Category Archive: Outlining

Guest Post: How to Use Scapple

Hannah Givens is always a favorite guest blogger at WriteOnSisters, and we’re thrilled she’s back. If you haven’t already done so, follow her wonderful book blog, power packed with great ideas for reading diverse books and authors. And now, take it away Hannah…

I love sticky notes, and I’ve used them to organize my thoughts for years, but that method has some problems: notes fly off the paper, or you have to rewrite the same things several times as you move your notes around. Plus there’s the space issue. Where can you stick enough notes to outline an entire novel, and how can you back that up reliably? Scapple to the rescue!

The Scrivener writing program from Literature and Latte has achieved a certain level of recognition in the writing community, but L&L’s other program, Scapple, has flown under the radar. I can’t imagine why, because it’s equally well-designed and may be even more useful depending on how you like to work. It’s something like mind-mapping software, but with more flexibility — L&L calls it a “freeform text editor” and that seems the most accurate description. You type, and then you can copy/paste or format your text however you like, but you can also stick each piece of text anywhere on your infinitely-large page and connect them with lines or arrows any way you want.

Scapple is really fantastic, but possibly also daunting if you’re not sure how to use it. So today I’ll be sharing three ways I use the program for writing: mind-maps, character sheets, and outlines. (Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored in any way, nor is anyone at WriteOnSisters, we just happen to adore the program!)

1) Mind-mapping:

Again, Scapple isn’t exactly mind-map software, but for me that’s an advantage. I don’t have to force my mind to be mapped according to someone else’s system. I don’t have to know what I’m doing right away, decide which idea is “central,” or anything like that. I can just start and figure it out as I go along. The main way I use Scapple is actually to create character charts, and it’s a huge step up from either mind-mapping or family tree software… I need a chart that can show relationships, but not just familial ones, and also show the passage of time to some extent.

Here’s a sample:

Note how I can have a mindmap with two connected centers, plus a list on the side, and then some special charts underneath (I use the system outlined in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story by Jeffrey Alan Schechter). Some of the character relationships are romantic, some are parental, some are adversarial or professional, and a few don’t show up until halfway through the book, but I don’t need a way to track all that because I know who’s who. I just needed a way to combine “list of characters” with “immediately-visible connections.” That helps me craft a plot that makes sense, without forgetting anything obvious. Scapple is great for exploded-view lists like this.

2) Character sheets:

Many writers enjoy using standardized character sheets or questionnaires, both to keep track of their characters and to learn about their personalities. I often feel like these methods take some life out of my characters, though, so I needed a more organic way of keeping notes on personalities and character arcs.

Here’s a sample for one of my protagonists:

Note the ability to drag-and-drop images! I also love being able to mix and match “forms” that I can fill out or reimagine as needed, so I can combine plot notes with character notes. There are shortened versions of three “systems” in the sheet above, plus an unordered list of relevant information about the character and another list of relationships sorted by type. The next character sheet sits directly to the right in the same document and so on, because I like to see everything at once, but obviously you can set that up however you want!

3) Plotting and Outlining

I love all my character charts and sheets, but outlining is where Scapple really shines. It can handle complexity, and your own uncertainty about which ideas go where. Plus, I tend to change my visual outline structure depending on the project, and Scapple is totally flexible for that.

Here’s a half-done outline for an urban-fantasy project, in which I’m trying to work out several arcs in tandem:

There are four columns there, although muddled a bit: the left-hand column in the box(es) is a blank list of scenes, the guide to where my outline should be. (Again, I’m using Schechter’s system, but all this business of putting it into Scapple is my own design.) Then I have two columns tracing two characters’ arcs on each side, and the yellow notes down the center mark what the villain’s doing at the same time. The red ones are obvious questions to answer.

You can probably see at a glance that this would be incredibly difficult with sticky notes, because I’ve got several types of note and I need to keep track of how they relate to each other before I ever know which comes first in the final product — I’ve done outlines like this in Word before, but the linearity was a problem and things took much longer/were more stressful than they needed to be. (Also note the picture on the side there. I made some notes longhand, and rather than retype them, I just took a picture and slapped it in to refer back to as I go.)

Here’s a simpler project:

With this one I already know how it goes, and it’s a more linear space-travel story, so I’m basically outlining as I go along to have a clear reference for where I am in the plot. If I run into problems I can outline ahead to fix them, or I can go through and colorcode existing notes to highlight problems or check rhythm. It’s a completely different story with very different needs, but Scapple can do both without any fuss at all.

