The Trellis Method: Use the Content Lens and Scene Lens to Inspect for What Readers Expect

The Trellis Method Content Lens for Scene

Writers work hard to exceed the expectations of their target audiences. The Trellis Method’s Content Lens and Scene Lens prompts authors to inspect for what readers expect.

Writers Create What They Know

Bestselling author Neil Gaiman feels comfortable creating, but he also wants to know how he can make something work for himself.

In this excerpt* from his keynote at the thirty-fifth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, held in Orlando, Florida, in 2013, here’s what he said about learning.

It is the job of the creator to explode. It is the task of the academic to walk around the bomb site, gathering up the shrapnel, to figure out what kind of an explosion it was, who was killed, how much damage it was meant to do and how close it came to actually achieving that.

As a writer, I’m much more comfortable exploding than talking about explosions. I’m fascinated by academia, but it’s a practical fascination. I want to know how I can make something work for me. I love learning about fiction, but the learning is only as interesting as it is something that I can use.

The excerpt captures the essence of The Trellis Method:

Understand what others have already figured out and apply those practical lessons.

Zoom in with the Content Lens

The Content Lens helps writers focus on relevant story elements and familiar patterns—what the audience expects.

The Trellis Method's Content Lens
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With access to the internet, we can tap into a nearly an endless supply of writing techniques. The chief benefit of the Content Lens is how it helps us zoom in on what matters most. We get a boost of creativity, and consistent use makes sure we include essential story elements that align across the entire narrative.

As a byproduct of the right focus, our confidence increases!

The Intersection of the Plot, Scene, and Content Lenses

The Plot, Scene, and Content Lenses intersect to focus the writer’s efforts on moving the narrative forward, giving readers the equivalent of a short story in each scene that links to the next.

The Trellis Method: Intersection of Lenses
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The first article in this series summarized The Trellis Method, the next described the Plot Lens (Story Beats), and a third detailed the Scene Lens (Scene and Sequel Sequence). In this post, you’ll discover how the Content Lens puts the techniques to work, and reminds us that one lens is not more important than another. Instead, writers use the three lenses to balance story structure, scene flow, and actual content.

Content Lens Overview and Prompts

We start focused on writing down our mind’s creative ideas.

However, logic can sometimes interrupt creativity. When that happens, snippets from all we’ve learned crowd out new ideas. Doubt creeps in and we edit instead of write, losing touch with our creative ideas.

The true power of the Content Lens shows up after you write out creative ideas, helping you edit the story using these prompts:

Scene Content

  • Story Beat: Name the Story Beat for this scene.
  • Genre Convention: Name and describe if this scene fulfills a genre convention.
  • Genre Key Scene: Name and describe if this is a genre key scene.
  • Date & Time (Starts): Show the date and time when this scene starts based on the timeline for the entire story.
  • Date & Time (Ends): Show the date and time when this scene ends based on the timeline for the entire story.
  • Goal: Describe how this scene’s goal moves the story forward.
Scene & Sequel Sequence
  • Beat 1 – Action HOOK: Identify how the Hook snags readers interest:
    • Shows action
    • Foreshadows trouble
    • Dialogue grabs attention
    • Raises dramatic question
  • Beat 2 – Action SETUP: Show how the Setup establishes the characters and location, and sets up the potential for conflict — an obstacle to achieving the scene’s goal. For example, a POV character wants something tangible or intangible.
  • Beat 3 – Action TRIGGER: Record how an event serves as the Trigger that forces to the surface a conflict (aka an obstacle), preventing the character from achieving a goal. For example:
    • External Opposition (e.g., a character, setting, climate)
    • Internal Opposition (e.g., new information leads to a new choice)
    • Situational (e.g., no transportation, lack required resources)
  • Beat 4 – Reaction EMOTIONS: The character’s reaction to the event conveys emotions, the essence of why readers buy books and become a loyal fan of an author. For example:
    • Joy
    • Elation
    • Shock
    • Fear
    • Anger
    • Rage
    • Confusion
    • Despair
    • Panic
    • Shame
    • Regret
    • Curiosity
  • Beat 5 – Reaction PONDER: The protagonist ponders prior choices and actions that led up to the event, increasing the tension and suspense of the scene.
  • Beat 6 – Reaction EXPECTATION: The character’s moment of reflection sets an expectation of what the individual could do to progress toward the scene’s goal.
  • Beat 7 – Reaction CHOICE: The protagonist makes a tough choice to take action or not, setting up what takes place in this scene and the decision can serve as the catalyst for action in later scenes.
  • Beat 8 – Action CLIMAX: Show how the POV character takes action at the scene’s climax, setting up the next Scene-and-Sequel-Sequence goal.
    • Ends with a cliffhanger
    • Redirects with a revelation
    • Presents a setback
    • Reveals a secret or a lie
    • Teases with a question
    • Creates a plot twist
  • Problem / Obstacles: Describe the problem or obstacle that stands in the way of achieving the scene’s goal.
  • Turning Point (+/-): Show the turning point’s positive or negative shift in value based on whether POV character attains scene goal (i.e., a plus or a minus for the prior scene followed by a plus or a minus for this scene), and qualify this value shift by answering essential questions (i.e., what value shift occurred in this scene, did the value shift advance the story, and did the scene show a beginning, a middle, and an end?).
  • Stakes: Give the main character stakes (i.e., an overwhelming reason) to continue making choices and taking actions despite the opposing force, reminding readers what can go wrong.
  • Intensity (1-10): Rate the scene’s intensity using a 1-10 scale, where 10 is the most intense rating.
  • External Theme (Yes/No): Answer yes or no whether this scene reinforced the story’s External Theme.
  • Internal Theme (Yes/No): Answer yes or no whether the scene conveyed the POV character’s Internal Theme.
  • Philosophical Theme (Yes/No): Answer yes or no whether this scene reinforced the story’s Philosophical Theme.
  • Point of View: Name the POV for this scene.
    • First Person
    • Second Person
    • Third Person
    • Third Person Limited
    • Third Person Omniscient
    • Multiple Points of View

