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  • Writer's pictureEE Montgomery

Step-by-step guide to a major structural edit. Step 2: mapping the scene map to a structure

Last time, we created a scene map to begin identifying problems in structure. Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes, you’ll be able to see from the scene map what needs to be changed. You’ll be able to shuffle the cards around, move some scenes earlier, other scenes later. You’ll throw some out because they don’t fit, and write others that are needed and slot them in the correct spot. You might not need to do more than that.

I’ve had stories that have worked that way. Opal Tears isn’t one of them. In the middle of the story, my squirrel brain went off on a tangent. I ended up with 20,000 words on bees and hive minds that I was trying to force into the story I was writing, simply because I was excited by the idea. I kept trying to make it work, and it wasn’t until I completed the scene map that I realised it would never work. That whole plot element had to go.

Chopping out a huge chunk of the story isn’t a huge problem for me. I just drop those words into another file and label it so I can use it in a future story. Those words will need to be edited to fit a new story but the concept is a good one so it’ll be useful later.

Cutting 20,000 words did, however, leave a huge hole in the plot arc, so I needed to map the scenes to a story structure so I could work out what was there, was what missing, what was working, what wasn’t, in terms of structure.

So now we have to step back. We’ve spent ages looking at the story scene by scene; now we need the bigger picture. As a heads-up: I know some people who jump straight to this step, missing step 1 completely. I’ve done that as well, but it wouldn’t work with this particular story – there’s too much wrong with it and I needed the first step to orientate myself. Bottom line: you do what works for you.

That brings us to:

Step 2: Map scenes to story structure.

There are a number of devices you can use for this step. You can:

  • Open Excel. This is my preferred option as I can carry it everywhere and work on it anywhere. It’s also easy to keep organised and easy-to-read.

  • Use an A3 art pad. This is great for your creative fingers, particularly if you are a friend of mind-maps and hand-drawn imagery to illustrate points. I don’t use this option as I find it too difficult to keep tidy and organised (the mind-maps and sketches take over).

You have all those file cards that make up your story. How do you map that to a structure?

  1. Choose the structure you want to work with. You’ve probably already chosen one and been working towards it while writing. I often flip between a three-act structure and a seven-act structure (the hero’s journey) while I’m writing. It depends on what works at the time. I find both structures can work well together—as long as I know what I’m doing with the story. I’ll focus on a three-act structure with this example.

  2. Set your spreadsheet/table up with the following headings. Begin in column B or insert a column to the left once you’ve finished.

    1. Chapter

    2. Scene

    3. POV

    4. Setting

    5. Entrance

    6. Content

    7. Exit

    8. Notes

    9. Words

  3. Enter details from your cards into the cells under the headings.

  4. Once entered, go through the scenes. Delete the ones you think you can do without (remember we haven’t changed the manuscript yet, only this plan). Reorder scenes to make them work better. Be aware you might end up deleting more scenes, combining some scenes with others, or adding new scenes, once you’ve worked out the needs of the structure.

  5. Now focus on column A. Label the first cell Act 1. You can add a description of what Act 1 has in it if you want. I usually do as it helps me stay focused.

  6. Act 1. The first act introduces characters, introduces conflict, shows rising romantic tension. It sets the world and the characters in place and explores the first plot point. Tensions rise during this act, culminating in the first transition: the catalyst that risks everything, the one action that changes the direction of the character’s goals and/or actions. Your task: Highlight the cells in column A that follow the scenes you’ve listed that you think fit into Act 1 (not the first transition scene). Merge those cells. Apply a colour.

  7. Label the transition scene separately as Transition 1. Apply the same colour as Act 1 but darker.

  8. Act 2. Act 2 shows rising conflict and confrontation. It explores the second plot point and culminates in the second transition. At EXACTLY 50%, the mid-point of the book, something has to go wrong. Before this point, everything is going according to plan. After this point, the characters are left scrambling to catch up, to fix everything, or lose it all. It’s like a mini climax. The mid-point disaster might be just one sentence. It could be a surprise or could have a build-up, but it has to have impact. Your task: Highlight the cells in column A that follow the scenes you’ve listed that you think fit into Act 2 (not the second transition scene). Merge those cells. Apply a colour.

  9. Select the scene that contains the mid-point disaster. Highlight that whole row, less column A, a different colour. This will help you keep check on where that scene lands once you’ve edited. The mid-point disaster must be at the mid-point. If you find it slipping later into the story, or earlier, you’ll need to edit or rethink exactly what the disaster is. Note: the column A cell corresponding to the mid-point scene is an Act 2 cell and colour. Only the scene information is coloured differently.

  10. Label the transition scene separately as Transition 2. Apply the same colour as Act 2 but darker.

  11. Act 3 is the last (approx.) quarter of your story. It contains three things. The first is more rising conflict. What has gone wrong with the relationship? What major barrier is in place to stop characters achieving their goals? The second part of Act 3 is the climax. This is the crux of the matter, the one BIG thing stopping the characters achieving their goal. This is where they risk everything, where it doesn’t seem possible they could succeed, they’ve lost and there seems no way back, they’re going to be forever changed. Mark the climax scene in a similar way to the mid-point scene. You need to keep track of where this is in your story to make sure it doesn’t come too early or too late. The third part of Act 3 is the denouement. This is what happens next, wrapping up all the loose ends. You don’t need a rushed ending (one of my personal challenges), or an ending that seems to go on forever. Readers need to be left feeling satisfied they know what happens next; they don’t need to be left in the lurch or bored to death with too much detail (I’m still learning the happy balance between these two). Follow the same process to map this to your spreadsheet as for Act 2.

  12. The next part is all about those notes you wrote for each scene. If you’ve marked a scene for removal, check first, then remove it. I usually use strike-out at this stage, rather than deleting cells. If you’ve marked a scene to be combined with another, highlight those scenes the same colour. Later you can combine the scenes in your spreadsheet. Make sure you retain original chapter and scene information as that will help you find the scene in your text to move it.

  13. As you go through this process, you should be recognising gaps in the narrative. Insert rows where you need extra scenes. Don’t label them with a chapter or scene yet but place them where they need to go. Add entrance, content and exit information. You could colour-code these as well so it’s easy to see which scenes you need to write from the beginning when you go back to your manuscript.

By the end of this process, you should have a fairly clear image of the structure of your story. Your scenes will be in the correct order and will have notes on what needs to be done to make them work. You’ll have notes on scenes yet to be written, and you’ll know exactly where the four main crisis points sit (transition 1, mid-point crisis, transition 2, climax).

You feel ready to go back to your manuscript and begin work.


There’s more to do here yet, and that’s what we’ll talk about in the next blog: mapping the character arc.

Mapping scene map to a structure, using Excel


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