Why Using the Ten-Scene Chart Will Give Your Novel a Solid Framework

Let’s jump right into this week’s contribution to our look at the ten key scenes you need in your novel. We’ve been spending a lot of weeks delving into my 10-20-30 Scene Builder Concept, and we’ve looked at what those first ten scenes are that provide the framework for a solid story.

I also showed you how you can layer in the next ten scenes with a subplot or a romance plot. This layering of ten scenes can be done with any genre and any POV structure. Just know this: if you don’t have your foundational scenes in place, and in the right place, your novel may collapse.

While every novel is different, notwithstanding genre, those that align closest to strong, expected, tried-and-true novel structure usually have the better story. Readers expect novels to follow a certain structure (though they may never realize it). It’s what they’re used to.

And times have changed, in that back in the day novels used to ramble for hundreds of pages with backstory and narrative. But that’s not acceptable to today’s readers, who are used to watching movies and TV shows.

So it behooves today’s novelist to learn contemporary novel structure (which still has at its heart traditional storytelling structure from centuries past). If you’re kind of new at this novel-writing thing, these posts are for you! Be sure to search back a few months and read all the posts up to this one, starting with a look at the inciting incident and premise.

And if you really want to get novel structure under your belt, The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction will lay it all out for you. That book is the comprehensive compilation of all the wisdom I’ve gleaned from other instructors, books, workshops, and personal writing experience, and I wrote it to save you years of confusion, heartache, rejection, and frustration (things I suffered in large measure because I didn’t know what I needed to know).

In other words, spare yourself the frustration and take the easy way to novel writing. Yes, it is still going to be hard work, and it will take time and practice to master all this. And you do need to develop great writing chops. So there’s that.

But you can be a terrific writer and compose beautiful prose—which will get you zilch if you try to write a novel and don’t know how to structure it. I see a lot of manuscripts like that. Beautiful prose will only get you so far when it comes to novel writing.
So study those writing craft books and read up on your ten foundational scenes, Download my template for the ten scenes, and before you go any further in your novel endeavor, work out those scenes.

I’m sharing a bunch of submissions from readers of Live Write Thrive who have taken the challenge and filled out their chart. I’m sharing them on the blog, with their permission, to help you see how helpful this is. It’s not so hard! Coming up with that great concept and a protagonist with a strong goal is half the battle. Get those pillars solid before attempting the chart.

And hire me if you need help. I critique lots of scene outlines, and these writers will tell you how glad they were to have them critiqued so that the problems could be identified and ironed out.

Without further ado, let’s look at this week’s chart sent in by one of my blog followers. This is book 3 in a contemporary mystery series.

Copper Swift: Back to Highbridge by Linda J. Pifer

Here’s Linda’s summary:

It is 2011 in North Yorkshire, UK, and the story is set at the 250-acre Highbridge, ancestral estate of the Smith family, through which the Copper Swift River flows. Five generations have lived in the manor.

The looming financial failure of the Highbridge estate puts heavy responsibility on its heir, Thomas Smith, to make a success of building the Copper Swift Mill and its café, especially when a design error is found with its construction. Thomas is further pressed to resolve differences with his fiancée, Sarah, who has held off for the last eight months in setting their wedding date.

Sarah, a widow from America relocated to the area on a visa, harbors grief-related fears born out of her first husband’s sudden illness and death. Vowing never to be “left at ends” again in her life, she delays her promise to wed with Thomas until she establishes herself in the UK but then notices some of his faults, which add to her dilemma.

Stephen Smith, current patriarch at Highbridge, clings to his Victorian-like training in finance, women’s rights, and his perceived responsibilities for the nearby village, financially supporting them when needed. This has led to the estate’s downfall, and he realizes too late that he’ll need to change his ways and trust his wife and son to help him make important financial decisions.

