Monday, July 7, 2014

How to Develop Your Story Idea Into A List of Key Scenes - Part 1

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

So you have a story idea. And you've determined that it has a shot at being a good idea.

What do you do next? There's no right answer on this one. You could start working on the storyworldthe map, the magic, etc. Maybe you spend some time fleshing out the back story of your characters. Perhaps you dive right in to writing, or maybe you're a color-coded spreadsheet type person.

What I do next is write a back cover style of blurb. Partially so I can send it to my agent and say, "Hey ... good idea? Bad idea?" I'll also use it to ask my writer friends what they think. Have they seen a story like this before? Can they think of some titles that it's similar to?

For this stage, I often have a piece of paper with me and have a pen stuck through my ponytail because even while I'm playing with my kids or fixing dinner, my brain is working through the story. Stephen King refers to this as "the boys in the basement" which I just love.

Part of what I'm doing during this time is figuring out where I want to open the story and who my main character is at that time. That's just the kind of writer I am. Because I cannot seem to effectively write a book until I know what my first line and my first scene are. I wait until I know those to start writing.

As soon as I know where and how I want the story to start, I write one or two chapters. I need to muck around in the story world, in my character's head, for a few pages before I have a clear idea of where she needs to go, what baggage she needs to ditch, and who the major players in her life are going to be.

I can't tell you how many times I've been writing a first chapter and a character who I hadn't anticipated throws himself into the mix and demands to be taken seriously. If you've read the Ellie Sweet series, Chase was totally one of those characters. He pretty much stole the show in The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, and I hadn't anticipated him at all. After I've written a couple chapters, THEN I'm ready to take my story idea and turn it into a list of key scenes.

What is a list of key scenes? Using story structure that's present in most modern stories, it's a list of types of scenes you commonly find. And it's the only kind of plotting I've found that actually works for me and makes writing books easier. (I'm a reformed pantser.)

Recently, I developed my own scene list because I was preparing to write a story with alternating hero and heroine POVs and I needed something different. I listened to several classes (The Hero's Two Journeys by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler, and Hero and Heroine Journeys by Camy Tang) and from that created a side-by-side scene list that I'm currently using. (I'm putting together a printable for you that will go out with the next Go Teen Writers newsletter. Our newsletter is monthly-ish, free, and you can sign up for it here.)

I'll list the scenes I've included on mine with a brief explanation of each, and then I'll go into more depth next Monday on those that might be more confusing.

Something to keep in mind as you read through here - these do NOT have to go in this order. There's nothing wrong with switching a few or cutting some. This list is a tool, not a list of rules.

Illusion of the perfect world OR Glimpse of home world: This is where we see the characters at their starting point. Rapunzel in her tower, Harry living with a family who hates him. An illusion of the perfect world can be an element of this, if you choose. I would say Cars starts with an illusion of the perfect world. Lightning McQueen thinks he's living the life and the story will be about him learning that he's not. Some dystopians, like Matched or The Giver are similar.

What she/he wants: This isn't so much a scene as it is something built into your opening. Lightning McQueen wants to get to California and win the Piston cup. Harry wants a family who cares about him.

Disturbance: This is when something rocks the home world. Flynn Rider shows up in the tower. Owls start delivering letters. That sort of thing.

Call to adventure: An opportunity presents itself to go on a journey of some kind. This doesn't have to be a literal journey. In my first Skylar Hoyt book, Me, Just Different, Skylar is going on an internal journey. She doesn't want to be type of girl who wakes up Sunday morning and can't remember what happened last night. So her call to adventure is more subtle then, say, the call of Bilbo Baggins.

Refusal of the call: This isn't in every story, but you'll notice it in a few. Bilbo initially turns down the opportunity to travel with the dwarves. Luke initially doesn't go with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Betrayal or realization: Again, not in every story. But if the call is initially refused, we need some reason for the character to change their mind. The home Luke Skywalker grew up in his burned down, which changes his mind about if Obi-Wan's cause is worth personal risk. Rapunzel is yelled at by her mother that she's not going to be able to leave the tower ever, and Rapunzel realizes she'll have to make it happen herself.

