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On Scene Lists: Building a Novel

This week, your big NaNoWriMo prewriting assignment is to develop a long synopsis, or scene list.  I’ve talked before about writing a plot synopsis (and all its various forms), and tucked in there is a brief description of a scene list:

A scene list is primarily useful as a prewriting or editing tool. It forces you to map out the actual structure of your story, down to the very building blocks, and then gives you an easy place to spot errors or weak points, to tinker and rearrange.

To make a scene list, you start at the very beginning of your story, and write one to two paragraphs describing what happens in every scene. When you’re finished, you’ll have your entire plot down on paper — every twist and every turn — without all that messy set design, characterization, and description.

That’s certainly how we’re using it this week. Today I want to go into a little more detail than those two short paragraphs give.

The Building Blocks

When you do the assignment tomorrow, you’re going to build your story. You’ve already scoped it out, with the Conflict Resolution Cycle Worksheet. You’ve laid a path of stepping stones with your mock Table of Contents.

And you’ve grasped at the heart of it with your short synopsis. That’s something you’re going to need when you try to sell your story (as I mentioned in that older article). It’s a great starting place, when you think about your story, but to really figure out what your novel needs, you’ve got make a scene list.

We’ve talked about scenes, and I suggested every chapter should contain one or two scenes. In my work, I almost always do two scenes per chapter – one establishing a conflict, and the other overcoming it. I like my scenes to blend dialogue with action and, wherever possible, to alternate between the dialogue-heavy ones and the action-heavy ones. Just to keep things moving.

Ultimately, though, your story will tell you what content a given scene will have. You might set out to write a lengthy philosophical discourse on the social implications of unrestrained speech on conservative talk radio, and find your characters’ discussion interrupted when a cop jumps out of his patrol car to ask them why they’re out walking so late at night. That happened to me. I never did get around to the conclusion of that conversation.

Your story will evolve, your story will exert independence and try to self-differentiate and do all the other things teenagers do to frustrate their parents. That’s a good thing (in teenagers and in novels), but your job as the writer is to make sure your story gets from its beginning to its end, no matter what crazy style choices it expresses along the way.

Your Plan of Action

And, just like the parent of a teenager, if you walk into that process blindly — unprepared, without a plan — you’re going to have some real trouble. I don’t recommend it. This week’s assignment is all about having a plan.

You’re going to build a map out of some of the concepts you first encountered in the Table of Contents, and then more explicitly in the Worksheet. You’re going to decide what happens in every scene of your novel.

If you did the short synopsis, you’ve already done all the work of boiling it down to one page, so you might expect some difficulty breaking that back out into a longer list. That’s not really the best way to do this anyway, though.

What you want to find for your scene list isn’t an overview of the story, but a detailed look at each of the discrete events that takes place in the story. Think of this not as expanding your short synopsis, but as expanding your Table of Contents.

What Happens Next

This assignment will probably be a lot of work. It’ll probably take 5-10 pages, and that’s if you keep things brief and leave out all the flowery language that makes writing fun. But let me tell you why it’s worth it: once you’re done with this, you’ll walk into November knowing what happens next.

On November 1, that’s the first scene. That’s easy. You’ve probably been building the first scene (and the first page, and the first line) since you first decided you were going to write a novel.

But when you get to the end of that first scene, you’ll have to decide what comes next. Sometimes it flows organically, but a lot of the time you have to make your story get on to the next major plot point.

That’s not so hard on November 2, but come the middle of the month, you’ll find yourself sitting at your computer, a paragraph away from finishing scene 16 and agonizing over exactly how to do that, because your next paragraph needs to transition somehow to where the protagonist will end up next. And the cursor will just blink at you, impatiently demanding over and over again, “What’s next?”

I’ve been there all too often, and that’s the question that has, more than anything, driven me to close my book and give up on my word count for the day. If you don’t have a plan, every paragraph can trap you in that indecision. If you have a vague idea where you want to end up, that can be even more frustrating because you feel the burden of making up something that will actually get you closer to your goal (without actually knowing whether it will).

When you have your long synopsis, though, there is no question. You know what’s next. It’s the next scene in your list. It’s the next paragraph on your page.

Oh, there’s still work to do. You still have to actually write it. But that’s what November is about. Writing your story. My goal for these prewriting exercises is to make sure you can dedicate the whole month of November to writing it.

So figure it out now, make it up, play with the building blocks of your story and move them around until they make something beautiful. Put it down on paper, and you’ll know exactly where to go when you’re wrapping up the scene at the diner, the scene at the chemicals plant, the scene at the Vatican. You go to the next paragraph in your synopsis, and get to work.

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