Sunday, August 17, 2008

Scene Charts

A novel can be a big, complicated document. Keeping the details straight and avoiding plot holes can be a daunting task. Some authors use scene charts to help with this process. Over the years, I've collected sample scene charts from several different authors and have distilled a method that seems to work best for me. Your mileage may vary, of course, and any technique you use should always be tailored to fit your own needs, but here are some strategies I've found useful.

Each scene goes on its own sheet of paper. I use real paper for this. Not a computer screen. It may be useful to start the process in a word processing document or in a spreadsheet or some other computer program, but eventually, you're going to reach the point where you will want to see multiple pages at once. And this means paper. (And usually, in my case, it means paper all over my living room floor.)

The Basics

At the top of each chart, I writes in identifying information: the scene number, its chapter, and its page numbers in the current draft. The scene number is nothing more than a simple sequential number identifying where in the manuscript the scene falls. As you read the manuscript from start to finish, you number the scenes 1, 2, 3, and so on. These mapping details help in case I drop my sheaf of papers and they go flying everywhere, or in case I decide to start rearranging things but then later change my mind. No matter how many times I goof up or reconsider, I can always restore the original order because of this identifying information at the top. Sometimes I also include a scene title ("Ed gets a new bike)" to give me a quick headline-style reminder of the scene's contents.


Next, sometimes I also include a tag called "Time." This is especially useful in stories where there are multiple threads overlapping each other and you have to keep track of the timelines for all these different threats. But sometimes, even in a simple story, it can help to make notes about time. It can save you from many a blunder. My time notes are usually something along the lines of, "Day four, Tuesday, morning, after the hospital is evacuated." This way, in editing the scene, if I stumble across a reference to the moonlight, I will know it is misplaced.


Now we'll start to get a little more complicated. The next tag I use is for the settings. I start with a label such as Ed's apartment. Then I jot down every setting detail that crops up in the course of the scene. His squeaky front door, the white bedsheet that doubles as curtains, the supersized plasma TV in the living room. Do you turn left or right to get to Ed's bedroom? Jot it down here. If you make these notes for every setting, it will be very easy to cross-check them all and make sure that Ed's apartment doesn't suddenly sprout yellow gingham curtains.

After you have charts filled out for every scene, you can use this portion to make sure that you're doing a good job with the setting. Do you have precious few details about setting in your chart? Might want to go back and beef that up. Does every battle scene take place next to a waterfall? Interesting. Might want to move one to a sand dune. Do you have three scenes in a row taking place on your heroine's front porch? Might want to consider moving one.

This is also the place to contemplate whether you are fully leveraging your settings. If your battle takes place next to waterfall, but nobody gets wet, what's the purpose of the waterfall? Now would be the time to think about how you can make better use of your settings.

Point of View

Usually, I just jot a note here indicating whose point of view we’re in. Interesting trends can sometimes be spotted this way. Check whether certain types of scenes are always taking place from a particular character's point of view: sex scenes through the heroine's eyes, car scenes through the hero's eyes, chase scenes through the dog's eyes, and so on. If you're making smart and careful choices about point of view all along, you won't need to use this part of the chart for anything more than a little checkpoint.

Plot Points

Here I simply write down what happens in one big section of the page. I always start with one line that summarizes the overall point of the scene. Then I follow it up with a short summary of the sequence of events in this scene. Sometimes it helps to map it all out like this because it can show you any breaches in your action-reaction dynamics. Also, when you're checking details in later scenes, and you can't remember whether Ed told his carpool buddies not to wait for him that night, it's easy enough to look back to this scene chart and make sure this plot point was covered.

Emotion Points

I use this section of the chart in several ways. First, I use it to track a character's emotional arc over the novel's journey. So I might jot down things like, "Ed is jubilant when Jerry crashes his car, which sets up guilty feelings later."

But I will also use it to jot down the governing emotional state of each character in the scene. "Ed -- jubilant; Jerry -- embarrassed and relieved that no one was hurt; Mike -- peeved that he has to take the train home." I can later flip through all of the seen charts and check character by character to make sure that they're behaving like real people. For example, if it turns out that Mike is consistently peevish, I might want to think about whether the characters should notice and respond. Or I might want to think about giving him a different emotion once in a while.

First Line and Last Line

I always write down the very first sentence in the very last sentence of the scene. Believe me, if you force yourself to do this, you will be paying a lot more attention to whether your first sentence and last sentence are good ones. If these sentences can stand alone and still have impact, they're probably good.

Theme and Symbolism

These may not be apparent to you while you're writing your first draft, but when you're at the stage where you want to use scene notes to try to wrestle your first draft into shape, it's probably time to start thinking about theme and symbolism. What is your central theme, and how is it being expressed in this scene? How is it being tested or challenged? What is the symbolic relevance of particular items that appear in the scene? Jot it down here. If you do this scene by scene, it will be a lot easier to determine whether you are exploring your theme to its fullest extent over the course of the book. You'll be able to spot contradictory symbolism, and you'll be able to notice trends.

Thread Notes

This is my all-purpose, catch-all section. Primarily, I use it to make sure I don't leave any hanging threads, which is why I call it Thread Notes. If in the fourth scene the hero has a conversation with a recurring character, and if the hero suspects that character of lying, then this means I had set up for a later scene where the hero must either discover the truth or discover the lie. In other words, any idea that is opened in a particular scene gets jotted down here. I can use these notes to make sure I've closed all these ideas in subsequent scenes.

But I also use it to jot down any ideas, questions, notes, and other random things that come to me as I am rereading the scene. If I intended to research the type of bullet used in a particular gun, and never did, I would note that here. I don't have to stop the process of evaluating the manuscript in order to answer the bullet question. I can just make a note of it now and answer it later.

