m switching POVs and moving forward through time.  A novel is such a big project it can be easy to get lost in it, whereas here I can easily see where everything fits.  If I don’t get all these scenes written over the next couple of weeks, it gives me a clear map that can keep me on track even around all the other distractions of life.

Visualising my WIP

I keep thinking my WIP is so much further along than it actually is.  I keep writing words, but it’s like they pour into some black hole of completed novel underestimation.

For a more realistic view of where I’m at, I colour coded the chapters on Scrivener into three categories: first draft written (dark pink), first draft partially written (light pink), and first draft in synopsis (white), and it came up like this:

TLT ProgressI had actually written Part 1 in its entirety, but once I got to the back end and also started getting some feedback, I realised certain things had to change, so I’ve removed the words that will no longer work (they’re safely tucked away), and interspersed what’s left with notes about what will need to be written as a replacement.  The complete Part 1 I think should be a little under 30k.

Part 2 is pretty close to finished.  It just needs some minor tweaks.  Part 3 should be roughly as long as Part 2, so that’s only about half done.  Part 4 has a lot of short chapters, because they start getting shorter as we get to the finale, so I’m going to guess I’m aiming for 30k there too.

This started off as such a simple story, a fairytale for my daughter about three sisters working together to survive a deadly Labyrinth.  But turns out I am incapable of not complicating things.  Now it’s a crazy, 500 page, action-packed, YA mystery puzzle adventure about the politics of fear.  It’s still for my daughter, just for when she’s a bit older.

In other efforts at keeping the story straight, I have done this to my study wall:

TLT wall


That’s all the key points in my story laid out chronologically, with the stories of the 3 protagonists and the subplots running horizontally through.

Here’s a closer shot of the first bit.  I’ve stuck in images where I’ve been able to find any that help me visualise the characters / settings / moods:

TLT Wall 1


What about you?

Do you do anything to help you visualise or track your writing?



Creating a 3 Act Structure from Scratch (Pt 2)

This is the second part of a ‘how to’ on creating your own outline with a 3 Act Structure. You can find the first part here, which dealt with getting started and creating Act 1.  In this part we are going to work out how to take your story to the midpoint.


To illustrate the process, we are creating an example story as we go along.  I don’t promise it’s a brilliant story, but it will illustrate the 3 Act Structure.

Previously, we created endearing bogan siblings, Sarah-Jane and Joe.

bogan Sarah-Jane and Joe

For those of you who aren’t  Australian, fiction featuring endearing bogans is an Aussie Tradition, like Vegemite and the ritual sacrifices needed to appease drop bears.

We mapped out Act One.  In this Act, we decided we will learn about Sarah, a shy receptionist who fears creativity. But Sarah’s life gets shaken up when she finds out her brother Joe has terminal cancer.  They both need money.  Joe wants the money to win back the love of his estranged teenage son, who now lives with his cashed-up stepdad. Sarah wants the money to pay for some experimental new cancer treatment for Joe. Having discovered the Nobel prize for literature comes with a pretty substantial prize, they decide to write a novel together to win it.  How hard can it be?

We also know that by the end of our story, Sarah will have discovered her inner creativity, left her receptionist job to run her own cupcake business, and Joe will have passed away but Sarah will have come to terms with his death and have the novel to remember him by. We know that at the start of the novel, Sarah starts to bake because Joe’s sick and that’s what their mother used to do for them when they were sick. Her initial cupcake attempts are inedible.

Where to next?

What the 3 Act structure looks like

Let’s pause a moment to look at what we’re aiming for.

Here are the classic three acts set out in terms of the space they take up, showing where key events in our story should fall:

3 Act Structure So Far

We’ve got an idea of key events at the start, the end, and at about the 25% mark.

You will sometimes get advice that you must have key events in your story in the places specified or you will never get published / be rejected / crawl into a hole and die.  Is this true?

For novelists?  No.

The three act structure is an industry standard for screenwriting. Screenwriters are stuck with pretty rigid running times for their stories (about 100-130 minutes), and this spacing works for them. It gives them up to half an hour to establish and define the characters and central problem (Act 1), about an hour for fun and hijinks as those characters try to deal with the central problem (Act 2), and then up to half an hour for a finale and to wrap things up (Act 3).

For better or worse, novels are not restricted to 100-130 pages (which would be a novella), which gives you a variety of options for spacing your acts if you choose to use a three act structure. For example:

* tell your character’s whole life in 4 parts (childhood, youth, middle age, old age) with each part adhering to a mini 3 act structure;

* a stretching of the three act structure over 300-500 pages, with more complexity (subplots), leisurely detail, and/or intermediate challenges along the way;

* 30 pages or so at the start and end for the first and final act respectively, but a much longer and more complicated middle section;

* a first book which is in 3 acts, but which also doubles as most of the first act of a larger story, as the resolution of the first book raises a new problem which demands a particular course of action (typical structure of a trilogy).

Rather than sticking rigidly to the screenwriting formula, novelists can just take it as a starting point, then see what pacing feels right for their story. If the story is slowing down or getting boring, you either need to shorten that section, or add more complexity and moments of interest within the space you have. If things feel rushed, you either need to lengthen it and expand on some aspects what happen, or simplify what happens within the space.

But for now, let’s use the screenwriter’s structure as a guide to further develop our story.

Step 5

Identify some information you can withhold from the reader which prevents your character from initially seeing the true nature of the central problem.

You know how I said we had Act 1 worked out? I lied. But it was for a good reason, so bear with me.

In our story, Sarah-Jane knows the central problem she has to deal with from the outset, namely that her brother has cancer. Sure, she could still learn that it’s advancing a bit faster than she thought or something, but her fundamental understanding of the problem is pretty much correct.

This is not going to work.

What is supposed to happen at the midpoint of a 3 Act structure (that’s in the middle of Act 2), is that the character learns something which fundamentally changes the nature of the problem she’s facing. For example, Sarah-Jane could learn that Joe’s apparent cancer is actually the first stage of a contagious world-wide epidemic, and she actually has to save the world.

No one believes this is Sarah-Jane.
This is not Sarah-Jane and does not fit in our story.

That could be a midpoint for another story, but not this one. Here that would be ridiculous.

This is where people trying to plan a 3 Act structure come unstuck, because it’s very difficult to think of some fancy new interpretation of the problem that doesn’t completely derail your story. In mystery thrillers, the classic one is that you expose a double agent: the wise mentor your characters were relying on to guide them in solving the problem is secretly working for the enemy. Or dies. Neither of those ideas are going to work in this story either.

mr darcy proposes
Also not in our story. Sadly.

In Pride and Prejudice, rather than expose a secret enemy, the enemy is exposed as a love interest (but in a context where a happy relationship seems impossible).

A revelation that enmity is built on sexual tension is not uncommon for a midpoint, but I’m not keen on it for our story. Even Joe and Sarah-Jane aren’t that bogan.

So what then?

The problem is that we’re looking at this from the wrong angle, one where we assume we’ve got the Act 1 locked in. But our first act gives too much information too early.

What Sarah needs to discover at the midpoint is the true problem, which is that her brother is dying of cancer. The story should actually look like this:

3 Act Structure so far v2

Step 6

Develop a different reason for your character to commit to the course of action you decided on at the end of Act 1.

We now have to rejig Act 1. Sarah-Jane still needs to commit to writing the novel with her brother, but she has to do so for other reasons. Reasons that are compelling but a bit less intense than the real reason we’ll discover at the midpoint.

Because we have already spent some time developing our story, we have some substance to work with even if we take out the cancer. Her brother could still tell her he needs the money to repair the relationship with his estranged son, and that he needs Sarah-Jane’s help. It’s just that we’re going to have to come up with a different reason why she feels compelled to help him, because she no longer knows about the need to raise money for cancer treatment. Again, it’s conceivable that they could just be motivated by the money, but it’s more compelling if there’s an obvious price for failure.

muscle car crash

Perhaps Sarah owes Joe. Perhaps he let her borrow a customer’s fancy car to dash to the shops and she crashed it. He needs the prize money for the novel to pay back the loan he had to take out, and she needs to help him atone. In this version, the kick up the bum for Sarah is the car crash.

Now our story looks like this:

3 Act Structure so far v 3

You may wonder why we went to the trouble of developing Act 1 if we were just going to completely change it.

It’s true, you could have done the midpoint after Step 1. However, at least speaking for myself, I find the order I’ve used a more organic process for understanding the characters and how they would react. Do whatever works for you.

Step 7

Develop the first half of Act Two.

3 Act Structure v3 SA

At the start of this section, Joe and Sarah-Jane have committed to writing a novel together. Joe is doing it to win back his son’s love and to raise money to pay back a bank loan, Sarah-Jane to atone for crashing Joe’s car and to pay for the bank loan he had to take out. At the end of this section Sarah-Jane will discover that Joe has a more pressing need for the money than bank loan, and a more urgent need to impress his son, because he is dying of cancer.

This means this section needs to accomplish two things:

  • the characters should try (with limited resources / experience that lead to as many setbacks as successes) to achieve the goal they think they’re there to achieve; and
  • plant clues about the true nature of the problem that will be revealed at the midpoint.
Knows she’s better than Sarah-Jane.

