Scene Tracking Tips Every Writer Should Know About

Pantsers and plotters seldom agree on the best way to write, but all want to create scenes that entice readers to devour their novels. Of all the techniques studied over the years, scene tracking is one of the best ways to turn wannabe-scenes into winners.

What Is Scene Tracking?

In its simplest form, scene tracking records essential beats and elements in a table, enabling writers to see the story’s flow and evaluate what needs improvement.

Writers accomplish this amazing feat by using an off-the-shelf writing or spreadsheet app (e.g., Scrivener, Excel, Numbers or Google).

How scene tracking is used varies based on each writer’s preference.

  • Pantsers can track scenes after they write.
  • Plotters can use scene tracking to create detailed outlines.
  • All writers can track to make sure each scene does its job.

Benefits of Scene Tracking

Before you discount scene tracking because of what seems like extra work, consider books you’ve read that swept you away in a dream-like state, compelling you to read way past your bedtime — scenes that combined the best of characters, plot, theme, and structure.

Now consider those days you don’t feel like writing. Need inspiration? Perhaps a prompt? How about a blank line posing a question you know needs answering?

Do you respond better to a carrot or stick? For those who prefer positive motivations, scene tracking acts like a muse. If it takes a stick to motivate you, scene tracking serves as a taskmaster.

For example:

  • Delete Weak Scenes: If you wrestle with filling out the tracking information, that suggests weakness, making that scene a candidate for deletion.
  • Amplify Character Emotions: Readers want to experience the story vicariously through the characters, and scene tracking helps you include powerful emotions.
  • Organize and Order Scenes: Like stringing together organic pearls, tracking enables writers to organize and order scenes, making sure each one contributes to a beautiful story.
  • Enhance Descriptions: Scene tracking serves as a checklist, pointing out where writers can enhance descriptions of settings and senses to engage audiences.

Scene Tracking Tips Every Writer Should Know About

I used a subset of scene tracking tips to analyze L. Frank Baum’s masterwork, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (click here to see the series).

To evaluate your stories and those of authors you admire, choose what you want to track and put these tips to work.

  • Outline your book
  • Enhance a scene the day after you write
  • Edit your entire manuscript

For example, here are two methods to track scenes.

  1. Add the scene beats as Custom Metadata prompts in Scrivener (my favorite method).
  2. As an alternative, create a spreadsheet in Excel, Numbers, or Google.

Tracking Categories

What you track divides into three categories.

  1. Beats track essential units of action within each scene.
  2. Contribution tracks how the scene influences the story.
  3. Content tracks crucial elements that enhance the scene.

This week’s post focuses on beats.

Essential Scene Beats

Every scene should contain these essential beats.

➨Hook:

The hook beat offers something new or references the foreshadowing established in a prior scene. For example:

  • Shows action
  • Foreshadows trouble
  • Dialogue grabs attention
  • Raises a question

➨Setup:

Provides brief information regarding the character, current location, and time.

➨Trigger:

Introduces a conflict, forcing to the surface the scene’s problem.

➨Wrangle:

Shows POV character reflecting briefly on the choices and actions required to deal with the problem.

➨Action:

Moves POV character from the scene problem toward the scene goal (or character’s want) based on prior choices and actions.

➨Climax:

Shows the outcome of the character trying to achieve a goal (or fulfill a want) and sets up the drive to the next scene. For example:

  • Ends with a cliffhanger
  • Redirects story with a revelation
  • Presents hero (villain) with a setback
  • Reveals a secret or a lie
  • Teases readers with a question
  • Interjects an unexpected plot twist

Create Your Scene Synopsis

First, create a scene name that aligns with the scene’s purpose. Then combine the essential scene beats into a synopsis paragraph.

Within Scrivener’s “Outliner” mode or your favorite spreadsheet, view the synopsis column to evaluate the overall flow of your story.

Here’s what it looks like in Scrivener.

Here’s a spreadsheet example using Numbers, but you can use Excel or Google.

Conclusion

Sometimes I barrel ahead and write the gist of a scene. While in pantser mode, I capture whatever is lodged in the forefront of my mind. Unfortunately, I think about but don’t always include the wonderful scene fodder floating around in my brain. That’s when the essential scene beats come to the rescue.

I search through my draft for the proper hook, setup, trigger, wrangle, and climax. The time invested enhances every scene.

What I enjoy most about scene tracking is how essential beats engage readers, empowering me to write faster and more intuitively. With that thought in mind, I encourage you to give scene tracking a thorough test — it works!

Next week, we’ll look at how a scene’s contributions influence the story.

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How do you track scenes, and what helps you include essential information?

3 Comments

    1. Beats are fun, Jacqui! Their patterns form a road map. Writers still choose the destination, and they can take as many detours as they want.

      Formulas suggest constraints, whereas patterns flow organically. Organic pearls are never perfect. Selection by size, shape, and color creates a string pleasing to the eye.

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