Supernatural aid: This typically comes from another character who gives your character what they need to accept their challenge. Rapunzel forces Flynn into a supernatural aid role. He provides what she needs to start out on her journey. In Me, Just Different, Heather fills this role for Skylar. In Jill's Captives, Beshup is this for Levi, helping giving him supplies for his battle against the Safe Lands.

The awakening: This ties into your character's external goal, to what they've decided to pursue in the face of the disturbance. In The Hunger Games, the last thing Katniss wants is for her name to be drawn in the reaping. When she volunteers for Prim, however, her external goal becomes to come home alive.

Character chooses to accept the invitation: This scene might blend with the awakening. Katniss chooses to  volunteer for Prim. Rapunzel chooses to disobey her mother and leave the tower. Harry chooses to go with Hagrid to Diagon Alley and enter the wizard world.

Test 1the first piece of armor is stripped away: The idea of armor and tests is something I'll discuss more fully next Monday, but your character has gone into this journey thinking, "I have this and this and this so perhaps I'll come out of this journey unscathed." These tests are about stripping away your character's securities.

Inner goal is revisited: A moment of, "Wait, why am I doing this? Oh, yeah. That's right. For this reason."

Brave step forward: "Now that I've thought about why this is a good choice, I will do this bold thing."

Test 2a complication: Again, we'll get to the idea of tests and armor next Monday.

Showcase best virtue/worst flaw: This idea was a new one to me, and I really love brainstorming scenes to fit with it. An example of a scene might be Katniss decorating Rue's body. That showcases something unique and tender about Katniss.

Test 3Midpoint (A glimpse of the character's core): Your midpoint scene should be something big. A highest high or a lowest low. A scene that changes the trajectory of the story more than other scenes have. This scene is also a great moment to give the reader a glimpse of the character's core. When all pretense and pride are stripped away, what is it they're really after? One of the most famous midpoint scenes is Gone With The Wind, when Scarlett is on her knees proclaiming she'll never go hungry again.

Renew the goal/regroup:  Frequently the midpoint scene is a low moment. Highest highs happen too, but not as frequently as a lowest low. Your character will need a chance to formulate a new plan.

A momentary victory: Yay, something goes right!

Confident action: And that gives your character confidence to do something big.

Atonement with the father: This is another type of scene that I hadn't thought about much until recently. This doesn't have to be so literal, though it certainly can be. But it's a moment of healing in a relationship. It's especially effective, I think, if it ties in to the wound that your character starts the book with. I'll go into this one more on Monday as well.

Test four: Again, Monday I'll talk specifically about tests...

Whiff of death: I can't remember right now who first said it, but all books are about death in some way. The death of a person, of a dream, of a country, of a way of life.

The chance to go home: I've become highly sensitive to this moment in a story. It's when Rapunzel goes back to the tower with Mother Gothel after she thinks Flynn has traded her to the Stabbington brothers. Or when Anna is back at the castle with Hans and Kristoff leaves to return to his regularly scheduled life. The character goes back to where they startedor at the least, has a chance to go backbut the old life doesn't fit any more.

Test five: Again, Monday...

Dark night of the soul: This is when all hope is lost and our main character is clearly going to lose. Like when Anna is locked in the room and the fire is out and we know in minutes she's going to turn to solid ice. Or in Sense and Sensibility, when we learn that Mr. Ferrars and Lucy Steele have married.

Cavalry: Someone unexpected swoops in to help our main character. Olaf's carrot nose picks the lock on the door. Or when Maximus brings the thugs from the Snuggly Duckling to rescue Flynn.

Spiritual epiphanyinsight into purpose: Sometimes this element is subtle. And it often blends with this moment:

Goal is renewed: Often due to the cavalry, our characters realize, "Hey, we still need to bring back summer/destroy the ring/take down Voldemort." And this is something that should be made deeper and more purposeful through the moment of spiritual epiphany. We're not just bringing back summer, we're discovering what it means to love someone. We're not just destroying the ring or taking out the bad guy, we're taking a costly stand against evil.

Crazy plan is formed/carried out: In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hollows this is when Harry is walking out to confront Voldemort on his own. Or when Katniss and Peeta both take a handful of the poisonous berries and prepare to eat them. I've often found this scene to be the hardest to write because you want it to be creative and unexpected. When I'm working on my list of key scenes, this is sometimes the last one I figure out.

