October 8, 2015

Developing Our Story: From Beat Sheet to Scene List

Rebar steel ready for construction with text: Building a Scene List for Our Story

My regular readers know that I’m a pantser, writing by the seat of my pants. However, it wasn’t always that way.

Although the first story I wrote (a never-to-be-shared Harry Potter fanfic) was written spur-of-the-moment with no planning, my first attempt at an original novel involved lots of plotting in advance. I thought that’s what serious authors did.

Through that experience, I learned that plotting out details kills a story for me. I enjoy the drafting phase more if I’m discovering the story as I write it.

That said, I’m naturally a planner/plotter in the rest of my life. I have detailed to-do lists. On family vacations, I’ve been known to plan all the activities and come up with a day-by-day itinerary. I’ve managed projects large and small.

(I highly suspect that my inability to be a plotter is a result of me over-planning…says the over-thinking, over-analyzing writer. *smile* I have a hard time not going overboard if I start plotting at all.)

Between my natural tendencies and my experience with plotting, I’m a pantser who understands plotters. I like to think it’s my ability to see both sides that helps me with my Lost Your Pants? workshop, where I teach writers—both pantsers and plotters—how to plan “just enough,” depending on their own needs.

So when my blog reader Etienne asked me how to build a scene list from a beat sheet, I didn’t react like a normal pantser. (Which would be to shudder and scream in horror at the thought of plotting out every scene in advance—and then shriek “But why would you want to do that?”)

Instead for my plotter-loving friends and readers, I figured I’d put together a real answer. I hope you appreciate the sacrifice. *grin* (And for the pantsers among us, I talk about how we might want to use scene lists too.)

The Difference between Beat Sheets and Scene Lists

Beat sheets, like the beat sheets I have here on my site, are intended to capture a story’s high level structure. In particular, they’re to identify the main scenes where the story “turns” or changes directions. They’re not meant to be a full list of every scene in a story.

While every scene should be important and involve some kind of change, not every scene will be a “turning point” and appear on a beat sheet. Rather, beat sheets pull out the most important scenes to the story, which allows us to check for pacing and storytelling issues.

Depending on the detail level of our chosen beat sheet, we might identify 4 to 8 turning point scenes (such as with my Basic Beat Sheet) or up to 23 turning point scenes (such as with my Frankenstein-ish Master Beat Sheet).

Yet I’ve heard that novels include around 60 scenes. (In truth, we should use as many scenes as we need, which might be 50 or 200, depending on many things. I haven’t counted my stories, but around 60 scenes sounds reasonable.) So even with the most detailed beat sheet, we’re not creating a list of every scene with that beat sheet.

That’s okay. *smile* Some scenes are necessary setup for a turning point scene that follows. Some scenes are going to be a “sequel”-type reaction to what came before. Some will establish a problem or show a resolution.

Story Development Can Go in Either Direction

There’s no wrong way to build a beat sheet or a scene list.

Either direction can work, but Etienne’s question is about the first scenario, so we’ll stick with the Beat Sheet –> Scene List direction for this post. Besides, the second scenario is similar to how pantsers use beat sheets in revision, and I’ve already written posts about that analysis.

How to Get from a Beat Sheet to a Scene List

First, let’s talk about tools for creating a scene list. Some writers use MS Word or Excel to create a basic list. Some use physical note cards. And some use a writing-specific tool like Scrivener to build virtual scene note cards.

Don’t get hung up on the tools. Whatever works for us works. For ease of description, I’m going to give examples of using physical note cards, but translate the ideas to your own tools and methods.

Step #1:

List our beat sheet scenes on cards, and lay them out in the correct order.

Step #2:

Think about the scenes necessary to get from the opening scene to the first scene from our beat sheet, and write each one on another card:

  • Do we need a scene to introduce the “normal world”?
  • Do we need a scene to introduce the main characters?
  • Do we need a scene to foreshadow what’s going to cause trouble for the protagonist later? (Think of a murder mystery that opens with the murder for our intrepid detective to solve.)
  • Do we need a scene to set up the Inciting Incident (or whatever our first beat is)? Etc.

