How To Use Scene Cards To Write A Book

by | Feb 12, 2019 | The Craft Of Writing | 0 comments

How do you write a novel?

Let me count the ways….

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, using scene cards can help you stay on track as you work through your first draft, as well as help to ensure that less of your writing ends up on the cutting room floor. When you write without a plan, your risk of wastage is twofold. One, in wasting a writing session on ‘pointless’ prose. And two, in wasting another writing session editing that ‘pointless’ prose out. This is where scene cards can help you, even if you want to pants the whole novel from, ‘Once upon a time,’ to ‘The End.’

But before we can get started, we need to understand what constitutes a scene.

What Is A Scene?

According to

“A scene is a unit of story that takes place at a specific location and time. If one of these changes, you have a new scene.”

Any time your story moves to a new location or jumps forwards (or backwards) in time you have started a new scene. New scenes in novels are typically denoted using a ‘section break.’ Section breaks create separation between two passages of prose, thereby giving the reader a heads-up that the next passage of prose has changed time, location or POV (point of view.) This helps prevent readers from feeling disorientated as they move through the story.

Section breaks can be denoted in several ways; either with extra line spaces or by using symbols, lines and flourishes.

What Purpose Does A Scene Serve?

Ideally, a scene should:

  1. Reveal new information – either about the characters, the plot and/or the world-building
  2. Advance the plot – that is, move the story forward to its next logical step
  3. Increase the conflict – XYZ just happened, so now things have gotten worse for the characters
  4. Increase the stakes – thanks to this new scene the character/s now have even more to lose personally

If you have a scene in your novel that does only one of the above, you have two options; either remove it or make it work harder by making.

If you have a scene in your novel that can be cut without the story falling apart, then that scene can, and should, be cut from your story. This is what they mean by ‘kill your darlings.’

How To Write A Book Jesse Greyson Scene Cards

Scenes and Sequels

Not every scene you write needs to do all four of these things at once. Stories tend to have a natural ebb and flow of tension and pace, with some scenes increasing the speed of action, and tension, and other scenes relieving the tension and slowing the pace. These two different types of scenes are called a ‘scene’ and a ‘sequel.’

A scene scene is a unit of story that introduces a goal, conflict, or disaster (thereby upping the tension and stakes).

A sequel scene is a unit of story composed of a reaction, reflection and/or decision making.

Scenes tend to be action-packed with a lot happening. Sequels tend to be slower, as characters reflect on what has occurred so far, and makes decisions about what they will do next. A great piece of advice I heard from Lauren Clarke was to rate each scene for tension on a scale from one to ten (once your draft is complete).

For any scene that you rated as under five for tension, ask yourself:

‘Is this an intentionally slow scene? Or is it a stagnant scene that is not doing enough heavy lifting?’

If the scene is stagnant you know what to do. Either make it work harder for you, or cut it from the story.

Using Scene Cards To Plot Your Character-Driven Novel

This year I read Lisa Cron’s ‘Story Genius,’ and fell in love with her philosophy for writing character-driven novels. According to Lisa, characters come into the start of your story carrying a life-long set of beliefs that may or may not be accurate. These beliefs are what the character uses to understand the world around them, to interpret what is happening, and to decide what they will do next. Once you have unearthed your character’s set of beliefs and misbeliefs, there will be only one or two logical options for what they do next after each scene. Using scene cards based on Lisa’s book can help you clarify what that is.

I have created a free scene card template here that you can download and use. I have also created a less pretty Word Version that you can access for free here.

I have found the use of these scene cards helps me get clear on what the purpose of each scene is before I write it, and what I want to achieve by the end of the scene. I use the Word template and free write my way into the scene, using stream of consciousness as I ‘tell’ myself the scene’s purpose. The result is not pretty or ‘clever’ and doesn’t need to be. It just needs to help you get clear on what you are writing next, and why. Before I write a scene, I ask myself the following questions:

  1. What is the main plot point of the scene? What role will this scene play in the external cause-and-effect trajectory of your novel?
  2. Why is this scene necessary?
  3. What is the scene’s main job?
  4. What do you see in your mind’s eye when you imagine this scene?
  5. What do you want the reader to feel in this scene?

Questions To Ask Yourself Before Writing A Scene

How To Write A Book Jesse Greyson Scene Cards

Why Is This Scene Necessary?

  • What integral role does this scene play in your character discovering new things about themselves and their world?
  • In what way does this scene advance the plot?
  • Why would the whole story fall apart if this scene wasn’t in it?

What Is This Scenes Main Job?

  • What does this scene do to advance the character arc?
  • What does this scene do for the reader?
  • What role with this scene play in the external cause-and-effect trajectory of events (aka the plot.)
  • What role will this play in the character’s inner journey (aka the ‘story.’)

What Do You See In Your Mind’s Eye When You Envision This Scene?

  • When you imagine this scene, what do you see?
  • When you imagine this scene, what do you hear?
  • When you imagine this scene, what do you smell?
  • When you imagine this scene, what textures do you (your characters) feel?
  • When you imagine this scene, what emotions do your characters experience?

What Do You Want Your Readers To FEEL In This Scene?

  • By the end of this scene, I want my readers to come away feeling….
  • By the end of this scene, I want my readers to come away thinking…
  • By the end of this scene, I want my readers to come away believing…

Using Scene Cards To Map A Character’s Inner Journeys.

When all is said and done, stories are not about the plot*. They are not about the events that happen, no matter how amazing they are. They are not about world-building, no matter how fresh and unique the setting.

Stories are about what people believe and how these beliefs do, or do not, change over the course of the novel.

If the character has a set of beliefs that are challenged by events over the course of the novel, and by the end of the story the character has changed and grown in some way, then you have written a ‘comedy’ (in the traditional sense of the word.)

If the character has a set of beliefs that are challenged by events over the course of the novel, and by the end of the story the character has refused to, or has been incapable of, change, then the character falls victim to their own fatal flaws, and you have written a tragedy.

Either way it’s the way a character changes or fails to change that a story is really about.

*the exception being thrillers, which are usually all about plot and little else.

By using the scene card templates I linked to above you can track both your novels plot (the series of cause-and-effect events that happen) and story (the character’s inner journey.) By being familiar with your character’s story you can avoid the pitfall of finding your characters standing in a tavern one evening, with no idea of what you should have them do next.

Even if you are a 100% pantser, completing a scene card before writing each scene should make it clear to you what your character would inevitably feel compelled to do, both in the current scene and the one that follows it. By using these scene card templates you can also avoid the pitfall of ‘idiot plotting.’ That is, having your characters do something unrealistic, or out of character for them, merely to achieve some predetermined plot point.


When writing a novel, you need to track two things – the external cause-and-effect trajectory of events (the plot) and the inner journey your character undergoes (the story). The use of the scene cards linked above can help you get clear on the purpose of your scene BEFORE you write it, thereby saving you time and heartache from writing prose that will later be edited out of the novel. Using scene cards can help to ensure that your scenes are doing enough lifting by making sure that they do at least more than one of the following: advancing the plot, developing the character, increasing the tension, and raising the stakes.

Okay – that’s it! Please let me know if you found these scene cards of help, or if there is anything else you think they could benefit from. Have you used scene cards before? Were they like these scene cards, or something different?

Let me know in the comments below.

Happy creating,


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