Test six - final battle: This might be a literal battle, if you're writing that kind of book. Or it might instead be a different kind of battle. In The Unlikely Debut of Ellie Sweet my character's battle is with herselfshe awakens to her part in her conflict with her friends and makes herself apologize despite all the wrongs they've done against her but never apologized for. Perhaps your book has a quieter type battle, and that can work well too.

Final push to victory: Sometimes this blends with the final battle scene (and even with the crazy plan forming scene, depending on the pacing of your story) but basically your character emerges triumphant. Even if there's loss involved or the journey didn't end the way they wanted it to, there's a sort of victory that can be pulled from the battle. Like in Cars Lightning McQueen doesn't win the Piston Cup, but he achieves something far greater when he helps The King cross the finish line.

Denoument: I always have to look up what this means in French. It's roots are in the words for knotting, apparently, but basically it's the outcome. The final glimpse of our characters now that they're in their new reality.

If you're writing a final book in a series or a stand-alone book, think of Harry at King's Cross Station with the next generation of Hogwart's students. Or Anna and Elsa ice skating together, once again close friends. If you're writing a series, we still need a satisfying conclusion, but there's a sense of future complications as well. Like the final scenes of The Hunger Games between Katniss and President Snow and Katniss and Peeta.

Next Monday I'll talk about the process of brainstorming the key scenes and give a bit more description about some of the less talked about types of scenes. If there is something on that list that's super confusing or that you'd like to make sure I talk about next Monday, please mention it in the comments below!

For those who are just now finding this post, the downloads are available on my author website on the "Free Downloads For Teen Writers" page.


  1. Hmmm...good thoughts. Thanks for sharing. I had not thought about some of this before.

  2. Do you have a fill-out sheet for all these points?

    1. I do, although I don't use all of them for each story. I'm getting it cleaned up to send out with the next newsletter.

    2. I'm looking forward to that newsletter then!

    3. I've just recently discovered your blog. Is the fill-out sheet available on your blog somewhere?
      PS: Thank you so much for sharing all your knowledge! <3

    4. Yes! Go here:

      And then you'll find it at the bottom of the list.

  3. This series will be really helpful for one of my stories! I'm in the middle of plotting it.

  4. I have a question about the "whiff of death" scene. I can't decide if I've already put my character through too much suffering. Her mother was killed earlier, her sister taken hostage, and she is about to discover that her friend all her life has betrayed her. Would it be too much to also have her role-model/mentor side-character killed as well???? I don't want to make the story so morbid, I just don't know how far is too far and how much makes a great story. Can someone help?

    1. Well its really more "dark night of the soul" moment, sorry

    2. That's a great question. I think the answer depends partly on your genre and target audience, but it also depends on what those events accomplish. If they accomplish something with the plot that couldn't happen another way and change something deep within the character that's critical to his/her journey, then I think it can work. When they have a "drama for the sake of drama" feel then it doesn't. You might have to follow your gut on this one.

    3. Okay, thanks. I think I don't think it's really necessary. There will still be plenty of opportunities to make my MC grow

  5. This post is really helpful. I've never thought about each of these plot points in depth. Right now I'm struggling with the ending of my WIP and can't seem to think of a crazy plan or final battle…Just wondering, what would the "crazy plan is formed" step be in Me, Just Different or Ellie Sweet?

    1. Don't make me analyze my own novels! :)

      I didn't use this technique with the first Skylar or Ellie books (the original drafts of both were completely pantsed) so it's harder for me to say. I would say the crazy plan in Me, Just Different is when Skylar storms over to Connor's house determined to haul her sister home. It doesn't immediately achieve the goal but it makes a difference.

      I think for the first Ellie book the closest thing to a crazy plan is probably her wading around in the muck trying to get her backpack out. Really, it's Bianca and Marie's crazy plan that Ellie is getting sucked into, but she engages them in the fight as well.

      In the second book it's when she chooses in-person apologies versus fleeing.

    2. Ha ha, sorry Stephanie! I just thought hearing another example from your novels would make it easy for me to understand :) Thanks so much, this really does help!