Step #3:

Think about the scenes necessary to get from our first beat sheet scene to our second beat sheet scene, and write each one on another card:

  • Do we need a scene reacting to the Inciting Incident?
  • Do we need a scene where the protagonist comes up with a new goal because of the Inciting Incident?
  • Do we need a scene to show the protagonist refusing the “call to adventure” at first?
  • Do we need a scene to introduce more characters?
  • Do we need a scene to set up more problems that will make the protagonist change their mind?
  • Do we need a scene to set up the First Plot Point scene where the protagonist will commit to the story goal?

Step #4:

Continue identifying necessary scenes to fill in the blanks between each beat sheet scene. Our story should be a chain of cause-and-effect, so our scenes are basically a way to cause the next scene.

For example, in Star Wars, the beat near the 25% mark (sometimes called the First Plot Point/End of the Beginning) is when Luke decides to join Obi Wan Kenobi in his mission of delivering the Death Star plans. If we know that’s the point B we’re trying to get to, we can look at point A and think through each step of that cause-and-effect chain.

Just like we discussed above with story development, we can go in either direction, depending on what’s easiest for us (and that might change with each scene).

We can…:

In Star Wars, to get to the Point B of Luke deciding to join Obi Wan from the Point A of Luke discovering that R2D2 disappeared (an Inciting Incident type of Point A scene), we could work forward from point A. We could use Therefore/So or But transitions along the cause-and-effect chain to see that we need scenes where:

  • Luke searches for R2D2 (the effect), which then leads to (therefore—is now the cause of)…
  • Luke meets Obi Wan (therefore)
  • Luke sees the hologram message, which gives a goal that Luke initially rejects (but)
  • Luke learns of the death of his aunt and uncle and changes his mind

Or we could also work backward from point B. We’d see that we need scenes that:

  • give a reason for Luke to change his mind and agree (death of aunt and uncle)
  • give a reason for why Luke isn’t there to die along with them (he’s with Obi Wan)
  • give a reason for why Luke is tempted to join Obi Wan (the message)
  • give a reason for why Luke meets Obi Wan (follows R2D2)

It’s the same scenes either way, but sometimes we might find it easier to work forward, and sometimes we might find it easier to work backward. Either way, we’ll end up with a scene list that’s the cause-and-effect chain of how A leads to B.

Step #5:

Assemble the cards in the right order and check for:

  • Cause-and-effect: Is the chain clear?
  • Pacing: Do we have too many scenes between two beats (according to the beat sheet/guess at a page count)? Can we get from A to B more efficiently? Are some of the scenes from a parallel plot (like a Meanwhile subplot) and can be moved elsewhere?
  • Raising stakes: Are the stakes of each plot or subplot increasing at each point? Is each success followed by a new problem? Or does it turn out to be a false success?

Once we’ve arranged them for the best order for those issues, we have our scene list.

Should Pantsers Make a Scene List?

During drafting, pantsers might work through this process as we write. If we have a vague idea of a point B we want to write toward, we might work forward or backward along the cause-and-effect chain to get there.

But depending on our level of panster-ness (which might shift from story to story), we might not know how A leads to B until we get there. And that’s okay, because being a pantser is often like driving in a fog, and we might be able to see only a sentence or two ahead of us.

So should we try to come up with a scene list ahead of time? I would not recommend that for any pantsers.

However, we can still keep the cause-and-effect chain in mind while we draft to prevent tangents. By the time we finish a scene, we should usually have an idea of how it fits along the chain with the rest of the story.

That said, we’d most often create a scene list after we’ve drafted the story. Just as pantsers can use beat sheets for revisions, we can use scene lists during revisions as well.

Whether we’re a plotter or a pantser, we can ensure that each scene follows cause and effect. We can also make sure that virtually all of our scenes lead to the next with either a Therefore/So or a But transition. A scene list can also be helpful to ensure balance, such as between the main plot and a subplot or between the hero and heroine in a romance.

Whatever kind of writer we are, we can use scene lists to improve our story. They can help us develop our story and keep things on track. But it’s up to us and our writing preferences to decide how and when we want to create one. *smile*

Have you ever created a scene list? What did you use it for? When did you create it—before or after drafting? Before or after creating a beat sheet? Do you find it easier to work forward or backward on the cause-and-effect chain (or do you switch from scene to scene)?

