Working through a reverse outline of Book One, I’m breaking down the action of the novel as part of the story edit. The revelation of this exercise is there are more scenes in each chapter than I thought.
But you’re the author, that doesn’t make sense.
Making a Scene
Let’s use the definition of a scene from Masterclass:
The definition of a scene, as it pertains to prose fiction, is a section of the overall story that contains its own unique combination of setting, character, dialogue, and sphere of activity.
Chapters usually consist of a number of scenes. Some action, a dialogue, a time jump, a change of location, the entry or exit of characters, or some introspection, can all mark the beginning or end of scenes within a chapter.
My manuscript is marked with significant scene breaks within chapters; usually where there’s a time jump of a few hours, with or without a change in location. The short chapters in Book One generally consist of one or two scenes; occasionally three. But when you look at the content of those scenes, there are more scenes in each chapter than I have marked.
Many of the scene breaks are obvious in my travelogue-fantasy-adventure; end of dialogue, saddle up and move on; next incident.
Scenes as Mini-stories
However, we also need to remember scene structure in fiction or Mary Robinette’s fractal structure in fiction. Each scene needs to have a mini-story arc within it and a set of essential elements in order to make a satisfying contribution.
My second iteration of a reverse outline breaks down each chapter scene by scene. I’m mapping each scene using a simplified set of story elements derived from those two previous posts:
- Hook (inciting incident):
- Middle (turning points):
- Conflict (crisis, turning points)
- Resolution (after climax)
These four elements got me looking into each marked scene to find many of them consist of multiple scenes. That doesn’t mean what I’ve marked is wrong, it’s just not the lowest level of decomposition needed to properly edit my story.
Each scene should have a hook or inciting incident – ‘what the heck has gone wrong this time?’ There’s usually some business around fixing or resolving it. This is our scene middle. There’s usually some turning points in there, demanding, or resulting from, a decision a character makes; catch the recent post on Troubles, Decisions and Consequences.
The scene middle contains, or builds to, the conflict, leading to the crisis, the key decision and resolution of the scene. Expect some consequences soon or down the road…
Them’s the Breaks
Taking some of my longer chapters or longer scenes, I find multiple scene breaks.
For instance, in my monster Plot Outlining spreadsheet, Chapter 17 ‘Settlement’ has two scenes. At 4500 words and only one scene break at 500 words, I should have guessed there’s more that two scenes in that. This is what you get from discovery-writing whole chunks of chapters .
I recently inserted one short scene to add some conflict, tension and depth to the world-building. That’s three.
There’s another short scene featuring a missionary that adds character depth with some more world-building. It was never marked. That’s four
The climax of the chapter occurs in a major dialog scene which becomes scene five:
17.5 Marto arrives
- Hook: Marto finds Varla and Jo in the settlement
- Middle: False cheer, false stories, no coincidence
- Conflict: Marto’s hidden motives? Varla and Jo’s suspicions
- Resolution: Walk away. It’s a trap!
This one is easy to summarise as the conflict is all on the surface. Other scenes are less obvious, which makes the task all the more important for the editing.
Crucially, I have a better understanding of the structure of chapter 17. There’s a lot going on.
Outcomes of the Reverse Outline
Do each of the scenes satisfactorily:
- contain all the micro-elements to tell a self-contained story?
- turning points
- make a contribution to the overall story, or
- add value?
- are there any loose ends to tidy up in plot, character or structure?
- are we foreshadowing for later? Is this used down the road?
- have we missed any details we need to complete the readers’ understanding?
- have we included unnecessary detail, characters or incidents?
Some of these around value and contribution are subjective questions. How much do we need to add? How much can we afford to cut? Can we lose whole scenes without damage? Again, subjective questions with subjective answers.
I should probably expand the scene summaries to detail multiple turning points, multiple crises, layers of conflict and resolutions. But at this stage, a basic reverse outline is a vital check on the overall shape of the novel.
When I transfer this back to my giant Thirty-Eight Elements of Story spreadsheet, scene goals and character-arc elements such as revelations, changes or lessons need to go in.
It’s a lot of work and there’s no substitute for doing the job well.