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Writing a Novel Scene by Scene

Tips for WritersWhat I’m going to say will either sound like writing blaspheme, or will set you free.

Also, I’m going to give you a disclaimer: the process I’m sharing works for me. I don’t expect it to work for everyone. Some of you may be kindred spirits; some of you exact opposites. Wherever you stand, take a stand for your own writing. Try a different way or analyze it; you can improvise, accept or discard.

Stop outlining.

Okay, I said it.Β  Stop outlining your novel before you write it. And yes, I know that there are outliners and pantsers, but I have always been an outliner. What I’ve found is that you need both skills, but at different times in the process. When I was 13, I outlined my first novel. I’m not going to tell you how many novel journals I’ve outlined since, including two independent projects in college.

However, it was also in college that a professor taught me to write in scenes. I’ve never looked at movies the same way because movies are constructed that way. It’s easier to see the construction in a movie than in a novel, so I’ve studied movie scenes ever since. It’s also how I began to recognize the hero’s journey.

But I didn’t know how to bring it together–outlining, scenes and journey–untilΒ  I took Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on book development. That is where I learned to map the hero’s journey to a storyboard. It also provided me with a big “a-ha” moment regarding scenes.

When I took Moore’s class, I was proud of the fact that I had 99 pages including my outline. She was unimpressed. She explained that in order to work the storyboard, you needed material to break down into scenes. So, she had me break down all my pages into scenes.

You see, we tend to write linear and put all the back-story in the front of the book, as if needing to explain what is happening. Outlining is also linear and these processes tend to shut down the creative possibilities.

My professor who taught me to write in scenes also told me to let my characters talk. Whenever I let a character have dialog, I feel like I’m channeling somebody else. I’m not crazy, it’s just that dialog allows me to tap into that creativity stifled by my years of rigid outlining.

And the characters always take the story in a different direction than I intended.

I was beginning to understand what it means when writers advise other writers to “just write.” So stop outlining and write. You might be surprised at what happens. I actually finished two novels in less than one year. Granted, one novel took me four years to get to 99 pages. The next novel, I cranked out 400 pages in less than 30 days with no outline.

I’m going to give you three scenarios for writing a novel scene by scene using the storyboard. The first is based on my introduction to the storyboard. The second reflects how I tossed outlining to the wind. The third is a compromise if not outlining unsettles you. You can improvise, use your own colors and change up the process.

Scenario #1: Incomplete Manuscript with Outline

  1. Buy a stack of yellow sticky notes, a black pen and a red pen.
  2. Break down your manuscript into scenes. A chapter is made up of many scenes, so make sure you are breaking down into small chunks.
  3. Use a pen to line across the page to indicate a scene-break.
  4. Summarize each scene concisely (such as, “Mindy robs the candy store,” or “Detective Bard books Mindy downtown”).
  5. Write each scene that you have written in black on a yellow sticky note.
  6. Refer to your outline and write down each scene that you don’t have in red (next week, we’ll talk more about finding gaps).
  7. Pick out your most crucial five scenes. These are your anchors that express the hero’s journey. In “Miracle of Ducks” I opened with my character’s husband leaving for Iraq which sets her up–reluctantly–for the hero’s journey.
  8. Map out your novel according to the “W” and write the “red” scenes that you don’t have yet.

11-New System for Tagging Scenes

Scenario #2: Use NaNoWriMo to Write Your Novel

  1. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at
  2. Commit to 1,667 words a day for 30 days in November.
  3. Write. Just write. You will be so surprised! I wrote an entire novel, scene by scene by just writing each day in November and I had no idea what I was going to write beyond my opening scene.
  4. If that makes you freeze, but you want to break the “outline the whole book first” habit, just start with a single scene the first day. Place the scene on your “W” and think of a couple more possibilities without outlining every chapter. Give yourself the creative freedom to jump around.
  5. Write scenes as if they were islands. During revision (in a few Mondays from now) we’ll explore using the storyboard to revise. Set yourself free from your inner critic and write. Don’t worry about gaps. That comes later.