Character Content

  • Want (Goal): Describe the POV Character’s progress toward fulfilling the want (i.e., personal goal).
  • Need (Lesson): Describe the POV character’s progress toward fulfilling the need (i.e., the “lesson” to be learned).
  • Try/Fail Cycle: Describe whether the POV character experienced another try/fail cycle within this scene.
  • Senses: Name the POV character’s senses shown in this scene (e.g., see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and gut/intuition).
  • On-stage: List names and roles of the characters taking part on stage in this scene.
  • Off-stage: List names and roles of the characters referenced off stage in this scene.

Clues & Misdirection Content

  • Fact-based Clues: Describe the fact-based clues shown in this scene.
  • Red Herrings: Describe any red herrings shown in this scene.
  • Character Introduced Misdirection: Describe any misdirection introduced by a character in this scene.
  • Writer Introduced Misdirection: Describe any misdirection introduced by the writer in this scene.

Foreshadowing Content

  • Foreshadow Opened (Future Event): Name and describe a new foreshadowing opened in this scene.
  • Foreshadow Closed (Event Happened): Name and describe any prior foreshadowing closed in this scene.

Dramatic Question Content

  • Questions Opened: List any dramatic questions opened in this scene.
  • Questions Closed: List any dramatic questions closed in this scene.

Symbols, Motifs, & Objects Content

  • Significant Signs: List any symbols, motifs, and objects that appear in this scene that are significant to the overall story or themes.

Setting & Weather Content

  • Place: Within the story world, describe the specific place where this scene occurs.
  • Climate: Describe how the climate or current weather influences this scene.

Plot & Subplots Content

  • Main Plot: Describer whether this scene reinforces the Main Plot.
  • Subplots: Describe whether any of the subplots are reinforced in this scene.

Content Lens Example

You can use Excel, Numbers, or Scrivener to track your answers to the Content Lens prompts.

I’ll share a Scene and Sequel Sequence example for a cozy mystery. Keep in mind this is only one scene out of six dozen, and includes only a small sample of the Content Lens prompts.

The Trellis Method: Content Lens Example
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Note: To improve the narrative, I use Scrivener’s “Custom Metadata” feature to track the answers to the Content Lens prompts for each scene, but recording the information in a spreadsheet is equally effective. For example, you can use the Content Lens as a checklist to pay off all foreshadowings and to answer all dramatic questions.


The Trellis Method uses the Plot, Scene, and Content lenses to plan, write, and edit stories.

The Trellis Method
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During writing and editing, the three lenses focus on what’s important from the audience’s perspective.

  • The Plot Lens focuses on the familiar patterns of story structure.
  • The Scene Lens visualizes the flow, helping to link one scene to the next.
  • The Content Lens inspects for what the target audience expects.

Note: A myopic focus on one lens (e.g., plot structure) over another (e.g., the scene flow or actual content) can skew the fulfillment of readers’ expectations, and as with any writing tool, the writer strives for balance.


Leave a Reply

Feedback to date suggests many subscribers find The Trellis Method and illustrations useful. Your comments help to refine the process, so please add to the discussion and share how we can make the Content Lens more practical.

What prompts would you add or delete from the Content Lens?

*Original source:

9 responses to “The Trellis Method: Use the Content Lens and Scene Lens to Inspect for What Readers Expect”

  1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

    This is excellent, Grant. What a wonderful way to evaluate whether a scene is doing it’s job. I love it as an editing tool, and printed it off for future reference. I have quite a collection of posts from you now in my writing tools folder. Thanks for doing all this analysis of the explosion. 😀

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      You’re welcome, Diana! Thanks for stopping by and I value your insights.

      1. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

        I really liked this post. I’m experimenting a little with my current WIP, so having some structural guidelines to fall back on is extremely helpful. 🙂

      2. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
        Grant at Tame Your Book!

        I’m glad you found the list useful, Diana. When used as an editing tool, they serve as a checklist. On the front end, very helpful for outlining.

      3. D. Wallace Peach Avatar

        I use Save the Cat for outlining right now. I don’t want to get too prescriptive at the start since I enjoy the flexibility of letting the characters develop naturally (to a degree). I’ll use your checklist(s) in editing and see where I’m weak. So much to learn in this craft.

  2. Jacqui Murray Avatar

    Great ideas, Grant. I am stuck in my story, at a spot I didn’t expect it to bog down. I’ll apply these ideas, see if I can get unstuck!

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Sounds good, Jacqui! Please let me know how you put the Content Lens to work.

  3. Priscilla Bettis Avatar

    I can’t think of a thing to add (or delete). Everything I could think of you already have!

    1. Grant at Tame Your Book! Avatar
      Grant at Tame Your Book!

      Thanks for the boost, Priscilla! As I was researching yesterday on the The Killzone Blog, I came across one of your 2017 comments. Fun keeping company with those who add so much to the conversation about our craft.