A while back I profiled some of the custom brainstorming tools at our sister-site, One Stop for Writers, which help take the mystery (and misery) out of story structure. One that I left off that post was our Informal Scene Map. It specifically helps writers who struggle with the classic terminology of story structure, so let me tell you today why this tool is special.
As we all know, unless it’s transitional, scenes in our story should do a few core things: push the story forward, show the character pursing an objective which will help them get closer to their goal, reveal deeper layers of the protagonist and possibly others, and show the cost of failure (stakes).
These elements can sometimes feel like a lot to juggle. It can be especially confusing for anyone who isn’t versed in traditional story structure terminology (Outer Motivation, Inner Motivation, Inner Conflict, External Conflict, etc.) or they prefer to not use those terms. (And that’s fine! All writers have their own processes and as long as the story is well-written and compelling, how a person approaches structure doesn’t matter.)
At One Stop, we wanted to offer these writers a way to outline their story scene by scene in a way that sidelines confusion by keeping story structure simple.
Story Maps looks to planning the overall character and plot arc of a story, creating a road map for the novel. The Informal Scene Map tackles micro level (scene) structure, helping to chart the steps along the path to that goal.
Here’s a screenshot of a story I’m outlining:
Each scene tile I’ve created can be moved and reordered, so if I want to rearrange the order of scenes to see what will change if events happen in a different way, I can. This makes story-boarding and experimenting with my plot really easy.
The other great thing is that as you’re writing your scene outline there’s step-by-step instruction on each element, and an example, so it’s easy to see how everything fits together to create the bones of a powerful scene.
Once you’ve finished outlining all your scenes, you can save it onsite with the rest of your story plans, export it to your computer or to a program like Scrivener, or turn the map into a PDF.
Honestly? Creating a scene outline for a novel couldn’t be easier. And for someone like me who always used to struggle with structure, it’s a big help!
Here’s what this tool suggests writers include in their scenes:
A Primary Emotion: Your main character may feel many emotions in a scene, but one will be at the top of the pile. Making note of this primary feeling during the planning stage will help remind you of it when you write the scene later. (And, if you are using our scene map tool, the emotion you choose is hyperlinked to the matching entry within the Emotion Thesaurus!)
The POV Character’s Emotional State: When you think about this primary emotional state, it can be helpful to make notes of what is causing the character to feel this way. This ensures that when you are writing the scene you’ll be sure to give the stimulus enough description so that the character’s emotional reaction is logical and understood by readers. You might also want to note any point-of-view thoughts, body language, actions, visceral sensations, tells, or dialogue that will also show (rather than tell) this primary emotion.
Crisis, Challenge, or Opportunity: A character meandering along without purpose makes for boring reading. Not only that, if the current story events aren’t pushing the character closer to their overall goal, why is the scene even there?
Scenes should pack a punch, presenting the protagonist with a crisis of some kind that forces them to react, a challenge that may threaten to derail their progress and send them farther from their goal, and/or an opportunity to help them get exactly what they need to further their mission.
The Goal, and What’s at Stake: Just like the overall story goal your character is fighting toward throughout the novel, your character should have a specific goal in a scene. It might be to secure help of some kind, uncover critical information, deal with complications that are interfering with their pursuit of the main goal, to gain skills or knowledge eye will need, a way to mitigate fallout from an earlier action or choice…or something else that will help them win.
Paired with a scene goal should be a clear communication to readers about what is at stake. If the character fails to achieve the scene goal, what happens? How will things be worse? What negative consequence will come about? Stakes show the reader that this character has skin in the game, and makes it believable that they are willing to face pain, hardship, or worse to achieve their goal.
Flaws and Fears, or Skills and Strengths: As a character fights to achieve something specific in a scene, whether they succeed or fail is up to the author. Failure pushes them farther from the goal, makes it harder to win, and eventually becomes the catalyst for their realization that to win, they must embrace a new way of doing things (even though they are afraid of change). And, if the character succeeds in the scene, there’s a reason for it: their talents, skills, behaviors and thought processes were on point.
Identifying what will lead to success now will help you see how their strengths factor into the outcome when writing the scene. And if they fail, then you can show how fears and flaws (dysfunctional behaviors, negative attitudes, biases, etc. that are part of their “old way” of doing things) tripped them up. This leads to two important story outcomes: painful fallout (stakes) which will make the uphill battle even more difficult, and an ephiphany where the character eventually will how their pattern of failure is due to their own flawed thinking and behavior, which will trigger the desire to change.
Scene Notes: Finally, we encourage writers to add as many notes as they wish to each scene to plan which characters will be involved, the location of this scene, time of day, weather, and anything else, like symbolism to include or backstory hints to drop in.
The nice thing about this tool is that it works for plotters and pantsers. Writers can leave some elements blank depending on what each scene needs, and only plan as many scenes as they feel they need to write the story.
Anyway, I really enjoy this tool so I hope you found this look at Informal Scene Maps helpful! If you want to find out more about it or any of our other tools and features, pop over to One Stop for Writers and sign up for our 2-week free trial.
Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.