  6. I have a question about the newsletter. If I sigh up for it, will everyone who gets it be able to see my e-mail?

    1. Nope! We use a service and they keep all your information private.

  7. I was proud, reading the list, to realize that my novel has pretty much everything from "chance to go home" onward. (Might have something to do with the fact that I wrote the first part of it and THEN read up on plot structure.) Now I'm tempted to go see just how disjointed the beginning is, but it's only been one week since I finished first draft. Only five more weeks until first read-through...probably less until I go insane. ;)

    1. I know what you mean about going insane. XD I just finished my rough draft two weeks ago, but I'm starting edits tomorrow 'cause I'm impatient like that. And I want to enter a contest, deadline in August, so waiting the full six weeks to edit wouldn't really go well. ;)

  8. Gah!! All of the plot related post are helping me so much right now as I plan an upcoming novel! Thank you so much!

  9. Great post! I want to outline something now. XD
    One of my favorite tactics for outlining is to put a minor victory right before the 'Dark night of the soul' moment. Just so that I can give my readers a false sense of security before smashing all of their hopes and dreams for my MC. *grin* I like playing with my readers' emotions like that. :P

  10. This is super helpful. I'm with you, the most outlining I can stand to do is plot points like this. My list isn't usually quite this comprehensive, but it might really help...

    I'm at the place where the random novel I started completely pantsing is requiring a plot list. I think I'll go with this :)

    Also, I'm thinking about making a scene list as I go along. The previous book I wrote the first draft and THEN tried to figure out which scenes made which plot point and just make a list for editing purposes, and that was horrible. I've yet to try making the list as I write scenes, but I'm thinking that'd be sooo much easier...

    Looking forward to the next post!

  11. I'm a punster working diligently to be a plotter--I'm hoping it will ease my stress level when I get to the middle of the novel and start wondering what the blazes to do with the mess I created! I like that you've meshed several structures together to create something you can wrap your brain around. I'm printing it, and I'm looking forward to your post tomorrow.

  12. Thanks, Stephanie! The examples made it easier to understand too. :)

  13. Really enjoyed this post, very helpful and great examples

  14. Stephanie,
    Tremendously useful post, and blog - thanks!

    I have one question, you say:
    "Calvary: Someone unexpected swoops in to help our main character."

    To me Calvary refers to where Jesus was crucified, and things associate
    whereas Cavalry are warriors who can come to help in a pinch

    I believe you mean the second, Cavalry, but i could be wrong.

    Best to you! Wendy

  15. Isn't it Lucy Steele? Not Lucy Swan? Sorry... Jane Austen fan here. ;)

  16. I adore this. And I just might use it to help me put together my synopsis.

  17. This reluctant has a story that editors and producers want me to write. This post is the foundation I've been looking for. It's both informative and encouraging. Thank you for sharing. You're my cavalry. I look forward to more of your teachings.
    Shine on!

  18. Would you consider linking to the worksheets you mentioned for those of us who found this article a bit late?

    1. Yes! I updated the post itself, but here's the link:

  19. Hi Mrs. Morrill, I'm trying to plot a story, and the plot revolves around a girl whose sister has died. The story takes place after the sister's death; I decided not to begin with the funeral and things like that. I've listed my disturbance as her sister dying, although the story takes place quite a bit after that, and I've listed her homeworld as the situation she's in right now- sent to a relative's house to let her "heal". So said. How's that? Her journey is internal, she's trying to let go, and it's a little harder to categorize than an external, fighting-off-dragons journey.

    1. I can sure relate to that, Amanda!

      Here's what I would suggest: Find a goal for your main character. I'm guessing she wants to stay in her grief. She's comfy there.

      What is going to be the catalyst for her change? What is going to make her realize that she can't stay here in her grief, that she needs to start taking steps forward?

  20. Hi Stephanie! What a great article and information. Changed my entire outlook on plotting. This is fun, productive and motivational. I was able to find Part 2 to this post, but i am struggling to find a newsletter you referenced here where you were going into detail of some Tests scenes and a couple of other scenes. I appreciate the direction to find this information. Thank you! Kat

    1. Kat, you can find those downloads on my website here: