NaNo Prep: How to Create a Scene Outline

I am a compulsive plotter.  Anyone who knows me can tell you this. (Those who have known me for years can tell you that compulsion doesn’t end with plotting.  As my best friend Rina would say, I’m “very serious about the process.”)

With National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNo) coming up, I’m sure many of you are considering whether or not you’ll participate.  50,000 words in thirty days.  It can be exciting, thrilling… and a little daunting.  That said, I’d strongly encourage any and all writers to try it at least once.

Prep for the journey.

There are several ways you can help increase your odds of actually finishing a 50,000 word rough draft in thirty days.

Some are prosaic:  let your family know that mundane things like laundry are going to fall by the wayside; freeze batch meals (or put up a magnet with the phone numbers of cheap take-out food on your fridge); TiVo your favorite shows and put a Leechblock on stuff like Twitter and Facebook.

Do all this stuff, you figure, and you’re ready.  You’re going to buckle down to some serious writing!

But here’s a funny thing I’ve noticed…

A lot of times, people will get about 10,000 words in or so, and then stop dead.

They cite burn-out, or are overwhelmed by the sensation that their writing is sheer crap.  These are both valid reasons.  But I think that they also both mask the real issue.

They have only the barest of ideas what’s supposed to happen in between the beginning and the end.  It’s like driving from New York to San Francisco and just using the sun as a guide.

You’ll get there, eventually.  Probably.

Tank is filled; GPS is dead.

If you don’t have a map of how you’re going to arrive at your destination, then you’re going to have a very hard time completing your journey.  That seems obvious.

But NaNo is a white hot burst of creativity, right?  Camaraderie, band-of-brothers-in-prose stuff?  Well, yes… but trust me, it feels even better if you cross the finish line with your friends.

The best way I know to do this is to establish your plot points.  And if you are a compulsive control freak like myself, take it one beautiful, crazy step further.

The scene outline.

Let’s say you needed to get a rough draft written in a month because you were under deadline to a publisher.  If you miss this window, you’re not going to get your pub date.  Would you still approach it with a wing-and-a-prayer?

This is the situation I was faced with when I came up with my compulsive scene outline.  I knew the word count; I had the premise that I’d pitched and sold on; I knew how much time I had.  Now, it was a matter of getting it from the synopsis to an actual novel by deadline.

So let’s take that example and apply it to NaNo.  You’ve got a premise (I hope.) You’ve got fifty thousand words, and thirty days.  That’s approximately 6 and 2/3rds pages a day.  Personally, that’s the perfect length for a scene, for me.

Creating the outline.

If you’re technically minded, spreadsheets work great.  If you’re more visual-appeal, you might try post-it notes.  Either way, you’re going to have thirty “slots” to fill in.

Your first plot point would happen at around scene seven, give or take.

Midpoint at scene 15.

Plot point 3 at scene 22-ish.

Pinch points at about scene 11 and 18.

You’ve got your opening scene and your closing scene.  You’ve got your black moment and your climax/resolution.

Right there, you’ve blocked out nine scenes out of thirty.  That’s thirty percent of your book, already sketched out!

And if you’ve got multiple protagonists, you can basically sketch out plot points for each character arc.  As the infomercial salesmen say:  It’s just that easy!”

Character-driven is what drives the plot.

I can almost hear some of you saying aloud:  “Well, that’s great if you like plot-driven books, but all my books are character driven.”

I’ll admit — this argument drives me nuts. I understand the distinction — if you’ve got a character like James Bond who doesn’t change from the beginning of the book to the end, but lots of “stuff” happens, you’ve got a plot driven book.  I get it.

But all great genre books are character-driven… and they still have plot.  If you don’t know your characters well, you’ll find that your plot is static and boring.  That said, if you don’t think about what your characters are doing as they progress through their character arc, you’ll find your story is flat and your narrative didactic.

Define your characters, then write your scene outline.

You should have a good grip on your characters in order to make the choices that will fill out your scene outline.  In fact, it should make the whole process that much easier — instead of saying “how could I get from point A to point B?” you’re asking, “what would my character do when faced with these options?”

Like the narrowing down of the sweet sixteen in college basketball, your character will narrow his choices as he goes from beginning to end.  Each choice narrows the possibilities as the book progresses, until the Black Moment hits with a sense of finality even if it twists and surprises.  Why?  Because you’ve drawn the character in such a way that the reader understands there was no other way for him to get to his destination and still remain true to himself.

That’s not to say it’s predictable, or boring.  It means it’s authentic.  Which is a tough call.

Which is why I say:  outline it first.

The route will always twist on you.

Ever use Google Maps to get somewhere you’ve never been, only to find a crucial road closed or a one-way street that Google seemed to have overlooked?