15-Writing Scenes for NaNoWriMo

Scenario #3: Use the Storyboard to Map the Five Anchors of a Hero’s Journey

  1. If you can’t breath unless you have some sort of outline, try outlining just the five anchors of the hero’s journey: the call, the test, the cave, the transformation, the return.
  2. Write a scene for each of those.
  3. Next, write the scenes that connect each anchor to the other.

12-First Leg of the W

Be a writer and write. Give yourself material before you start committing to structure. Structure is the first step of editing, and editing is not writing. Allow yourself to make big mistakes; to not know if your scene is plausible or accurate. That’s research and research is also a part of editing, not writing. Allow yourself to make little mistakes. If you are constantly scanning and going back and correcting punctuation or spelling, you are editing, not writing.

The importance of thinking in scenes is that you are creating a movie of sorts in the reader’s head. You will later link scenes to tell the story in such a way that is engaging. Don’t tell everything. Decide what to withhold, how to pace, when to reveal your character’s motives–but that all comes with revision. Write like the wind; revise slow and bright like a long summer day.

Use your board to track or map your progress as you write scene by scene, and next week we’ll discuss how to use it to find gaps.

How would you use the “W” storyboard to write a novel?



  1. lorilschafer says:

    This is very similar to the way I work – scene by scene. Of course, I actually enjoy editing and moving things around later on, but I don’t think everyone does. That’s why your structure is so useful. I like the way you’ve organized it to be sort of a halfway point between plotting and pantsing – and who says we all have to do just one or the other, anyway?

    • The halfway point between plotting and pantsing. Indeed! I think my big realization was that I planned too much in the beginning. I love to simply write, but had learned to be critical of every sentence which slowed me down. This helped me rework my process so writing first–scene by scene–and editing after–storyboard. Yes, I can tell that you have a sharp sense of scene-writing as I often visualize your short stories. They are very vivid to me, which is why I like what you write.

  2. TanGental says:

    Basically I’m B (or 2). Like you I did nano this last time; I had a basic idea and just wrote. No outlining, not a scene in sight, just a group of characters, a setting to start and off I went. But that’s no different to the others I’ve written. I get bored plotting ahead hence I could never outline any more than I could W or any other letter of the alphabet. I can’t see me storyboarding either, in truth. However, then comes editing and here I’ve learnt to do chapter summaries (which in a way are scenes, I guess) and move them around and change the plot and introduce characters and find and fill gaps. So my processes are another variation – and of course for some novels they need more thinking and structure up front which slows down the writing, but in essence I plough on (inefficient a it maybe) with my method. I’m intrigued by how you deal with the quantity; in my 300 page books I suppose there must be between 70 to 100 scenes; that’s one humungous storyboard! I would be swapped with yellow stickies….

    • Charli Mills says:

      Geoff, do you have Scrivner? That’s a helpful writing software for writing and rearranging chunks of material. You are doing what I think every writer ultimately has to do–tap fingers on the keys and crank out the story. I’m fascinated that your process is to follow a group of characters. I started with four characters in mind last November and I’d be so surprised when new ones showed up! I just welcomed them on board! The storyboard is most helpful in plotting the hero’s journey, finding gaps and rearranging chunks of material before committing to those changes in the work in progress. I was so excited to finally finish a novel then I say with it for 9 months not knowing what to do next! I believe most writers try to publish too soon because the real work is the revision. And it’s huge, daunting! Like you say, 70 to 100 sticky notes. That’s accurate. And yes, I’m in sticky notes up to my eyeballs with revision but it’s helping me tackle the changes my editor gave me. If I tried to do that within the pages I’d get lost or miss crucial edits. It only takes a few days to mark out the scenes and note them on stickies. Then it becomes fun to rearrange and think about, what if this happens earlier or later…

      • TanGental says:

        Time to try something new then. Thanks Charli! And yes I’m thinking about a post on criticism…!

      • Charli Mills says:

        That’s a post I’d like to read. A good topic for discussion, too!

