Monday, May 17, 2021

How Scene Titles Make It Easier to Write Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This simple step can help keep you from getting stuck in your draft.

A few weeks ago, Laurence MacNaughton wrote about revision, and he said something that made me realize how to use what I’ve been doing in a much more effective way (This is why I love having guest authors on the site—I pick up new tips, too). He was talking about re-outlining your novel, and giving your chapters short, descriptive titles, but my mind took it a step further.

I title all my scenes like this, because it’s easier to search through them later when I’m looking for a particular scene. I use Scrivener, and their format is set up well for scene titles (chapter and act titles, too).
When I examined my scenes titles of a recent first draft, I noticed not all of them were super helpful in writing that scene. Here’s a sampling:
  • Brynn gets sabotaged in class
  • Brynn is home, recounts her adventure
  • At the waystop
Simple titles, and useless to anyone but me, but also not as useful as they could be. They describe the scene by what happens, not what the protagonist (Brynn in this case) wants, or what’s stopping her from getting it.

And I realized I’m wasting a huge opportunity here.

Writers get stuck on a scene because they don’t know what the scene is about, or what happens at the end of it. Strong scene titles can fix that.

Few of my scene titles encapsulated the scene in a way that told me how to write it. Sure, I had paragraphs that summarized the scene in my OneNote file, but we all know how easy it is to summarize a scene without the necessary scene-driving elements in it. Most of my titles had no goals, no hint of conflict, no motivation—just a blanket description. And it made me wonder…

What would happen if I used these scene titles as a tool to help me write the scene?

I was also curious…had the scene titles waved red flags about scenes with problems that I’d ignored? I dug deeper into that first draft and examined the connection between scene titles and the scene I’d written.

I discovered the scenes that needed the most work, or weren’t needed at all, were the ones with the weakest titles.

“At the waystop” was filled with a lot of infodump that killed the pace. It was essentially my characters hanging out and rehashing things readers already knew. It had a little narrative drive, but not much, and I’d made notes to cut the entire scene from the novel.

“Brynn is home, recounts her adventure” had revision notes to strengthen the GMC (goal, motivation, conflict). Which is also clear by the title, as it literally says “protagonist explains things she just did.” Nothing in that title has her doing anything that drives the plot.

“Brynn gets sabotaged in class” wasn’t a bad title for the scene, but it didn’t give me anywhere to go and was basically, “This happens to the protagonist.” Since this was the opening scene, I knew where it went, but had this been a later scene, I easily see how I could have been stuck on what happened after she was sabotaged.

It didn’t take long for me to see I was onto something here regarding the scene title names.

(Here’s more with A Handy Checklist to Strengthen the Narrative Drive in Your Scenes)

Strong scene titles made it clear what happened in the scene.

They encapsulated the scene in a scene-driving way that validated the scene’s GMC. The scenes with weak titles also had weak scene goals, motivations, or conflicts.

“Brynn gets sabotaged in class” told me what happened to her, but didn’t suggest what she did about it. A stronger title here would have been “Brynn gets sabotaged in class, so she breaks the rules and improvises.”

Pro-tip: Notice the “so she…” in there? This is classic cause and effect plotting. X happens so the protagonist does Y. That Y leads to Z in the next scene. Titling every scene like this is practically outlining the novel. The narrative drive is right there.

If you can’t identify the cause and effect in a scene well enough to title it, that’s a red flag the scene isn’t leading the plot to the next scene.

(Here’s more with The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Make Plotting Your Novel Way Easier)

Strong scene titles pinpoint what’s important in the scene (or what the author thinks is important).

Yet “important” doesn’t mean good or even necessary. “Brynn is home, recounts her adventure” is obviously a scene filled with explanation, because I knew Brynn couldn’t go have an adventure and not explain to her parents why she was out all night (she’s 12, by the way). It’s important information, but where’s the goal? Aside from adding what I needed to add (because readers would wonder and I’d have plausibility issues), the scene didn’t do much, and my critiques and revision notes clearly agreed.

