One of the most powerful tools in a writer’s toolkit is a scene tracker, also known as a scene map. Whether you’re drafting or you’re looking to revise a finished draft, there is no better way to simultaneously evaluate the efficacy of individual scenes and your story’s full internal and external arc.
I was first introduced to the concept of scene tracking by Martha Alderson, the author of many craft books including The Plot Whisperer. A scene tracker is simply a table that includes every scene of your book, distilled to the most critical elements. It’s a way to ensure that each scene is pulling its weight. It’s also a way for a writer to see how the scenes are connecting, whether there’s an ebb and flow to losses and victories, and to track the growth of the protagonist.
Although Alderson recommends tracking 7 critical elements, the elements a writer chooses to track are ultimately up to them. Among the ones that I recommend as a starting point are:
- Summary: This is a one-sentence gist of what happens in the scene, mainly so you can mentally keep track of which scene you are referencing. As a benefit, this may pay off later when writing a synopsis.
- Goal: What does the protagonist enter this scene wanting? This is probably not the same as the novel-length goal you’ve given them. This is a scene-level goal that represents a smaller step in reaching their larger goal. You’ll want to make sure that your answer to this question varies scene after scene.
- Conflict/Dramatic Action: In the scene, what obstacle gets in the protagonist’s way, challenging their ability to reach the scene goal? While I usually put these two together, Alderson separates these into two columns on her scene tracker. She suggests the simple use of a checkmark to verify conflict is present. But she also includes dramatic action to explore what happens in the scene. It’s helpful to think in concrete terms as to what is blocking your protagonist’s path. That way, you avoid repeating the same obstacles and progressively raise the stakes.
- Emotional Change: As a result of the scene’s primary external event, how does the protagonist’s inner state change? Alderson discusses this as being as simple as thinking of this as a +/- change, or you can identify in specific terms how the character felt entering the scene, as well as how they felt exiting the scene. This is especially helpful so you can balance the victories and the defeats your character experiences.
- Effect/Character Development: What new understanding does the protagonist gain about the plot, themselves, or both as a result of the scene? By the way, this is not the same as linking your scenes via cause and effect. Think of this more as answering how this scene impacts the protagonist. This is, in my opinion, the most critical element. It tells you why this scene matters and must be a part of the story.
If you find yourself struggling to fill in any of these areas, it’s almost always a sign a scene is weak. Perhaps it’s duplicitous to a previously-written scene, or the conflict within the scene isn’t strong enough to yield emotional change or character development. Sometimes, scene tracking reveals that you haven’t made the character’s scene-level goal clear enough, or that you aren’t challenging your protagonist meaningfully.
One huge benefit to scene tracking is that you can “read between the lines.” You can see how your scenes link together if you follow your answers from one scene to the next. The events and outcome of one scene should naturally lead to what the character goes after and how they enter the next scene. This helps you be sure your plotting is being done tightly.
Martha’s process for tracking important elements in our scene is only one option. For instance, One Stop For Writers features two scene tracking tools (called scene maps) that include the important elements to keep an eye on. One is informal, while the other is formal. Both are customizable and fabulous.
Of course, you can add to the list of elements to track, depending on your novel and your needs as a writer. For example, it may be helpful to track how often a secondary character is appearing or what clues you’ve provided about a mystery that you are revealing.
You can add settings or dates to your tracker as Alderson suggests, or even theme.
Do you already use a scene tracker? Which elements do you track for your novel? Do you find a certain element particularly helpful? If you don’t use a tracker, can you see benefits to doing so?
Marissa has been a freelance editor and reader for literary agent Sarah Davies at Greenhouse Literary Agency for over seven years. In conjunction with Angelella Editorial, she offers developmental editing, author coaching, and more. Marissa feels if she’s done her job well, a client should probably never need her help again because she’s given them a crash-course MFA via deep editorial support and/or coaching.