      • TanGental says:

        Oh and I don’t have Scrivener. I’ve head people talk about it but I’m sort of stuck with Word. maybe I shod give it a try.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I was stuck in Word until Scrivner. It has many layers, but the feature I use and love is that I can write scene by scene and easily rearrange those scenes without having to cut and paste.

      • TanGental says:

        Time to try it then.

      • Charli Mills says:

        The past two years, Scrivener has offered a free version to NaNoWriMos and upon completing 50,000 words they’ve offered a discount. Not that the program costs very much. It’s reasonable and they offer tutorials which I still haven’t watched!

      • TanGental says:

        thanks Charli

      • Charli Mills says:

        Ha, ha…I was going to respond with the western colloquialism, “Sure thing, pard…” as in “pardner” which is a corruption of “partner.” Then I realized that’s also your last name! So I had a giggle and needed to share that silly thought…

      • TanGental says:

        Pard appears in ‘As you like it’ as well. In the All the world’s a stage Jacques uses the expression ‘bearded like the pard’. Oddly this is an old English word for a leopard whereas my ancestry is, so family lore has it, Huguenot French.

      • Charli Mills says:

        If it was Old English it must have been pronounced differently, too since it was before the “great vowel shift.” Fascinating! I never thought of Huguenots as staying in England: I imagine them passing through. But why not stay? Thanks for sharing this tid bit, Pard!

      • TanGental says:

        Oddly perhaps for such a Catholic country there is a large group in Dublin. I remember trying to direct some legal work to a Dublin law firm; the partner I spoke to was a venerable old boy, more interested in my Huguenot connections than the work, while I was desperate just to get the job done. Looking back, he had his priorities spot on.

      • Charli Mills says:

        The connections never end. This makes me understand my North Carolina roots better–supposedly the community was German Hugeonot, Scots and Irish. I always thought, what a crazy mix! But they were all protestants. That was probably their commonality–that and dispossession, leaving/loosing homes across the sea. Yet, on my paternal side those lines are all Catholic, including French, German, Scots and Irish! Do you dig into you past at all?

      • TanGental says:

        The archaeologist and I have a plan to dig deep though he’s a fantastic researcher who’s done a bundle of (unlinked) bits already. Fr’instance he’s been researching our great uncles who died in WW1; one received a Military Medal for conspicuous gallantry (he was an ambulance driver and bearer; he wouldn’t fight) who died the next day. Apparently the telegram announcing his medal and his death were received by my great grandparents at the same time. How poignant is that. We have indentures to a William Leppard from 1812 (the spelling was changed during the Napoleonic wars given it didn’t do to be French!). More to do for sure…

      • Charli Mills says:

        Our family trees are a great source of stories! Wow–I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to receive the dual news about great uncle. It sounds like he would have made a great subject for the sonnet writers of WWI. It reminds me of E.M. Forester’s Razor’s Edge, though that ambulance driver survived and went in search of himself after the war. Indentures–that sounds like a great story to explore! I thought it was never acceptable to be French. πŸ™‚ One of my favorite scenes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is with the French! What are you doing here anyhow…?

      • TanGental says:

        It just so happens that the first story wanted to write was an imagined meeting between my grandfathers during WW!. You see my mother’s father was a pilot, in the Royal Flying Corps that became the RAF in 1918 – at the forefront of the new technology; whereas my father’s father was in the Irish lancers, a cavalry regiment and one of the last to make a charge in the British army. Old meets new and all that.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Geoff, that would make an interesting story. It could be a future scene, short, flash or a full novel. Ah, the possibilities of fiction! Do we ever run dry of ideas?

