When you set out to write a book, it starts with an idea. It bounces around in your head for minutes, days, or months as it becomes a story. When you’ve thought the idea through to your satisfaction, you write a synopsis of one or more pages. You then expand that synopsis into a chapter by chapter outline. That can be all you need to write your book. But, you shouldn’t stop there. Break each chapter down into scenes.
Why would you want to plan your outline down to the scene level?
By writing the scenes for your chapters you will accomplish four things.
1. You limit how far your first draft moves away from the outline.
2. You will have an easy way to check that each chapter advances the story.
3. You give yourself a way to check that each chapter has tension.
4. You give yourself an easy way to revise the novel before you write it.
What am I talking about here? Maybe you write your outline as scenes anyway. If so, you already write a good outline. The longer your outline, the stronger it will be. A weak outline is short because the scenes aren’t written.
How about an example?
A weak chapter outline: “The police interview the crime boss about the murder.”
A strong chapter outline: “Detectives Herbert and Wyoming interview crime boss Markland at his office in the back of the hardware store. There are several shady characters hanging out there, including Bennett. Markland blames the murder on The Slayers gang, who are trying to break into the bootleg DVD market. The police counter that Markland’s dead “employee” may have made enemies in his role as “delivery driver”. Markland uses their idea to exaggerate the pressure he’s been getting from Potero’s investigation and suggests he’s gone beyond the limits of his private detective’s license.”
1. Scenes Limit Unplanned Changes
In the weak chapter outline with no scene, the chapter is left wide open. The interview could happen anywhere and be run by any police in the story. This is the kind of outline you might use when you have the whole novel visualized in your head. You know what the scenes are going to be and write short one-liners for the chapters. A great idea if you’re one of those writers who can crank out a book in a week or two. This is not good if you’re in the majority and it’s going to take months.
By the time you write your book up to your one line chapter description, a lot has happened. Details change as you get to know your characters better. One line descriptions leave many options open. The story changes as you write.
Even with full scenes like in the strong chapter outline, the story will change as you write. The difference is that with strong chapter outlines, with scenes, you limit the changes.
2. Scenes Allow You to Check Validity
A chapter is valid if it moves your story forward. Using the example, the police interview may accomplish nothing by the time you write the scene using the weak outline. The strong outline has the boss directing attention at the private detective. We can guess that having the police meet the detective is going to move things along.
Every chapter needs to advance the story. If the police interview was a dead end, it would be a dead chapter. You could still have the interview but write a paragraph about it after the fact as part of another chapter.
3. Scenes Show Whether There is Tension
Advancing the story is a great goal for each chapter, but not as great a goal as ensuring there is tension. You keep your readers hooked with tension. By writing your chapters out as scenes, you can make sure they end on a cliffhanger.
The strong chapter outline has tension if the private eye is in conflict with the police. If he’s friendly with them, it lacks tension and may need to be cut. The police can let Potero know it was Markland who put them onto him in their interview.
You might be thinking of the classic cliffhangers where someone is about to die at the end of every chapter. They don’t need to be that dramatic. There are other kinds of cliffhangers. Some examples follow.
The scene ends as another character arrives with news. That news will be told in the next chapter.
The scene ends with a revelation. The kidnapping story was made up. The salesman’s real identity is exposed. The police have arrested someone the characters would never have expected.
Any danger to people, property, or alliances is a good place to end a chapter.
Anything that changes the story makes a good chapter ending. Something has just become different or will be changing. For a much longer list of cliffhangers, see my article, How to Hook Your Readers with Cliffhangers and Story Tension.
4. Scenes Make It Easy to Revise Your Outline
Instead of using your weak outline to write a 100,000 word first draft and then revising it, you can use your strong outline to revise your novel before you write the first draft. All the scenes are there. Take a day off and do some other writing. When you come back, read through your outline and look for places where the story doesn’t quite fit. What’s going to change when you write the first draft? Change it now and then update the outline where it’s needed. You can save yourself a lot of revision when you do it at the outline stage.
Break your outline into scenes and avoid chaos in the first draft while speeding up your writing process.
Article by Ivan Izo.