Outlining Your Novel for Success

Writers often need a lot of help and direction to write a novel. Even seasoned authors benefit by another set of eyes (preferably ones that are just as experienced) on their scenes. Having done dozens (perhaps hundreds) of scene outline critiques, I can attest that every novel outline, regardless of how carefully crafted, needs tweaking.

Even if you know what scenes might make up a strong story, it’s still not easy to tell if you have all the “right ones” and in the right places. I love having others take a look and throw suggestions at me, to help me make my story better.

That’s what my scene outline critique process is all about. If you’re in the embryonic stages of crafting your story or have already completed a full draft, I’d like to encourage you to get a scene outline critique.

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.

I have gobs of posts that go over the essentials components that make up a scene, and I hope by you’ll 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.

Using 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.

Let’s take a look at some of the items on my scene checklist (which you can download here).

____ 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 the plot, reveal character, and add meaningful tension and microtension.

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—more than 200 a year. 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 # ____


Time of day:

Time of year:


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 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—or create your own type of outline that includes these pertinent elements.

If you only have part of your novel done, a review of what you have so far is a great way to see how well you’re building your story.

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

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

Featured Photo by Sergei Gussev on Unsplash

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  1. This was so helpful. I’m a new writer who self published my first book and now realize it still needs work. I was given this website by an editor.
    Thank you

    1. There are lots of posts on scene outlining on my blog, so be sure to check them out. And if you need help, hire me to help you work out the kinks so your story is solid!

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