  3. Love how you have shown us your own application of Mary Carroll Moore’s storyboarding technique. I have been wanting to take one of her workshops for years and have viewed and recommended her videos many times. This post was VERY timely for me since my editor friend and writing buddy–a real aficionado of the outline–has got it into my head that that is the way to go. Have outlined a couple of novel ideas this way in the last month, but not written any out beyond the first chapter. Started with an outline when writing my client’s autobiography but moved to looking for scenes halfway through as I found the writing too dry. As for TanGental’s comments, I am reading a classic guide to screenwriting right now called Story by Robert McKee, which is also revered as a great guide for novelists and all stripes of story-tellers. McKee says average for a novel is 60 scenes. Between Moore and McKee, I see movies in my head too now when reading fiction. THANKS for the great post Charli. I am going to link this on my blog.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Thanks, for the link, Jeanne! What’s good about sharing these techniques is learning what works for others or seeing how one idea leads to another process. For me, I got to wrapped up in tasks that are truly about revision not writing and my writing suffered. NaNoWriMo was so freeing for me, yet all that I’ve learned in college, workshops, books and other writers I can now apply to revision. I’ll have to look up McKee’s book. I’m a huge fan of scenes just because I’m visual. It might be harder for someone who is not. And as for taking a class with MCM, go to MISA! That’s Madeline Island School of Arts. Not only is it a worthwhile workshop, the setting is magnificent. One of our flash writers is going next month and I had so hoped to go, too. I believe there’s still an opening or two. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      • I am drooling over MISA and keep checking back for a date that works for me. Also committing to NaNoWriMo this year. And I love the distinction here between writing and revision. My inner editor needs to take a hike, I guess, and embrace the possibilities of the story. Also enjoy the discussion about Scrivener, which I love for the first drafts especially. Once I master all the tricks I won’t feel like I need to move the whole thing into Word. Fantastic for scene building and navigating. And do check out Story. Given what you have written here, I think you will definitely resonate with it.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I’m drooling with you, Jeanne! I keep thinking I’d hock one of my kids to get to MISA, but they’re grown (and lucky for them) out of the house! πŸ™‚ I think it would be great to survey our group of writers to see who is doing NaNoWriMo this year. We could have a virtual kick-off party at Carrot Ranch where we all dump our inner-editors for the month of November. I’m still mastering Scrivner, but even at its most basic, the software supports breaking down a story, rearranging it and then compiling the whole manuscript. This last year I had fun creating my own boards for each character. I will definitely look into Story. Thanks!

  4. Annecdotist says:

    Interesting, Charli, and I was slightly surprised that you’ve decided to move away from outlining. I’ve always written in scenes, but write my outline as I go along (ie. AFTER I’ve written the scene it goes into the outline so I produce an outline with the first draft) but, having admired some novels that aren’t scenic, was considering for the next one I ought to outline first. That felt like doing it properly! So now I’m reconsidering, AGAIN.

    • Annecdotist says:

      Just to add, that in my author interviews on my website, I’ve started asking whether people are planners of pantsers, and interested to find out whether the ones I admire tent to swing one way or the other.

      • Charli Mills says:

        I like that you are collecting such data. Any set pattern, yet? I must be a recovering planner coming out of the closet as a pantser! And you? Did I read in one of your posts that you are a planner?

      • Annecdotist says:

        Too early to tell yet, Charli, though I imagine for many people it’s about balance. As for me, I like to give a story a lot of advanced thought if I can, though sometimes I’m bursting to write, but overall more of a pantser than a planner. I think the unconscious plays a big role in where our stories go, and that doesn’t respond to well to a plan.

      • Charli Mills says:

        You’re right about the balance, Anne. I think it goes with timing, too–know when to just write by the seat of your pants, and when to plan the direction (arc) of the material. I’m still trying to figure it out, too thus the posts as a reflection on process and things learned so far.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Honestly, I think it will always be reconsidering…For me, it was breaking habits that didn’t serve final goals. If my final goal was to complete a novel, but all I ever did was write, outline, rewrite, I never finished. So these are just ways that propel me forward instead of in a perpetual circle. You might use a storyboard to track those scenes as you write.

  5. This was really interesting. I don’t write fiction but presumably this would work for memoir as well. I just sit and write. When I reach the end I then do an edit. I am struggling a little with my current writing so I have written out chapter headings which is an outline. I don’t follow it but when I find I am totally pot bound I look at my chapter headings and generally it will get me moving again. I am going to consider giving each of your techniques a trial and see if any works for me.

