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Manage Your Novel Scenes with Checklists

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Scene Checklists

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction.

When you go through the first edits of your story make certain that all scene components are in each scene. You’ll take your reader by the hand to lead them through the story.

Two Types of Scenes

Alternating between Proactive and Reactive scenes is a cycle that builds story in increments.

The Proactive Scene challenges your protagonist.

  • He has a goal
  • She tries to achieve the goal but obstacles challenge him as the scene moves forward
  • At the end of the scene he has a setback

By the end of the scene, the protagonist not only did not reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning.

Checklist for the Proactive Scene

  • Who is the primary point of view character (stay with her throughout the scene)?
  • What is her goal?
  • Keep the goal simple for this one small part of the story
  • Create the objective
    of the goal so the reader can visualize the success

  • Make the goal worthwhile otherwise cut the scene
  • Make the goal achievable in the protagonist’s view
  • Make it difficult to achieve
  • Create the conflict that keeps your hero from reaching the goal
  • Even with obstacles, don’t let the protagonist give up
  • Make the obstacle unexpected, but keep it logical within the story

Put your hero or heroine in the worst situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.

The Reactive Scene

Now that you have thwarted your protagonist, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine decides what to do next.

  • Begin with the protagonist’s reaction to what just happened
  • Now, get your hero to figure out what his options are. If the setback was significant
    he may have no clear options, and he needs to look at his dilemma and choose an option.
  • In the final portion of the scene, the protagonist must make a decision
  • That decision is the goal for the next scene

Checklist for the Reactive Scene

These are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision

  • Clarify the protagonist’s vision of the problem. She needs to know what the problem is before she can make a decision
  • Keep the reader with the protagonist by visualizing what the character will do next
  • The decision for the next action should be in line with your character’s personality and values
  • Show how the protagonist sees success
    from his decision
  • Make the decision difficult enough that the reader has doubts about whether your character can do what she decides

Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make terrible decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.

Why This Structure Helps

For beginning writers, all this alternating of scenes may seem forced. I know, I was a beginning writer, and thought the same way. But my stories went nowhere and lacked tension. Readers want and expect your characters to have problems and overcome obstacles. Unless you are very
, you don’t need to write these lists down. Just know which type of scene you are writing, create the obstacles either to action or decision making, and write the scene. Your story will benefit and your readers will love your story.

Scene Editing When Your Story is Finished

Once you have written each scene with all the writer passion you hold, go back to edit your story with a cold, clear eye.

Scene Checklist for Editing

  • Is your scene written from one point of view?
  • Is it an action scene or a reactive scene?
  • Does the reader know where the characters are? Setting grounds the reader.
  • Does the scene include at least three of the five senses—touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell? These details help bring the reader into the scene.
  • Do you crank up the conflict—either action or decision—to the highest point? Make it tough, really 
    tough, for your character.

Practice story editing with an objective eye. Be as unbiased as possible about the elements in each scene. Use your critical mind to objectify the story. I think of it as switching from the story creator, the one who loves the story, to a person looking at a thing. Use whatever mind tricks you can to be as objective as possible.

Do this work on your story and scene structure before you send it to an editor.

Some writers switch into editing mode and stop writing during the process. I like to balance editing and writing so I do some of each during the editing process. Find what method works for you, but don’t skip story editing.

Keep writing!

Zara Altair
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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