And now her chart (my comments in BOLD):

#1 – Setup. Thomas Smith, heir to Highbridge, oversees the building of a craft mill on the Copper Swift River, in hopes of generating extra revenue for his family’s estate. It’s their last chance for the estate’s survival. He also worries about his fiancée, Sarah, an American genealogist working on his family’s history. She continues to put off setting a wedding date, and it’s been twelve months since she accepted his proposal. [Good setup of the situation and stakes, and introduction of the protagonist.]

#2 – Turning Point #1 (10%) Inciting Incident. A blueprint error results in a costly mistake on the Mill’s structure. A nightly prowler secretly searches the manor for rumored treasure. [Not stated how this is an inciting incident, but I’ll assume this costly error creates a situation requiring Thomas to do something, which sends him in the direction of his goal for the novel. It appears that goal is already identified—find a way to save the estate. So this event should specifically be moving Thomas in a new direction. The bit about the prowler is not the inciting incident, apparently, so shouldn’t be mentioned here. That is a key plot development, but not a turning point scene.]

#3 – Pinch Point #1 (33% roughly). Thomas’s father Stephen confesses the estate’s trust is depleted, and Thomas makes the decision to use his own money to finish the mill. The prowler narrowly misses being caught, and his presence is now known. He finds vintage letters under the main stairs and must think of a way to get them to Sarah without revealing his identity. [This sounds to me to be the inciting incident—Thomas learning about the trust’s condition. Which should move him to make some decisions. The prowler’s scenes are separate and should be listed separately. I’m guessing the prowler is some antagonist or provides opposition for the protagonist and his goal, so for this pinch point, his scene only should be listed and explained why this is going to cause Thomas problems.]

#4 – Twist #1. A spirit joins the prowler during his visits and helps him discover new clues in the old manor and about the estate grounds. Sarah and Thomas argue; Sarah reaches a decision. [Again, more than one scene is mentioned here. The spirit aiding the prowler can be a twist, but it’s a twist for the opposition. What you want in this spot in the novel is a twist that affects the protagonist and creates complications. So neither of these scenes appear to fit the required scene here, though I don’t know what the argument and decision are (so maybe there’s a twist there).]

#5 – The Midpoint Turning Pt #3 (50%). The prowler now finds important information, and he must reveal his findings to the family, at the risk of losing his personal freedom. [Here, too, you have a scene that involves the antagonist, not the protagonist. The midpoint is all about the protagonist reacting to the current situation in a way that poses a strong dilemma and forces a shift in attitude (conviction toward the goal, new commitment, etc.). So what Linda needs here is a key scene with Thomas that shakes him up and propels him forward.

#6 – Pinch Point #2 (62% roughly). Stephen makes a lone decision, and without telling his family, he travels to London to sell off remaining stock in the family’s import business. [This seems a good pinch point, if Stephen is a key opponent to Thomas’s goal and success. It appears the prowler is the key antagonist (?) and if so, this pinch point would be about him and his success at creating further trouble for Thomas.]

#7 – Twist #2. While on their honeymoon in New Zealand, Sarah and Thomas visit a restored farm home and read Thomas’s grandfather’s name, Daniel Smith, on its signage, one of its inhabitants in the mid-19th century. A descendant of one of Daniel’s friends welcomes them to the farm and gives Thomas a flash drive containing a diary. [I’m not sure how this could be a twist unless what’s in the diary is revealed to create some new complication or open up unexpected options for Thomas. That would come out in the scene here.]

#8 – Turning Point #4 (75%). The prowler reveals his identity to Sarah, who must now call the family together to decide how to handle his invasion of their home’s privacy. In addition, they must consider the value of his suggestions for a hidden treasure and the significance of a brass letter seal passed down from Daniel. [This turning point is all about the protagonist. The dark moment and trouble that forces a last gasp push toward the goal. So this info, leading up to this turning point, is important, but it’s not key scene #8. So what we want to see here is how Thomas is dealing with all the forces seeking to stop him from saving the estate and how he deals with it. It should be high in trouble and tension, to the point where all looks hopeless.]

Note: It would help to know who this prowler is and what his motive here is. Friend or foe? What’s at stake for him, and what new potential does this create for Thomas ultimately? This should be the scene that catapults the story into the climax.