    • Charli Mills says:

      Lisa Reiter and I were discussing that this would work for memoir, too. In fact, the author who told me to take Mary Carroll Moore’s class published a memoir (Turn Here, Sweet Corn). MCM refers to writing scenes as writing islands. Then you use the board to arrange your islands into a book. I’ll talk more about that process next week and how to find those gaps, which helps you figure out what’s missing or what to write next. I’d love to hear what works for you or what you’ve altered.

  6. Norah says:

    I am interested to hear that you recommend not outlining and just writing. I think Stephen King would agree. In his book ‘On Writing’, which I thoroughly recommend (recommended to me by Lisa Reiter) King says, “I believe stories are found things, like fossils in the ground. Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.” Similar thoughts were also expressed in a video I included in my post today: The Writing Spirit

    • Charli Mills says:

      Excellent quote from Stephen King! I’ve not actually read his book and I think I’ll figure out a good time to treat myself to it. I’m going to hop over to your post and watch the video in context to what you wrote. I always look forward to your posts as they are educational on many levels.

      • Norah says:

        Thank you, Charli. I appreciate your support. I have listened to ‘On Writing’ as an audiobook. It was even read by Stephen King: a double treat! It is the only book of his I have read. I find his fiction a little too horrific, though I have enjoyed a couple of the movies. “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” come to mind.

      • Charli Mills says:

        Double treat, indeed! He does horror too well. πŸ™‚ When I was younger I could read some of his works, Cujo, for one which has me terrified of rabid dogs now. The two movies you mention are among my favorites. What’s interesting about Stephen King is that even if one isn’t a fan, one still acknowledges that he’s a master writer.

      • Norah says:

        My fear of rabid dogs (and I think it’s probably a good fear, though I’ve never met a rabid dog) began when I watched a movie called “Old Yeller” many, many, many years ago! Stephen King is definitely a master. His book “On Writing” showed me that and developed an appreciation for his craft. While I may not enjoy his fiction, this one is brilliant and I loved every word!

      • Charli Mills says:

        That’s a good fear to have, and I remember both the book and the movie. It was so sad. And I agree with you on Stephen King!

      • Norah says:


  7. Thank you for an excellent post. I particularly like the idea of stepping away from linearity and including backstory in a more organic way.

    I’ve recently completed writing the first draft of a novel, and like many beginning writers I started with an extensive outline. I did use it at the start, but within a few pages I started to deviate from it.

    However, I think an outline can still be very useful, with a small caveat: don’t hold on to it too tightly. If your characters choose the go in a different direction, there’s probably a reason for them to do so.

    I definitely don’t think you’re crazy when you say you let your characters do the talking. I’ve found that characters tend to have their own will, and that I cannot force them to act a certain way. If I did, their words and actions wouldn’t ring true on the page.

    A great article, and I will certainly be trying out some of your techniques in the future.

    The Noveling Novice

    • Charli Mills says:

      I can relate to that experience of deviation. At first I thought it would lead me astray (not to follow my outline) but instead it led me into the real story. And yes, I do think that a writer can do both (plan and “pants”) as long as you figure out what works for you, and what breathes life into your writing. And thanks for confirming that I’m not crazy! πŸ™‚ Appreciate your thoughtful comments!

  8. […] The storyboard can help you the way a flow chart can guide the complex processes of a large project that involves many team members. While your book doesn’t require a team, the complexity exists in its development. Writing in scenes is the beginning of breaking down the mass into smaller chunks (see last week’s post, Writing a Novel Scene by Scene). […]

  9. […] the Three Act Arc, the beginning does indeed start the story. But when building that beginning scene by scene you want conflict. In fact, according to Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on developing a book, […]

  10. […] structure. But before you can build your structure or revise your plans, first you need material. You need to write. You need scenes, chapters or […]

  11. […] Writing a Novel Scene by Scene […]

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