So, for example, on the first point Joe and Sarah might decide to enrol in a writing course, but it is full of upper middle class mummy bloggers who are snobby towards Joe and Sarah-Jane, leading to Sarah-Jane getting into fisticuffs with the head of the PTA in the parking lot, which ends up posted to Youtube. Not a resounding success. Although maybe they write it into their novel.

We know that Joe and Sarah-Jane’s novel is not going to win the Nobel prize, so we don’t need actually need them to believably be heading towards being great writers, just for them to share experiences which will develop their relationship. And in the writing class scenario you create stress on the characters to struggle and react.

With respect to the clues, you need to give the reader fair warning that All Is Not As It Seems, but you don’t want to make the answer obvious, so you need to encourage them towards one or more misinterpretations of those clues.

Maybe Joe’s acting oddly. Sneaking off. Sarah suspects that what he’s not telling her is that he’s on again with his ex, his son’s mother, who Sarah hates. She suspects he really wants the money to win his ex back, and that’s why he’s paying more attention to the sone too.

Mislead the reader early with a detail that supports this theory, eg. Sarah discovers two wine glasses, one with lipstick marks, in Joe’s bedroom. Joe ducks questions about them.

Sarah becomes more suspicious (she pops round for a surprise movie night when Joe said he’d be home and discovers Joe is out, then he lies about it, leading Sarah to wonder why he would lie to her unless it’s to cover up the one thing she’d object to, namely getting back with his ex), and eventually confronts him. He swears he’s not seeing the ex. He doesn’t tell her the real reason, though, which was that he was staying overnight at the hospital for cancer-related treatment. Later she finds out he definitely has seen his ex (not thinking about the fact he would see the mother of his child from time to time, or maybe he had a single drunken shag). She’s furious. She lays out all his erratic behaviour and the lies. Then we learn the real explanation is the cancer.

Given Sarah-Jane crashed his car, we’re going to have to make it believable that she’d be so furious without just being a busybody. So maybe the ex is Sarah’s childhood best friend who Sarah feels only used her to get close to her brother, and who then ditched Sarah’s friendship, and ultimately ditched her brother for an attractive psychiatrist twice her age. That’s an understandable reason for Sarah to worry about him seeing the ex, despite her need to make amends.

In this story, the unfolding mystery of Joe’s erratic behaviour provides the tension which will carry us through to the midpoint. In other stories, the mystery will be much more subtle and the tension will be created more through a sense of how the characters are progressing towards their chosen goal.

We now have a workable outline for the first half of our story.

Was this helpful?  Do you have any questions or suggestions?

I hope to get a chance to write up the next in this series of posts soon.

My characters have hijacked my plot

hostage writer charactersHow often have you heard a writer say that they started writing to an outline, but the characters had their own ideas, and before they knew it, their protagonist had left their job, joined a circus, and hooked up with a cult of giant squid worshipping Kaballists?

Well, maybe not that exactly, but every writer is familiar with characters hijacking their plot. In my completely unscientific, anecdotal opinion, it’s the most common reason for considering outlining a waste of time.

A fellow writer expressed his mystification at this phenomenon, asking how anyone could possibly accuse their characters of taking the plot in expected directions, his general sentiment being: you are writing the story, YOU FOOLS.

He does have a point. Sometimes dialogue or action heads off in unintended directions just because I write whatever random thought grabs me in the moment, rather than crafting it to stay on track. But then sometimes capturing those random thoughts can inject my novel with new life, or sometimes my outline has reflected my failure to think through the plotted situation and what it would really be like, and the character reaction I planned is not authentic. These can be good reasons to let the characters take control.

Tips to stick (roughly) to your outline

Outlines have to be living documents.  You are going to make some modifications.  But they don’t have to be modified so much they become useless.  Here are some tips to keep you on track:characters hijack

* Brainstorm!  Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm.  Explore your subject matter from different angles in the planning phase.  Keep a notepad on you and jot your ideas down.  Make your outline interesting enough you don’t have to deviate.

* Detailed scene outlines showing the dramatic beats of the scene. The action / reaction model, where I spent time during outlining considering what reaction my characters would have to each thing that happened in the scene was really helpful.  Make your outline logical enough that you don’t have to deviate.  Here is a useful template to plan your scene in detail.  And here is a discussion of how you can flesh out your outline into scenes.

* Accept your draft will have gaps and mistakes.  If your characters are dialoguing off on a tangent, it is fine to write “[and then Fred says something to change Jenny’s mind.  No idea what.]” and then move forward as though this has already happened.  Just because you can’t think of what he’ll say then and there doesn’t mean you have to abandon that plot development.


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