Start the New Year with a Comprehensive Scene Outline

I wrote this post a year ago, and since I did this series on scene outlines, I’ve had dozens of writers over 2017 hire me to critique their outlines.

What have I seen? That writers who take the time to do a thorough scene outline, and who study books like Layer Your Novel, to ensure they what scenes are needed in a novel and where they go, end up with extremely well-structured novels. That is, after they have me critique them.

A lot of the outlines I work on are a mess. Writers need a lot of help, a lot of direction. Even if you know basically what scenes will make up a strong story, it’s still not easy to tell if you have all you need and in the right places. And it helps to have someone else take a look and throw suggestions at you, ways to make your story better.

That’s what the scene outline critique is all about. So I’d like to encourage you to get a scene outline critique. Read on and learn what this is all about. Also do a search on my blog for “scene outline” and you’ll see a lot of other posts that will help you.

Hire me. I charge by the hour, and I feel this is the best use of your money. You’ll get a lot of help for a small cost. Why spend thousands of dollars on a full critique that may tell you, in essence, that your structure is a mess and you need to round file the whole project?

I’m all about saving time!

So, read this post carefully, and seriously consider having a scene outline critique. My successful author clients will say “Amen!”


One of the biggest problems I see as a copyeditor and writing coach is weak scenes. Scenes with no point to them. Scenes structured badly. Boring scenes, dragging scenes, repetitive scenes. Scenes are the pieces we string together to create a whole overarching story, but all too often writers include many scenes that just don’ work and shouldn’t be in their novel.

We’ve been going over the essentials components that make up a scene, and I hope by now you see that it isn’t just about going through a checklist of what to include. When crafting scenes, writers must keep in mind the overarching premise and plot, and purpose of the story, the character arc, and all the other elements of novel construction. Winging it instead of using a scene outline and checklist might be likened to trying to crest the top of a sand dune by tromping up the steep side instead of following the easy ridge.

12 Key Pillars Workbook front CoverUsing my workbook for The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction can greatly aid writers in getting all those key novel components set up solidly. But once all that’s figured out, the story then must be told. How? In a string of scenes. So understanding good scene structure is so important.

We looked at the first 6 vital scene elements: the high moment, starting in the middle of something happening, establishing the POV character, evoking the setting, infusing conflict, and instigating change in the character. But there are so many more considerations.

Let’s take a look at my scene checklist (which you can download here). I’ve created a list of questions for you to ask of each of your scenes. Here are the ones that apply to what we’ve gone over so far:

____ My scene is important to the plot (and I can explain exactly why it is)

____ My scene helps reveal something new about the characters or plot

____ My scene starts in the middle of action in present time and moves forward

____ My scene gives a brief nod to setting through the character’s POV

____ My scene stays in one POV the whole time and makes clear who the POV character is right away (preferably in the first two lines)

____ My scene evokes a rich setting to which my POV character reacts and responds

____ My scene’s high moment advances the plot in an important way

Before we take a look at all the other items on the checklist, I want to talk about outlining your novel’s scenes.

Outlining Your Scenes May Save Your Story

Before you complain about how you hate plotting or outlining, let me say this: outlining your scenes may make the difference between a so-so book and a great one. It may make the difference between a story that drags and seems to wander aimlessly and one that has riveting, tight pacing and high tension on every page.

The biggest reason novels drag and bore readers, to me, is the lack of strong scenes—scenes that are constructed carefully and include everything necessary to move the story forward purposefully and with economy.

What do I mean by economy? I mean not filling pages with unimportant material. Not showing characters doing boring things that have no significance. Not showing dialogue that accomplishes little to advance or complicate the plot.

Every word on every page is valuable. I often liken the pages of your book as valuable real estate. What if you got paid $1 for every perfect, necessary, useful, or ideal word you wrote on each page? What if you got fined for every useless, clunky, unnecessary, or boring word you used? Would you be rich or broke by the time the reader got to “the end”? Something to consider.

I critique a lot of manuscripts. Most of them need a lot of work, particularly with scenes. Some of the problem has to do with scene structure. Some has to do with the purpose of the scene in the overall story. I created this scene template to help my clients lay out their scenes in a way that would help them think carefully about their choices.

Here are the sections on my scene template (which you can download here):

Scene # ____

Locale:

Time of day:

Time of year:

Weather:

How much time passed since previous scene with this character:

POV character for the scene:

Scene summary:

What main way is the story advanced? What new plot points are revealed?

What conflicts/obstacles are presented in the scene?

How does the POV character change or grow by the end of the scene?

THE high moment or key info revealed in scene:

Important backstory bits revealed in scene:

World-building or specific setting/locale details brought out:

These are the key elements needed to be thought out and decided for each of your scenes. Writers who have used this template have found it so much easier to write their novel. It’s one thing to know what you want your novel to be about; it’s another thing to ensure you have just the right scenes in the right order to tell that story in the best way.

Whether you have completed a full draft of your novel or you’re only partway through, consider creating a scene outline and having me critique it.

It usually takes me about 3-5 hours to review and comment on a scene outline. All you need to do is use that template, one page per scene. If you only have part of your novel done, having me review what you have so far is a great way to stop to see how well you’re building your story. You can either combine all your completed template pages together into a Word doc, or distill the key components of each scene (addressing all the above items) into one long paragraph (per scene), then put that in an outline and send to me.

You’ll find this is perhaps THE best way to get a clear overview, like a bird’s-eye view, of your story and scene structure.

Contact me and let’s discuss! Seriously, this will be money well spent.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever outlined your scenes? What are the key factors you keep in mind when coming up with your scenes? What is most important to you?

3 Responses to “Start the New Year with a Comprehensive Scene Outline”

  1. John Cryar January 3, 2018 at 6:07 am #

    Ms. Lakin, First, Thank you for all the valuable info and advice you share so freely. It has helped me immensely as a 78-year-old WASP novice.
    I am inquiring about your hourly rate for the critique you speak about in this post. Since I live on a fixed SS income, I live by a strict budget.
    I am currently working on a fantasy novel, the roots of which date to the mid-1960’s. I do want to put my best foot forward with my work and of all the sites I have found, you are one of three which I rely on regularly for advice, ideas and help (you, KMW, & CF).
    I look forward to your reply and as always, eagerly await your next post.
    Thank your, John Cryar

  2. j January 3, 2018 at 8:33 am #

    Will you ever convert yourworkbook to a kindle book?

    • cslakin January 3, 2018 at 8:36 am #

      No, the main purpose of the workbook is to get you writing on pages with a pen or pencil. This is so helpful to your brain and creativity. You actually need to write longhand in the pages. So my workbooks are only in print/paperback.

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