Your scene outline will probably work the same way.  There’s a lot of leeway between the scene outline and the actual living, organic qualities of a draft.  Still, the map will get you into the right neighborhood, and sometimes, that’s all you need.  Plus, it’s easier to tweak a map then it is to tweak a landscape.

For those looking for a bit more guidance…

Click here to get a copy of Rock Your Plot, my ebook that covers how to plan your plot points and how to write your scene outline in more detail.

11 Replies to “NaNo Prep: How to Create a Scene Outline”

  1. Mention the word “spreadsheet” and my teeth are set on edge. lol! That’s just too anal for me. Wish I was a plotter, but can’t quite do that. Maybe because I write from emotion and have to write a scene at a time and don’t always know where it’s going to fit in the book. But somewhere into the book, I take some time out and outline the plot points, etc. and revisit it from time to time. My first draft is a plot in longform. The downside is that I end up with several drafts before finished – with a lot of rewriting/editing.

    1. LOL. I know a lot of people who are like that. (Although I have to say — there’s so much to love about spreadsheets! They have a bad rep! )

      I developed the plotting scene outline system when I was writing about three books a year. I have to say, it worked remarkably well, but it depends on goals, and artistic temperament. Sounds like you know your process, and that’s fantastic! Are you doing NaNo this year!

  2. This is a nice summary of scene plotting, even for those of us too chicken–er, I mean, busy–to do NaNo. Slowly but surely you’re turning me toward the light of compulsion. I’ll always be a pantser, but story mechanics are seeping into my brain. Even watching a cartoon movie with my nieces (Tangled), I found myself breaking down the story mechanics. (They’re really rather good in that one. 🙂 ).

    1. Come to the Plot Side, Vaughn. We have cookies…

      LOL. I loved Tangled (saw it with The Boy) and I’m glad that you’re growing increasingly drawn to story mechanics. And congrats on finishing your re-write! 😀 Nothing feels better than a completed story, am I right?

  3. No NaNo for me. The one time I tried it, I wrote the biggest pile of crap ever – lol! Someday I may fish it out and see if I can do something with it so no writing is ever wasted.

    1. I’m with you. I tried it and I just meandered. Boy did I meander. You could say in my trip from LA to NYC I ended up in Costa Rica. Now I love Costa Rica, but it wasn’t my goal 🙂

  4. Hate Outlines, Anyone?

    It used to be that when someone said “spreadsheet” or “outline” I would duck for cover or hunt for an excuse that didn’t make me feel ashamed, like I was lazy or undetermined. Yeah, I know the story: I used to sit around and daydream, constructing my story slowly through clipits of dialogue or cool scenes that cropped up out of nowhere. But, one day, there were just too many to keep track of. That was where my opinion of outlines began to change.

    Try This:

    If you’re a writer who, like me, uses the method of writing/thinking up one scene at a time, then just take five minutes to pull up Microsoft word, (Don’t have a heart-attack! Just listen!) and list your scenes/ideas in chronological order, using two or three words to describe each one. You will suddenly have a much clearer idea of what an outline is and what is does for you. That, and you will have a better idea of what pieces your story is missing and what questions you need to answer next.

    Sure, when you first come up with a scene, you may not know where it goes… But if you’re going to write it, you need to know eventually. Sure, trying to write an outline before you know your story will prove to be a futile effort, but trying to write your story without an outline will prove fatal.

    Any successful writer who says “I wrote it without outlining it” meant that either they got lucky, wrote every scene on the spot, chronologically, and never had to write a second draft (which is just ridiculous), or they had an outline in their head that they never bothered to put on paper. By all effective definitions of “outline,” a first draft is just a really detailed outline. If you know what the start, middle and end of you story are going to be like, or what order which events will take place in, you have an outline. It’s just a good idea to have a simplified, personalized method for recording it.

    But don’t do it the way they teach it to you in school. I don’t believe in the I.a I.b I.c, II.a II.b II.c outlining method. That’s just tedious and impossible to manage because you inevitably become too detailed as you go along, then you get confused and quit. It’s just too controversial.

    1. Sorry that was so long. I do that (quite unintentionally) on a regular basis. It starts as a concise paragraph, then takes wing.

      1. Testify, Ryan. 😉 I think outlines are important, although it’s not that crucial how you wind up outlining. (Of course, I am totally biased towards my own method, LOL!)

  5. I just wanted to let you know that, between your book “Rock Your Plot” and Larry Brooks’ “Story Engineering” (mentioned in your references), my “pantsing” days are over.

    I am struggling with the Black Moment right now, for my current work, but that is much better than struggling with the entire plot!

    Thank you!


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