And worry not, you can back up your work in several formats. Plus, if you’re also using Scrivener you can drag notes straight into that. For me, though, I just adore being able to get my thoughts directly onto the page. I don’t have to force them to make sense, and I don’t have to remember how they relate, I can just draw them in however seems reasonable at the time. Then, unlike any kind of paper notes, I can immediately start working with what I scribbled down. Move it around, highlight it, draw lines, make a chart, anything I want.

If you’ve struggled to use pre-structured methods, been inspired by worksheets but haven’t found the exact right thing, or just desperately wanted electronic sticky notes in your life, Scapple may be for you. Either way, I hope this post gave you some organizational inspiration!


Hannah Givens is a lifelong book lover, student of literary history, and writer of numerous term papers. She blogs about genres of all kinds at Hannah Reads Books, and is currently working on her first novel. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter, talking about books and much more.

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15 Story Beats to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel on Track

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or pantser, you might come to a place mid-month where your story feels like it’s gone off the rails. A lot of people will tell you to plow through! Just keep writing! It’ll work itself out! But I think better advice is to check in with your basic story beats. It doesn’t matter if you plan them ahead of time or figure them out partway through writing. The important thing to know is that these beats are an extremely useful tool to avoid writer’s block, mushy middle syndrome and general NaNoWriMo fatigue.


Originally posted on Nov. 3, 2014. Revived on Oct. 23, 2016.

*Note: Basic Beats based on Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” method.

1 – Opening… shows where the protagonist is at the beginning before they’ve gone on a journey that will change them to the person we see in the Final scene. For example, if your hero starts off loveless, she will find love in the end.

  • Do you even have a change? If not, that’s probably why your story has stalled. Think about how this story will change the hero and your writing will find its direction.

(For more, check out “3 Steps to Creating Character Change”)

2 – Theme… is the heart of your book as opposed to the plot. Not knowing the theme or having too many themes is a common reason stories get muddled and bogged down. Figuring out the theme will give your novel a purposeful direction, so ask:

  • Why are you writing this story? Deep down, what is the one thing you’re trying to say with this novel?

  • What is the value at stake in this story? Why does it matter?

(For more, check out “Theme With a Capital T” and “The Controlling Idea – Not Your English Teacher’s Theme”)

3 – Set-Up… establishes the protagonist’s world, introduces supporting characters, reveals protagonist’s personal problems and the stuff she’ll need to fix by the end in order for that vital character change to take place.

  • Did you set up the character’s goal clearly? No clear goal is a common reason stories ramble.

  • Did you set up the stakes? There needs to be consequences if the hero fails. Stakes drive stories!

(For more on stakes read “6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes”)

4 – Catalyst… is also called The Inciting Incident. This event disrupts the character’s world and starts the story. Without it, there’s no story. For example, in “The Hunger Games” the catalyst is when Katniss’s sister’s name is selected for the games. If another kid’s name had been selected, there wouldn’t be a story – Katniss would just keep on hunting and hanging out with Gale in her district. Life would remain the same.

  • Does the catalyst change your protagonist’s life? If not, figure out what will. Stories need to be life-changing!

5 – The Debate… is when the protagonist decides how to proceed after the Catalyst. This shouldn’t be an easy decision. To go on the journey, or not to go on the journey? Of course, she has to go for there to be a story, but doubt adds tension and stakes, which help move the story forward.

  • Did your character debate going on her journey? What could have been holding her back and how can that add layers of tension to your novel?

6 – Break Into Act II… This is where the protagonist leaves her familiar world behind and goes on the journey to achieve a goal. The key to this beat is that the protagonist must choose, not be forced or tricked into action.

  • Is your character pro-active? Passive characters are common culprits in stories that drag.

7 – B-Story… Often this is the love interest, but can also be a sidekick or a mentor. This ally guides the protagonist and is often instrumental in helping him learn the Theme, i.e. what he needs to do to survive and win the story.

  • Does your B-story character challenge your hero? Maybe they can spice things up with conflict and humor!

(For more check out “What’s a B-Story? And Why that Lame Love Triangle Doesn’t Cut It”)

8 – Act II part 1: Fun & Games… is the promise of the premise. If your novel was a movie, the F&G section would be featured in the trailer. For instance, in a romantic comedy, this is where the two love interests clash.