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I find the “scene lists” (on physical notecards or in Scrivener’s Outliner) can be useful for me, but the precise time they’re useful depends on the story. Usually, it’s when “writer’s block” hits due to me needing a destination.

Even those few times when I’ve planned a story out “beat-by-beat”, the planned ending scene—if I plan that—is the most likely to turn out according to plan. The rest? Not so much.

When I make those plans, I tend to start with where I am, the scene I just wrote. Then I jot down various items for where characters must end up or what they must do, and then some ideas for scenes that could happen, and spread ’em out and consider how to get from point A to E.

So I guess I work best with hopscotch, even though I write linearly (in the order that things will be read) 99% of the time.

Walker McKnight
Walker McKnight

Lovely post Jami, thanks, and a lot to think about. I’m transitioning from screenwriting, where I would outline obsessively, listing the minute-by-minute breakdown of scenes and structure points before I wrote word one of the actual story. It’s been nice with the first novel to go broader and leave lots of space to find the story as it develops.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Lol! Yes, that typical pantser reaction would be my reaction, as I’m a 100% pantser now. A plotter on a FB writing group thinks pantsers are amazing because he thinks writing without plan for what will happen next is scary. I replied that writing WITH a plan and conforming to that plan is scary for me. XD. I have literally not even written down plot predictions since January of this year, and I write at least 2,000 words each day.

But after I draft, I can check the cause and effect chains, balance between subplots and main plots, etc.

But I’ve just despaired of making even plot predictions since they seem to almost never come true, so what’s the point? LOLL. But I adore the countless “What the hell is going on???” Moments in my story as I pants, haha. These WTH moments logically follow what came before, though, so I’m not worried.

And yeah, a pantser understanding story structure will more likely manage it well. 🙂


“(I highly suspect that my inability to be a plotter is a result of me over-planning…says the over-thinking, over-analyzing writer. *smile* I have a hard time not going overboard if I start plotting at all.)”

That’s me in a nutshell! I will plan, and plan, and never get ’round to writing. But, my plan will be beautiful! :/
So, I have to come up with some kind of compromise.

You sure did put a lot of information together, here!
Thank You

Karen McFarland

Although I am not a planner, or should I say an excessive planner in my life, for some reason, I have the hardest time plotting. I’m trying to plot out my second novel because there’s more mystery weaved into the story, but it’s a killer for me. I don’t know how you wrote this post Jami since you don’t like plotting your books. You did very well. And I want to bookmark this article for future reference. With my first novel, it was my first novel and I thought I would have to trash it. But after a couple of editors told me there was a story buried underneath all the rubble, I conceded. Yet, it’s been a ton of work to restructure the story. But you have to know that when I started writing, of course I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea how to structure. The first draft was a complete mess. Though I did kind of plot out the events in the sequence they took place in the story which helped me as a pantser to have a point to write to like connecting the dots. Which perhaps is what you are calling a beat sheet. Wouldn’t that be funny if that indeed is what I did by mistake? *laughs* I kill myself sometimes. It’s a miracle I’m getting through this. I’m just so appreciative of Marcy and her talents. I’ve learned a ton from her and you Missy! Thank you so…  — Read More »


[…] Developing Our Story: From Beat Sheet to Scene List by Jami Gold. Lots of food for thought. 🙂 […]


Jami – just wanted to drop you a line to say that your posts are tremendously helpful. I read and re-read them constantly. Thank you for taking the time to provide such great insights!


[…] Developing Our Story: From Beat Sheet to Scene List […]


[…] Developing Our Story: From Beat Sheet to Scene List This post walks through five steps for how to develop a scene list from one of my beat sheets (and includes reasons why we might not want to create one). […]


[…] are almost an infinite number of ways we can develop our story. Some plot every scene in advance, some plan only the high level story beats, and some write by the seat of their […]


[…] where we fall on the plotter-pantser spectrum—are we a plotter (plot story beats before drafting), pantser (write by the seat of our pants and check story structure later), or something in-between […]

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