This scene needed to be there so Brynn could talk through her experience, and in doing so, have a few details fall into place so she could have a necessary-to-the-plot revelation. A better title would have been, “Brynn reassures freaked out parents so she can calm them down enough to convince them she found evidence X is about to happen.” Long for a Scrivener title, but useful for my OneNote summary.

If you find yourself titling a scene by what you as the author know needs to be there, and not what the character is doing, that’s a red flag you’re missing all or part of the GMC.

(Here’s more with Quick Steps to Writing a Scene—Plot. Description. Emotion.)

Strong scene titles make it easy to see how the novel flows.

Laurence brought up this point as well, but thinking about titles as mini-summaries makes it even more obvious. When I used the “but, so” format and focused on the cause and effect of the scene’s actions, I could see exactly how the novel progressed. Every scene clearly showed how it triggered the next goal.

Brynn gets sabotaged in class became: Brynn wants to craft a perfect charm, but she gets sabotaged in class, so she has to figure out how to use broken materials and still pass.

This is the scene in a nutshell. It shows the goal (craft a perfect charm), the motivation (she wants to pass), the conflict (she’s sabotaged), and the action she takes that will move it to the next scene (use broken materials).

So the next scene title became, “Brynn crafts a charm from broken materials, but it behaves strangely, so she’s convinced she’s just failed and she blames Hasil. (I used specific details in my outline, but I don’t want to give too much away in this post).

If your scene titles read like a list of things that happen, and not a progression of events, that’s a red flag you’re either lacking character agency, or the events aren’t providing enough narrative drive.

(Here’s more with 4 Ways to Develop Character Agency)

When you title a scene, you summarize what that scene is all about.

Nearly every weak scene I’d written also had a weak title. It was about an infodump, not a goal, or a scene without agency that didn’t drive the plot as well as it could have, or a scene that had to be there or readers would question why not (such as, “why wouldn’t the parents ask where she was or react to her being out all night?”). They were red flags waving right in my face and I didn’t even notice. But I sure do now that I know what to look for.

Writing strong scene titles forces you to really look at the scene and how it fits into the novel. If you can’t title it in one sentence, that’s a red flag waving at you that something’s wrong in that scene.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and title the first ten scenes (or chapters if you prefer) of your draft. If you already use titles, examine them. Are the scenes helpful, useful, or are they so vague even you forget what they cover?

Do you title your scenes or not? Do you think titles would help you write your first draft? How about help you with a revision?

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. YES!

    This really is key, putting our finger on what a character wants -- and how a change or exploration of that is really the only reason to have a scene at all.

    My default example is "a morning at work." The kind of scene that gets into stories to establish Normal, and really could be filler... except, what spin could those "normal" moments have that gives them focus anyway? Is our heroine going through routine but trying to figure out What She Saw last night? is it the crushing drudgery of her work, or how her best friend makes a mundane job a delight -- two obvious setups for change in the wings. A scene might not have a flashy purpose, but how the character and the writer dig into that moment can make it distinct anyway. (On the other hand, a big exciting scene that loses track of its unique point is just a waste.)

    So what the character wants, and the major challenge and outcome of it here, are the absolute heart of the scene. Of course they need to be nailed down, and of course they --more than any other aspect of a scene-- are the things to use for notes' headers. Nothing else can compare.

    1. Great example, and a good one to show how opening "normal day" scenes don't have to be boring. Sometimes just asking "What's the problem?" with every scene is enough to pinpoint what the character wants and why there's an issue they need to solve.

  2. I just adjusted my own Scrivener project to work along this approach. I combine, however, scene titles and the actual card contents. I use a small laptop for writing anywhere and have limited title space. I posted a screen shot on your FB post of the same...

    1. Love the photo. That works well, too. I like the combo of the shorter title to make sure I have the drive I need, and then expand it in the outline.

  3. Excellent ideas. This might help me in my Outlining Nightmare.

    1. Thanks! I hope it will. It's like a softer approach to outlining.

  4. I really like this idea! It's simple, clear, and so helpful!