  • Do you have enough conflict? Sometimes a story meanders simply because it lacks conflict. Repeat after me: make your characters suffer!

9 – Midpoint… right smack in the middle of Act II, this is usually a False Victory where the protagonist thinks she’s achieved her goal but she hasn’t. It’s here that the stakes are raised and the bad guys start to close in on the protagonist.

  • Do you have a Midpoint, a turning point that is like a tent pole holding up the middle of your story? If you’re meandering through the mushy middle, probably not. For help, read “Mapping the Mushy Middle

10 – Act II part 2: Bad Guys Close In… Both internal problems (hero’s issues) and external problems (bad guys) tighten their grip and get closer and closer to thwarting the protagonist’s goal.

  • Quite simply, are things getting progressively worse for your hero? Don’t just pile on new problems; make sure the problems escalate.

11 – Crisis / All Is Lost… is usually a False Defeat. If at the Midpoint the protagonist thought that she’d achieved her goal, this is where she thinks she’s utterly and completely failed.

  • What is your All Is Lost moment? It’s easier to keep your story on track if you know the big disaster you’re writing towards.

12 – Dark Night of the Soul… is the emotional fallout of the crisis wherein the protagonist loses all hope. The worst thing about this beat is that she knows it’s her fault. The hero that resonates is not innocent and blameless and perfect; she has flaws just like we do. And despite her best intentions, she had a hand in her own defeat.

  • Has your hero failed? Does she think it’s her fault? How can you make this the lowest moment of her life?

13 – Break Into Act III… Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute action or advice from the B-story ally, the protagonist digs deep to find a solution.

  • How does your hero move past her defeat? Having even a rough idea of this crucial moment will help focus your story.

14 – Act III Finale… From what she’s gone through and what she’s learned (i.e. Theme), the protagonist forges a third way and conquers her problems (both internal and external).

  • How does your hero win in the end? Again, you don’t have to have all the details, but knowing the basic ending (i.e. hero finds love, hero captures bad guy, hero leaves home for college) is invaluable for getting you through to The End.

15 – Final Scene (aka THE END)… is the opposite of the Opening scene and proves a change has occurred. There’s no point to a story if it doesn’t change the hero’s life.

  • What is your final image? What does your hero look like after this journey is over? How have they changed?

So if you’re ever struggling with your story, check in with these beats and make sure you’ve got the answers. Of course, the answers may change as you are writing, and that is totally fine. I keep a version of this beat sheet with me at all times. I look at it whenever I get off-track and revise it when necessary. Of course, during NaNoWriMo you don’t have time to revise what you’ve already written, but it’s still helpful to note what you will change and write the rest of the novel as if you’ve already done so.

Now good luck with NaNoWriMo, everyone!


For more on basic beats, outlining and story structure, check out the recommended posts:


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A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win #NaNoWriMo

I’ve just signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time EVER. Here’s proof:

HeatherJacksonWrites NaNo Profile

As a hardcore plotter, I’ve never felt ready to participate. I can’t even fathom writing 50,000 words of prose without a solid outline. Plus, I’m not a fast writer. My inner editor and I are a team, not enemies, and I like it that way. She (my inner editor) gives damn good advice and prevents my story from going off the rails. I appreciate that.

I know, I’ve just confessed to doing the two big no-no’s of NaNo: 1) write slowly, and 2) listen to your inner editor. I bet you’re thinking I will totally fail this challenge!

Not so fast. I have a plan. I said so in the title. Let me tell you what it is and then you can determine if I stand a chance…

NaNo Slow Writer Scheme

Since I’m a plotter, I’ve already written multiple beat sheets and step outlines and character sketches, and have revised these documents extensively so that the story now resembles something that doesn’t completely suck. To most people, I seem ready to write this novel and write it fast! But as soon as I say the words “write novel,” my inner editor shows up, red pen in hand, eager to get to work. Common advice is to ignore her, but I can’t. I really can’t! Any of you have this problem? I suspect you might.

So the first step in my scheme to win NaNoWriMo is this:

#1 – Do not classify NaNo project as a “novel”; call it an “extremely detailed outline.”

My plan is to go scene-by-scene paraphrasing everything that happens in the story, including set up and action and transitions and filler dialogue. When this detailed outline is done, it’ll be about 100 pages long. It’s like writing a novel in shorthand. I suspect that my detailed outline resembles many writers’ rough first drafts in detail and scope. Maybe they’re exactly the same! But the plotter in me needs to call this process an “outline” so my inner editor doesn’t freak the eff out and try to improve all the words. I know, it’s just semantics, but it works for me.

NaNo I can't write fast

However, this detailed outline might not quite be 50,000 words when I’m finished. It’ll probably be 40,000 or a less. So where am I going to make up that other 10,000?

We’ve arrived at the second step in my plan:

#2 – Slow down and write a few scenes.

Writing fast burns me out. I know this from experience. Plus, no doubt there will be days when I just can’t think of what happens next. I’ll get stuck on something, a minor plot point probably, and I’ll need to take a break. But breaks aren’t efficient! NaNo is a race! Keep writing. So I will. I’ll take one of those scenes I’ve paraphrased in my detailed outline and write it out in pretty prose with all the proper pacing and dialogue and grammar. My inner editor will help me. We’ll probably spend eight hours honing just 1000 words, but that’s okay, that’s how we write, and when it’s done we’ll be super proud of those words and happy to have that scene in a readable format.   

That’s it. Just two steps. Perhaps it’s not the way people think you are supposed to do NaNoWriMo, but who cares because *cue music* I’m gonna do it myyyy way!!!

Are any of you participating in NaNoWriMo? If so, how do you plan to win? Share in the comments. Oh, and my username is HeatherJacksonWrites if you want to add me as a NaNo buddy. 🙂


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Outlining – Method 2: Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”)

Happy Archive Revive Day! It’s always helpful to refresh what we know about writing by digging up past posts and updating the information a bit, so here we go…


Originally posted on Oct. 7, 2013. Updated Sept. 21, 2015

I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?

The class reacted with a mix of confusion and frustration. Students insisted they needed dialogue to explain. The professor insisted they did not. Dialogue enhances a story, but it doesn’t make it. Action begets story. Characters must DO things, not just sit around and talk. He told us if a scene uses only dialogue to move the story forward, we needed to change it and use action as well. A simple example would be a character who wants to tell her roommate she’s mad at him for making their apartment an episode of Hoarders. Instead of using just words, she should throw his collection of deflated party balloons in the trash. That would get the point across nicely.

It’s the classic rule: SHOW don’t TELL. SHOW don't TELL

Not that you won’t use dialogue or narration in your story, but it’s important to realize that these only support the story. A story needs action.

Why is it stronger if the characters DO rather than just SAY? Because, generally, people don’t like to be told what to think. They like to discover, figure stuff out, and come to conclusions themselves. Therefore it’s more intriguing if your characters show their emotions/desires instead of simply telling the reader what they feel/want. At the most basic level, showing is simply more interesting. I mean, would you rather have someone tell you the ocean is beautiful, or take you scuba diving so you can see for yourself?

Still not convinced? I’ll give you 5 Reasons to Write an Active Beats Outline:

  1. To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.

  2. To see if beats are missing. If you write down your active beats and find out the story doesn’t track, you need to add that missing action.

  3. To cut beats which don’t serve the story. Does you character do something that doesn’t move the story forward? Probably. Can it be cut? Most likely. When you distil everything down to actions, it’s easier to spot what can be edited out.

  4. To ensure the protagonist is active not passive. Is all the action done by supporting characters? Is your protagonist merely an observer? If so, maybe you need to reevaluate whose story this is or make your protagonist more active.

  5. To avoid being boring. Because no matter how clever or observant your character, he is boring if he doesn’t do something.

Just like the Basic Story Beats, the Active Beats can be used to outline your story before writing or to story edit after writing. The important thing is to use this tool to make your story as strong as possible!

More posts about Outlining/Story Editing:

Outlining – Method 1: Basic Story Beats

Basic Story Beats of The Hunger Games

How to Story Edit Using the “Save the Cat” Basic Beats

Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

Outlining – Method 3 cont.: From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes

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5 Reasons to Track Questions & Answers in Your Novel

This week while flushing out my novel’s outline, I decided to track where I raised and answered questions in the story. Why? Because questions are crucial to a good story; they ensure it has enough intrigue and suspense to keep readers reading. Have you ever set down a book and not been compelled to pick it back up? That’s probably because you weren’t dying to know the answer to a question! Questions and their elusive answers keep us reading. For the A to Z Challenge, I blogged about big and little story questions and gave tips for how to make these questions engage readers all the way to The End. Check out the full post here. For today’s post, I will illustrate how tracking questions and answers can improve your story.

To start, I created a numbered list of questions raised and questions answered alongside my outline. I used Document Notes in Scrivener so that this list is in the Inspector right beside my outline and I can see both simultaneously. I numbered each question (Q1, Q2, Q3, etc.) and the corresponding answer (A1, A2, A3, etc.). Then I went through my outline, tracking where questions were raised and how quickly/slowly they were answered. As I did this, I came up with a bunch of reasons why this exercise is helpful…


1. To avoid info dumps. During the set up scenes of Act I, it’s easy to think you need to explain everything or the reader will be confused. However, when I sat down and asked myself, “What will readers be wondering in this opening scene?” it became clear that a lot of the stuff I thought I needed to tell readers wouldn’t even be on their radar yet! The takeaway? Don’t give away answers to questions your readers haven’t even asked! That’s a sure sign you’re info dumping.

2. To check story pacing. When I started tracking my questions, I noticed that the first few scenes, especially the opening scene, raised many more questions than other scenes. This is normal. After all, questions make for intrigue, and we all want intriguing question-laden openings! But all good things have limits. So I decided to delay asking some questions and added them to later scenes, and to answer some more quickly to get them out of the way and make room for new questions. That resulted in a more evenly paced story.

3. To make sure each scene has suspense. No matter what genre you write, stories need suspense in the form of questions to keep the reader wondering and engaged. So every scene should raise at least one new question. If a scene doesn’t have a question in it, you risk boring your readers. And don’t think that if you raised a question in the previous scene, you don’t need to include one the next scene. That’s hogwash! Every scene must ask a question to keep the story moving and the readers engaged.

4. To keep track of The Big Question. This is the overall question that the reader will wonder throughout the entire novel until the very end. The big question is fed by dozens of little questions that are brought up throughout the story. Here are some examples:

The Hunger Games Will Katniss win the Games? In training, will Katniss get a low ranking? In the arena, will Katniss get her hands on the bow and arrow? Will Peeta betray her? Will Katniss find water or die of thirst? Will Haymitch send medicine?
Harry Potter Will Harry defeat Voldemort? In each book, the little questions of whether Harry will make the right decisions, or trust the wrong people, or get in trouble, etc., all connect to the big question of whether he has what it takes to defeat Voldemort.
Eleanor & Park Will their high school romance last? Will Park accept Eleanor’s weirdness? Will Eleanor learn to trust Park? Will Eleanor’s stepdad find out about Park and forbid her from seeing him?

Once you know your Big Question, you can track it and make sure each little question connects to it in some way. In other words, all the little questions must have the power to affect the big question. If you have a scene where a question is raised that doesn’t connect to the big question, you either need to make it relevant or cut it. Never lose sight of The Big Question, lest you veer off the goat path into boring territory (as I talked about in this post on Mushy Middles).

5. To make sure you don’t leave questions hanging. And finally… sometimes we lose track of all the little questions asked along the way. If you find out that you raised a question and never answered it, you have two options: 1) Answer it, or 2) Cut it. After all, if you forgot about it, maybe it’s not important and is just cluttering up your story.

So that’s what I’ve been up to this week. Do you track your story questions? I feel like this is something that mystery writers probably do all the time, but could be helpful for writers of all genres. Let me know in the comments!

PS – Next Monday I’ll have another Audiobook Pitfall post coming up.

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Test That Scene – Is it Essential or Filler?

The following #writingtips apply to all stories, but especially short ones where every scene must be essential. Happy Short Story Month!

When I plot a story, I tend to think in terms of action. This is probably due to my screenwriter training. In a screenplay all you have to work with is action and dialogue. And in an outline, where you don’t write dialogue, all you have is action. So naturally, when I outline, I follow the action – this takes place here, then the character does this, then the antagonist counters with this move, etc. This is a perfectly good way to plot a story, as I explained in this post: Outlining – Active Beats (aka “Show Don’t Tell”). However, a proper scene requires more than just action.

The basic requirements of every scene are:

  1. Goal – what does the hero want?

  2. Obstacle – what is preventing the hero from getting what he wants?

  3. Conflict – who is opposing the hero’s goal?

  4. Change – how is the hero different by the end of the scene?

For more details on these basics, check out this post: Outlining – From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes.

Got the basics down? Awesome! Now we have proper scenes, right?

Not necessarily.

Despite having all this good stuff in a scene, it could still fall flat. Why? Because it might not be essential to your story. We need the No Filler Test!

To take this test, you need a scene. We’ll use one of mine (from my outline) as an example.

In response to the panicked call Taryn received from Kate in the previous scene, Taryn leaves her date mid-meal and gets in her car to go help Kate. Taryn pulls out and heads towards Kate’s house, then notices Mel’s car tailing her. Damn. If Mel finds out what they’re up to, they’re dead! Taryn has to get Mel off her tail before she can go help Kate. A car chase ensues through town until finally Taryn outsmarts Mel and leaves her in the dust.

As you can see, this scene covers all the basics: it’s full of action (car chase!), and there’s a goal (get to Kate), obstacle (Mel), conflict (Mel wants to find out what they’re up to and Taryn cannot let that happen), and change (from worried to triumphant when she loses Mel). As an added bonus, it’s fun because my protagonist gets to show off her mad driving skills!

car chase_RoadWarrior

Yet, when I took the test, it didn’t pass…

No Filler Test

Question #1 – If deleted, will the reader still be able to follow the story? If yes, you’ve got filler!

Question #2 – What is different by the end of this scene? If nothing, it’s filler!

Question #3 – What/Who does this scene affect? If nothing/nobody, it’s – you guessed it – filler!

Note that if even one of these questions results in “filler”, the scene should be revised to make it stronger and completely essential. So let’s look at how I faired, er, failed…

  • First, my scene could be deleted and no one would be the wiser. Yes, I need to get my heroine from point A to point B, but I don’t need to show her getting there. Traveling scenes are notorious filler, and I knew that, so I made this scene exciting by having the antagonist show up. Still, that’s all that happens. And that ties into the next question…

  • Second, nothing is different by the end of this scene. The villain shows up, the heroine gets away, and then the heroine goes back to exactly what she was doing before the villain arrived – going to help Kate. This scene changes nothing; it’s merely an obstacle with no consequence. And that leads to…

  • Third, nothing and no one is affected by this scene. In other words, what happens in this scene doesn’t reverberate throughout the story.

Thank goodness I can rewrite and take this test again!

Bottom line, passing the No Filler Test ensures every scene resonates and truly serves the story. Ever read a book where a whole bunch of stuff happens, but you’re still bored? I bet it was full of scenes that would fail this test.

Unfortunately, writers are notorious for falling in love with scenes that don’t pass the No Filler Test, and we’ll give you all kinds of reasons why that scene is vital – it introduces a character, or it sets the tone, or it’s a logical progression, or it reveals information, etc. All those things may be true, but they’re not good enough reasons to keep a scene.

It all comes down to change and consequences. (Doesn’t everything about storytelling?) Something in the scene must directly change/affect the plot and/or characters. If not, it’s filler. Cut it.

But what about setting up character or revealing information? No problem; just combine scenes. Put the necessary details gleaned from the filler scene and insert them into another scene. Or move an important turning point into the filler scene to make it essential. Don’t settle for a scene that “kinda should be there”; make it absolutely indispensable!

Do filler scenes plague your writing? How do you deal with filler? What do you think makes a scene essential?

PS – I really need to see Mad Max 2 soon!


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O is for Outlines

BLAST_OAs a screenwriter, outlines are mandatory. Not so for authors. If you’re penning a novel, it seems as if you must choose between two camps – plotter (those who outline) or pantser (those who start writing a manuscript sans outline). But it doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I think the vast space between these polar opposites is where most writers fit. So with that in mind, the following three tips for outlining are more like stages, moving from macro to micro in scope.

3 Stages for Writing Outlines

Tentpoles. These are crucial events in every story. I believe they’re called “tentpoles” because they give a story shape the way tentpoles structure a tent. Without tentpoles, your story (and your tent) will fall flat. Tentpoles are things like the Inciting Incident, Call to Action, Midpoint, Crisis and Resolution. Even writers who identify themselves as pantsers often have these tentpoles in mind before they begin writing. I follow this “Save the Cat Basic Beats” model to get all my tentpoles set up.

Beat Sheet. In the post noted above, I call tentpoles “basic beats” because they are the bare minimum needed. A full beat sheet, however, drafts all the little beats in between the big tentpoles. But what is a beat? It’s an action that moves the story forward. Each beat leads to the next. If you can erase a beat and not change the story, well, then, that’s not a beat. For me, the Beat Sheet is a fun game of fill-in-the-blanks, or if we want to stick with the tent metaphor, I’m filling my tent with supplies that will get me through the trip.

Scene Outline. This is the itinerary part of the camping trip. Not everyone likes this stage, and that’s okay because there’s no obligation to do it! However, some of us like to work out the fine points before hitting the road. For this step, I take the action in the beats and develop it into scenes that outline the hero’s want, conflict and change for each one. For more information, check out this handy scene checklist!

2 Examples of Outlines

There are lots of ways to outline. You can scribble notes on scrap pieces of paper. You can make flow charts. You can use Scrivener (I hear they have templates for outlining, though I haven’t checked out the program yet). You can even pin index cards to a bulletin board, like this:

The Board: I've begun plotting scenes on index cards.

The Board: I’ve begun plotting scenes on index cards.

Or if you’re J.K. Rowling, you can make a spreadsheet!


1 Link for more help

If you’re not sure why you’d ever want to outline, check out this post: 5 Reasons To Outline Your Novel.

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

F is for False Stakes

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

J is for Juxtaposition

K is for Kittens!

L is for Laughs

M is for Midpoint

N is for Narrative

Coming up:

P is for Pinch Point

Q is for Questions

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Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Write a Script Treatment

treatmentScreenwriters have all these steps that we go through before we write a script. We’re the exact opposite of pantsers. But all these stages serve a purpose. I’ve blogged about loglines, beat sheets, outlines, and scene boards. Today, I’ll tell you about treatments.

A treatment is a document used mainly by film screenwriters. It’s longer and more detailed than a pitch (1 paragraph) or a synopsis (1 page), but shorter than a detailed scene-by-scene outline (approx 30 pages), yet it tells the entire story from beginning to end. Treatments range anywhere from 5 to 20 pages.

Why write your whole story in this condensed format? The movie business reason is because producers don’t want to spend an hour and a half reading each full script in the submission pile. They get too many. They’d rather just read a treatment. It saves them time. And yes, they make the decision whether to pass on the script based on the treatment. Maybe that doesn’t seem fair – what if the script is brilliantly written? Here’s what I say to that…

Pretty words do not make a compelling story.

A story should stand on its own. How it’s written can elevate it to greatness, but beautiful writing will never make a mediocre story great.

Fair enough, you say, but why should novelists write treatments? We’re not in the movie business! (At least not until our novels gets optioned.) And I agree with you! I wasn’t going to write a Treatment for my novel either, until I joined a critique group made up of screenwriters…

I’ve been wrestling with a couple WIPs, changing the plot points, re-jigging the theme, and alternating endings, unable to settle on the best way to tell the story. So, because my new critique group understands what a treatment is, I decided to write one based on my novel idea and submit it for feedback. Here’s what I learned during the process:

1)   A Treatment is a campfire story. It’s the oldest beta reader test in the book. If you had to tell your story out loud in five or ten minutes, what parts would you tell? And is the story compelling enough to keep people hanging on your every word, or are they more interested in selecting a tree to pee behind?

2)   Emotions connect a story. When writing an outline, I can easily get sucked into crafting scene after scene of action that moves the plot forward, and forget to detail what my characters feel. But in a treatment you have less time for plot details and it becomes imperative to connect to your audience quickly, and that means pulling on their heartstrings. Whereas an outline is a detailed plot map that shows through action what the character feels, a treatment is more of a character arc with some supporting action. The exact way that a character escapes from prison doesn’t matter as much as how that character feels when they escape and how the escape motivates them to move to the next part of the story.

3)   A Treatment connects the big dots. You don’t have time to go over every little thing or explain too much in a treatment, but you do need to make sure the big plot points make sense. Stripping away all the witty banter and scene setup is a good test to make sure your story moves logically.

4)   The ending test. Because I’ve been having so much trouble with endings, writing a treatment is invaluable. Again, the details of how the plot wraps up isn’t what’s important, it’s how the character’s emotional journey resolves. Action details can change, but where you leave your character is what makes your movie worth producing, er… novel worth publishing!

In summary, because I’m the type of writer who tends to get lost in the details, I found writing a stripped-to-the-bones treatment super useful. I couldn’t hide behind heart-pounding action scenes or mysterious set up; I had to tell the story and just the story and make sure that alone held up. Not surprisingly, I found many places where it didn’t and revised accordingly.

So if you’re having trouble plotting your novel, or if you are feeling like your story has ballooned out of control, try writing a short treatment. It could get you back on track.

Next Up from Heather… A lot of playing with my new kitty. Maybe I’ll blog about how to train your cat not to step on your laptop. Just kidding. I’m going to blog about separating Cheerleaders from Critique Partners.

Form more posts from Heather, click here.

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Outlining – Method 3 cont: From Sticky Notes to Proper Scenes

So you’ve outlined your novel into a Wall of Sticky Notes or a Corkboard of Cards. Congrats, stuff happens! But stories are not just stuff happening. Stories are a series of scenes. Is each note/card a proper scene? Not sure? Take this test:

Is That A Scene?



Next Up from Heather… Robin pointed out that my Basic Story Beats chart doesn’t explain how the B-Story fits in with the A-Story. So true! And the B-Story is super important. So I’ll get into that next week!

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Outlining – Method 3: The Wall of Sticky Notes (aka “The Board”)

If you’re a visual person, Outlining Method #3 is for you! I call it The Wall of Sticky Notes, because that’s how I build it. Others create a Corkboard of Cards. In the business of screenwriting, it’s simply called “The Board.”


The beginnings of my Board. I’m still filling in the holes.

As you can see, it has four lines: Act I, Act II part one, Act II part two, and Act III. This is based on Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat method, which some people say is really a four-act structure. Whatever you call it, the point is the lines should have an even amount of scenes in them.

Each sticky note or index card represents a scene. More on what a scene is in the next post; for now, we’re just going to get “stuff that happens” up on The Board.

If you did Outlining Method #1 or Outlining Method #2, you will already have stuff to put up on the board. These are likely not proper scenes yet, but that’s okay. For instance, if we use the Hunger Games Basic Beats as an example, the Catalyst is: “At the reaping, Katniss’s sister Prim’s name is picked.” Write that on a note/card and stick it on the Board. It’s not a full scene, but for now just get the main story points up there.

Also put any ideas you have about the story on The Board. If you know at some point that your protagonist needs to discover their best friend is a liar, write “Hero discovers BFF is a liar” on a note/card and put it roughly where you think that needs to happen.

Once you have all your story beats and ideas on The Board, start thinking in scenes. For example, where/when/how does your protagonist discover her BFF is a liar? Flush out the details a bit, but keep each scene on one note/card.

When you’re done, you should have around 40 cards (i.e 40 scenes), 10 in each row, give or take a card. In a screenplay, this structure is pretty strictly followed given that films need to be a certain length, but there’s more room to play in a novel. Still, you want to keep each line roughly the same length. I’ll explain why below.

The Board is a visual person’s dream and an excellent tool for any writer. It makes it easier to see the whole story (especially if you color code your plots), and in turn reveals problems you may need to fix.

5 Story Problems The Board Reveals:

1)   Holes – Are you missing stuff? Do you have two side-by-side scenes that don’t connect? For example, does your character abruptly go from being in love to breaking up with her boyfriend? You have a story hole! You’re missing the scene that shows your character falling out of love.

2)   Long Sections – Is your first line way longer than your other lines? This is quite common and is a sign that you have way too many scenes in the Set Up. Spend too much time setting up (Act I) and your readers will get impatient to start the journey (Act II).

3)   Short Sections – This is most commonly seen in the fourth line (Act III), where a writer wraps up the story too quickly without addressing all the things that were set up in Act I.

4)   Forgotten B Plots – Did you totally forget about your B Plot for ten scenes? This is easy to see if you color code your plots. Rearrange your notes/cards so your plots are more evenly spaced.

5)   Weak Turning Points – In The Board, the end of each line* is a Turning Point (i.e. a plot point that spins the story in a new direction). So make sure that these scenes are pivotal. In TV they’re often called the cliffhangers before the commercials.

  • End of line 1: Break Into 2 scene – this is the moment the hero decides to go on the journey. Make it a big deal! End of line 2: MidPoint – this is the scene where the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal but hasn’t, and stakes are raised. Make the stakes huge! End of line 3: Break Into 3 – this is the scene where the hero figures out what he needs to do to win and heads into the final battle.

So that’s the benefit of The Board – you can see these story problems more easily than scrolling through a linear document on your computer. For visual people, this way of outlining is super helpful.

Next Up from Heather… How To Turn Sticky Notes into Proper Scenes.

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