#9 – Turning Point #5 (76-99%): Stephen decides the family should allow the prowler, whose identity is now known, the benefit of the doubt at Sarah’s urging and follow him out onto the estate grounds to search for the so-called treasure. [This is to be the big climax scene in which the protagonist reaches (or fails to reach) his goal. This sounds like a plot development, and doesn’t show how Thomas has successfully saved his estate. Which is what this scene should be about. It’s so important that a clear goal be set (Thomas saving the mill/estate) and that the goal is resolved in the climax. So this scene(s) should be all about how this goal is reached, and the more high action, tension, conflict, and drama, the better.]

#10 – The Aftermath (90-99%): The prowler is reinstated and given back his job at the manor; he’s also hired by Sarah to help with her genealogy research business. The mill is off to a good start; the family begins a new lifestyle with fresh ideas and plans for the estate, bringing it fully into the 21st century and preserving their ancestral seat for future generations. [This is a good wrap-up for the book, as it’s clear that somehow the goal has been reached and issues resolved.]

So, with Linda’s chart, you can see where she doesn’t have the right scenes identified in those specific places in her story. That doesn’t mean her novel is missing those scenes; it merely shows she isn’t identifying those key scenes.

What she or any author should do when working through the chart is first get a clear picture of what all the plot points, turning points, and pinch points are about. Be sure to read my posts on these (and of course if you Google them, you’ll find plenty of others’ posts on these key scene types).

All the other scenes of importance can be layered in over those ten key scenes. As we’ve seen in previous posts, a subplot can beCopper Swift cover layered in with another ten scenes. While it seems apparent the story elements of the prowler are not necessarily a subplot, those scenes can be laid out and layered in the same manner.

I hope this look at Linda’s chart helps you get a stronger understanding of what those ten key scenes are about. See if you can work out your ten key scenes, and if you’re not sure you have them and in the right place, consider getting a critique of your chart and/or scene outline. You’ll be glad you did!

You can get Linda’s book HERE. Thanks, Linda, for being brave and submitting your chart for my review!

Any thoughts on this chart? Which of the ten key scenes do you struggle most with?

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  1. Hi Susanne,
    I won’t lie – I found it hard to break down my story to the structure chart; some of the chart’s labels confused me, especially with the caveat they could be in different places than suggested. I have no doubt the method works well for the writer who begins this way, but doing it in retrospect was difficult and I almost gave up. I will use the chart method in a future endeavor and ‘try it on’, using one for each story-line within the story being told.

    Writing Copper Swift involved bringing the backstory for readers new to the trilogy, then adding the Estate’s failure, Sarah’s reluctance to marry, the prowler and ethereal helper as new twists.

    The Mill’s successful opening was Thomas’s goal, along with marrying Sarah. Perhaps the protagonist’s midpoint turn was when he and Sarah argued and both did some soul-searching.

    The prowler was introduced as a mysterious character, a twist to allow readers to form their own theories until later. The character did wind up on the side of the family, so I guess per the chart, he was an additional main protagonist or a ‘reformed’ antagonist?

    Thank-you Susanne for taking a look at ‘Copper’; your input and experience present an invaluable point of view and I am very grateful.

  2. I find your blog an incredible resource-thanks so much for sharing your knowledge! I’m curious if you can apply the 10-scene chart to all successful stories, written or in film. The first example that comes to mind is the film, “The Sixth Sense” or even “The Wizard of OZ” where there are complex endings or story-within-a-story formats that seem to me, have the one and only turning point at the end of the story. If you are writing a story-within-a-story sort of manuscript, how do you label the all important beginnings and endings that really aren’t part of the main story?

    1. Thanks. I’ve mentioned that this is a framework. There are so many permutations and varieties of structure you could build upon this. If you start with these ten, it’s very likely you can deconstruct any great story or movie and see how the other scenes (subplots, parallel story lines, etc.) layer in. The idea here, though, is to ensure a solid structure with key scenes in the right places.

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