There are plenty of other things that you might want to include in the scene charts. Eye color, hair color, height, clothing, unique gestures, backstory details, goals, obstacles -- the list is about as long as you care to make it. But because I generally want to fit each scene on a single page, I try to confine my charts to the areas I've already listed. It might be useful to also make a separate chart for each character's physical characteristics and the like, or a separate chart for each setting, like a master list of physical details that you can consult whenever you can't remember if the sand dune was 20 feet tall or 30.

But the main thing is to find a way to track your book in a way that makes sense for you. A scene chart, in any form and with any categories, is simply a tool to help you manage a big project.

For those of you who use scene charts, how do you use them? For those of you who don't use scene charts, do you use a different tool?



Dara Edmondson said...

I use a big trifold display board and post-it notes. I write the scene and a couple things that need to happen in that scene on the post-its, then stick them onto the board in whatever order they must occur. In the center, I stick a bigger paper that has the hero and heroine GMC and above each GMC I write what (emotional) tools each character brings to the table so I remember to incorporate those tools.

Ian said...

I'm so embarrassed. I barely use anything at all. I keep it all in my head for the most part - that comes out of my background as a game master for role-playing games (geek alert!). I'm used to keeping track of plot details that way. For really complicated plots (like I had in Deep Six when I needed to know when and where all characters were at any given time so I didn't have conversations between characters who died two chapters previously), I have just a simple notepad file where I jot down notes.

I feel so unprofessional now.

Carole McDonnell said...

wow, i think i'm going to try this. I just have to commit to it. Thanks. -C

Ali said...

I use index cards when I'm writing the initial draft, so I can keep track of what's to come. After it's all done, I make a spreadsheet with the first line of every segment, the date, the purpose of the scene, and the length in pages. Not as much detail as you described, but it works for me.

Anonymous said...

I found a combination of a spreadsheet for characters - majors in grouped families, minors just at the bottom, with biog data; and a running sheet helpful.

We have also created timelines for longer period coverage, on a calendar template helps. Makes sure business day activities happen on a week-day.

Once we printed out first pages of chapters and did the living room floor shuffle.

Once I did a scene analysis with character presence to see the relative weight each had in the story.

So far I'm still experimenting. I think if I read Theresa's approach before I started writing, I wouldn't even start! Seems like an awful lot of work. But as they say, horses for courses.

Perhaps there are differences of when one does which approach -- with the more detailed after completion of first draft. It's a good way to review the story that came out and see where there are holes or too much emphasis or inconsistencies.

Bobbie (Sunny) Cole said...

I'm still having whiplash over the LAST post - lol. Alas, I don't use anything, and I'm sure I should.

I want a copy of that style guide. Who do I have to kill to get one? If I promise to use a scene chart, might I...? No. Never mind. I'm already pretty dead set, shoes mired in grammatical cement, that sort of thing.

But I'd have loved to have been the proverbial fly on the wall when anyone battled the two of you on a grammatical ANYTHING.


Anonymous said...

I once took a workshop from Bev Brandt who has a chart system to use AFTER you have written the story. She uses Excel, which I can't stand, and sorts and resorts her chart to check details, timing, and all sorts of things. I developed a simpler version in MS Word. The system is way too complicated to go into here, and it's her idea, but if you ever hear her on it, you might want to give it a try. It's been several years since I took the workshop, and I still use the method.


Liane Gentry Skye said...

Color coded post it notes identifying characters and their arc on my bedroom wall and a whole lot of cussing and praying. :) So far, as a method, it pretty much sucks, but I'm determined to cure myself of pantser-itis.

Anonymous said...

How do you define a "scene"? could there be several scenes in a chapter?

I've started a few of these kinds of outlines, but always stopped and they languish on my hard drive.

green_knight said...

I tend to define scene as 'a logical unit in which one thing happens'. For me, it doesn't have to have a unit of time or place; it's 'the bit where x happens'. If something else happens as a consequence of that - even if the same people are involved - I open a new scene file.

I use one file per scene, numbered and titled. This gives me much better access to stuff - I can look at the scene list and have a mini-synopsis of sorts, and I can pinpoint anything I am looking for with great ease.

I'm afraid the scene cards would drive me nuts. I use spreadsheets and other electronic gizmos; I keep a date file on my computer to keep travel times etc straight, and I use Avenir to keep track of my notes.

Avenir is a Mac programme that allows you to add tags, keep notes, flag things up etc. I find it useful to have one place where I look for character descriptions etc - any notecard or electronic file will get lost very, very quickly.

And I do as much organisational stuff as I need. If I get stuck, that tends to be a lot more, if I'm happy with the progression, not an awful lot.

Jewel Allen said...

Wow, it sounds really great...and a lot of work. But I am sure it would pay off. I might not get it down to actual pages, but your post gives some good questions to ask myself, like emotional arc points, first-last sentence.

I would love to follow a system like this. I think I would avoid multiple (and confusing) revisions.

Anonymous said...

I liked the color coding idea, but I knew I wouldn't use certain points listed in the article. So I drew up a table, tweaked the headings, and printed them out four to a page on different color paper - one for each viewpoint. Works like a dream!! Charted an entire novel in a couple of hours, and my hallway looks much more cheerful than plain white walls now!

Unknown said...

Great! I've never used a scene chart, but I will from now on. I usually just write the odd note here and there and use my memory. Sometimes, I have to go back and read what day it is, in a particular scene. This slows down my progress. A scene chart will speed thing up, a lot.

Thanks for a great post and thanks to Jordan McCollum for recommending it.