Outline your scene when stuck on what to write

When stuck writing your story, you may want to borrow a technique from screenwriting by making a scene outline. This is a blow-by-blow description of the story’s events.

An excerpt from a scene outline you might write for a story would be:

-Perdita, wearing separates and Mary Jane flats, approaches the elementary school diamond where children are playing kickball
-She stands at the diamond’s periphery, afraid the children won’t accept her
-Slowly the other children begin to point at her and whisper to one another to look at her
-The teacher, with a kind look on her face, waves Perdita over
-Perdita is hesitant
-Teacher waves again for her to come over, tells her it will be all right
-Perdita comes over, feels self-conscious as all of the children stare silently at her
-Perdita reaches the home plate area
-The teacher asks her if she’d like a turn at bat
-Perdita nods
-The teacher gestures for her to stand at home plate
-Perdita does, gazes out at the children in the green field
-The boy at the pitcher’s mound eyes her, swings back the arm holding the red rubber ball then brings it forward
-The ball rolls toward home plate
-Perdita eyes the ball, and when it comes within a couple of feet of home plate, she takes two dainty steps forward and kicks it
-Ball goes sailing past second base, children scramble for it
-Perdita jumps up with glee, when the children waiting at the dugout shout, “Run! Go! Run!”
-Perdita races to first base
-As she’s within three steps of first base, an outfielder throws the ball to the baseman
-Perdita slides into first base and is safe to the cheers of the children at the dugout
-Perdita smiles broadly

Typically the following elements go into a scene outline:
• Identifies point of view character – This establishes from whose perspective the scene will be told from. In the above example, the main character whose view we focus on is Perdita.
• Lists the story’s action – This is a beat-by-beat account of what occurs in the scene and probably will be the bulk of your outline. Three consecutive beats in the above example are: The teacher with a kind look on her face, waves Perdita over; Perdita is hesitant; Teacher waves her to come over again, tell her it will be all right. A full scene outline would show where chapters begin and end.
• Provides background information – This information may not be part of the narrative flow but is necessary to understanding the character or the setting; it’s like exposition. For example, this outline makes a point of showing that Perdita is wearing separates and Mary Jane flats and that she is at the elementary school diamond where children are playing kickball.
• Expresses story’s theme – In a screenplay, this gives the cast and film crew direction about how to approach the scene; in your case, it helps you as the writer know how to approach it. The phrase afraid the children won’t accept her shows that the scene is about an elderly woman gaining the respect of children.

A scene outline can help kick start your creativity because it forces you to imagine the story and gives you focus as doing so. You’re not worried about writing complete sentences that are grammatically correct and lush with description and imagery. Once you have an outline, then you can string your points together into complete sentences and concentrate on syntax.

A final note: Screenwriters typically write their scene outline in present tense, but as a short story writer or novelist, you certainly can modify it to be in past tense since that’s probably how you’ll write the piece, and switching verb tenses would just be messy.


My name is Rob Bignell. I’m an affordable, professional editor who runs Inventing Reality Editing Service, which meets the manuscript needs of writers both new and published. I also offer a variety of self-publishing services. During the past decade, I’ve helped more than 300 novelists and nonfiction authors obtain their publishing dreams at reasonable prices. I’m also the author of the 7 Minutes a Day… writing guidebooks, four nonfiction hiking guidebook series, and the literary novel Windmill. Several of my short stories in the literary and science fiction genres also have been published.