Understand What You Need To Capture In Each Scene

A large part of writing a good scene-by-scene outline lies in understanding what makes a scene. Each scene should capture Six Essential Moments:

  • the time and location of the scene (setting)
  • the character’s opening emotion (what is your character feeling?)
  • the character’s expectation (what do they expect to happen?)
  • the way that expectation is upended (what actually happens?)
  • the way the character’s emotion changes (how the character feels)
  • the character’s new expectation or plan (or a cliffhanger) 

Every scene is a moment in which things either get better for the character or get worse for the character. What are some things that might happen to make the character’s situation worse? Brainstorm as many as you can for two minutes. Don’t edit yourself here—feel free to think of ridiculous things, like Character gets hit in the head with a loaf of bread or Character falls in a well. 

Remember the setting (need link to setting blog post) and the other characters. What exists in the setting that might cause a problem? What could the other characters say or do that would make things worse? Just come up with as many as you can. You should have a list of at least ten events, but it will probably be a lot more.

Next, ask,what are some things that might make the character's situation better? Setting and characters offer opportunities for plot events. Making a friend or meeting a mentor is a great way for things to get better, and it is also a way to kick off a subplot.

Take a look at your two lists and choose at least one event to explore as a scene. Go through the Six Essential Moments for the scene and see where it leads you.

For example: If my main plotline is a romance, I will need a moment where the two main characters meet. In this example, I am writing a scene in which a character (Amy) goes on a date, and the scene description in the outline looks like this:

8 pm, Tuesday night, outside a trendy wine bar in New York City. Amy is feeling anxious; her best friend has set her up on a blind date. Amy has had lots of terrible dates in the past and expects Daniel to be as dull and obnoxious as the rest of them. She plans to make sure the date lasts no longer than 60 minutes. When Daniel arrives, he is incredibly handsome and charming. Amy becomes nervous and accidentally knocks over a wineglass on the table, spilling wine on the couple seated next to her. Daniel is gracious and suggests they get out of there and go do something fun. Amy realizes this guy is wonderful. Amy forgets her 60 minute-date rule and agrees.

Here is the breakdown:

  • the time and location of the scene (setting): 8 pm, Tuesday night, outside a trendy wine bar in New York City.
  • the character’s opening emotion (what is your character feeling?) Amy is feeling anxious; her best friend has set her up on a blind date.
  • the character’s expectation (what do they expect to happen?) Amy has had lots of terrible dates in the past and expects Daniel to be as dull and obnoxious as the rest of them. She plans to make sure the date lasts no longer than 60 minutes.
  • the way that expectation is upended (what actually happens?) When Daniel arrives, he is incredibly handsome and charming. Amy becomes nervous and accidentally knocks over a wineglass on the table, spilling wine on the couple seated next to her.
  • the way the character’s emotion changes (how the character feels) Daniel is gracious and suggests they get out of there and go do something fun. Amy realizes this guy is wonderful.
  • the character’s new expectation or plan (or a cliffhanger) Amy forgets her 60 minute-date rule and agrees.

Will every sentence of this scene appear in the manuscript?

No. In fact, none of these sentences will appear in the manuscript. The work of the writer is to bring it to life. 

Can I put more details into the scene than just this?

Yes! There might be interactions with other characters, setting details, and/or witty bits of dialogue that you want to capture before you forget. The Six Essential Scene Elements are important, but you may want to capture more. 

Every scene you write will set up the next scene. The next scene will either continue the plot or defer the plot.

To continue this plot, the following scene would be another scene of the date that has an unexpected result (Amy gets kidnapped? The date lives with seventeen cats?) 

To defer the plot, you would essentially leave this scene where it was (perhaps Amy tells a friend that she “had a great time” on the date) and advance a subplot. 

Let’s say that Amy’s subplot involves her boss. Let’s go through the six essential moments for a scene in the subplot:

  • the time and location of the scene (setting): Wednesday morning, at the office.
  • the character’s opening emotion (what is your character feeling?): Amy stayed up late on her date, and she has a huge client meeting. She is very tired...
  • the character’s expectation (what do they expect to happen?): ...but Amy insists that she is fine for the meeting. She’s confident.
  • the way that expectation is upended (what actually happens?): Her exhaustion means that she makes a huge mistake—she put a decimal in the wrong place and offered a super-low price for services. The client takes the paperwork and agrees to look it over later, and it looks like a win...until Amy discovers her mistake.
  • the way the character’s emotion changes (how the character feels): She’s afraid she’ll be fired if she reveals the mistake.
  • the character’s new expectation or plan (or a cliffhanger): She decides she needs to get the paperwork back from the client and replace it with the correct figures without anyone knowing.

Again, the next scene might advance this subplot or defer it. You might go back to the main plot (new boyfriend calls and, when he hears about the problem, he offers to help) or might deal with yet another subplot.

These things get better/things get worse scenes are the fabric that connect your major tentpole moments, setting them up so that they have the right emotional impact.

When done properly, an outline serves as a map of your story, offering a bird’s eye view of each step along the journey. It can help you see where your story is off course and help streamline your storytelling process.