How to Track a Scene

There’s a lot to keep in mind when writing scenes, and if we’re not careful, we can easily overlook any of the components that make a scene work. When I work with developmental editing clients, one of the things I do is track each and every scene. I enjoy this part of the process because it’s very analytical and straightforward, and it gives a very clear overview, a bird’s eye view, of the entire story. Here’s how it works:

First, I create a spreadsheet that looks like this:

Screen Shot 2018-10-23 at 4.06.42 PM.png

Then I make notes in each column. Let’s take a look at each scene element in detail.

Scene #: Every scene is assigned a number (in the order that they appear in the manuscript).

Word Count: It’s important to keep track of word count. This will allow you to compare and contrast the scenes you’ve written, where you spent a lot of time, and where you might want to trim or revise for greater length.

Scene Event: Here is where I distill each scene down to a single sentence or short phrase describing the gist of what the scene is about (or what occurred in the scene).

Value Shift: Every scene should have a shift or a change. For instance, innocence/experience, love/hate. Here is where I document the starting place of a scene and the ending place of a scene to be sure that something has changed on a deeper level.

Turning Point: This is the precise point or beat when the scene shifted — think action or revelation.

POV: The Point of View here is referring to who is telling the story. Whose viewpoint or lens is the reader experiencing this scene through?

Time/Duration: You’d be surprised at how easy it is to lose track of time in your book. Are you still in the middle of winter or have you moved on to the fresh budding flowers of spring? Keep track of the season, month, day, time — whatever is appropriate to your story.

Location/Setting: Distill your setting down to one sentence or short phrase. Where exactly is your scene taking place? Remember, if your characters change location, then a new scene should be created.

Weather: Adding weather elements to a scene can add to the atmosphere, the tone, and the overall mood. Use this to your advantage. Was it a crisp fall day? Or was it a violent storm that crept in out of nowhere — rain beating on the window panes, thunder rattling the old house?

On-Stage Characters: Who is in the scene? This is important because your secondary or supporting characters will have an impact on the scene overall. They are three-dimensional people who are living their lives alongside your protagonist and antagonist and need to be written as such.

Protagonist: Just as your book has a protagonist, each scene has its own protagonist, and it may not be the same as the protagonist for your book. Keep track of who is the main character for each scene.

Antagonist: The same goes for the antagonist as for the protagonist.

Purpose: Justify why the scene is in the book. Does it serve a purpose to one of the plot lines? Was it a turning point that moved the story forward? Determine why the scene needs to be there in the first place to determine whether or not it stays.

This is all well and good during the revision process, you might be thinking, but how does this help me during the writing phase?

By reverse engineering my revision process for clients, I found that it was much easier to write a clean first draft that needed very little revision in the long run! So I started using these large index cards to track scenes in my own projects as I was writing and it definitely made a difference! Maybe you’ll find this method helpful, too!

Here is the exact card template I use for each scene:


You’ll notice that while it pretty much resembles the spread sheet above, the word count is missing and I added a section for a brief summary. I really don’t need to know my word count for each scene during this part of the writing process, so I leave it off until I’m into my revisions. And the brief summary section comes in handy when I want to write notes or ideas about a scene in progress.

That’s it! It’s a super simple process that has helped me to streamline my first draft writing, making the revision process a little bit easier in the end.