Checklist for Chapters and Scenes

I write in layers, like a painter working in oil. First comes the idea, then a very simple sketch. When I think I’ve got the makings of a story, I write an outline in broad strokes with no detail, no life. Then comes the scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter outline. I chart the chapters to show the rise and fall of tension, ensure that the pressure keeps mounting, place exposition appropriately, etc. Meanwhile I’m writing scenes or bits of scenes on the computer – random thoughts as they occur to me, fodder for the actual writing. When the outline is complete, I put the scenes or chapters in order on the computer, one page for each, with a header and a VERY brief summary. Then I go back to my “doodles” and extract those ideas worth using and plant them in the appropriate pages. Then I can begin the actual writing of the first draft.

The first draft is  stream of consciousness; fast, loose, disjointed, and full of ugly crap. I don’t worry about redundancies, characterization, dialogue, or anything else. No one is going to read this draft but me. In a sense, it is just a more detailed outline.

When I’ve completed the first draft, I print it so I can cross things out, draw arrows, make notes, write bits of dialogue on the back of the page, etc. The story has now been told.

Next I use what I consider to be a pretty exhaustive checklist to make sure that every scene works individually, and functions within the whole. I add detail, color, light, and shade.

When this is done, all that’s left is the character-by-character read through (to check for character arc, voice and story consistancy, etc.) Then it’s ready for my trusted readers to take their whacks at it.

So, here’s my list. Have I left something out? Are some of the questions out of order? Do I have unneccessary/redundant questions?

I’d love to hear your opinion.



My Checklist:

1  What is the plot goal of this scene?
2  Could the book/story be told without this chapter/scene? (If so, why is it here?)
3  Does this scene advance the plot with important new information?
4  What info (bit/etc.) ties this scene to other scenes or other key story elements?
5  What is the mood of this scene?
6  What is the visceral goal of this scene? (suspense, curiosity, sympathy, repulsion, etc.)
7  Does this scene tell its own story?
8  Does this scene have its own arc?
9  How does this scene generate interest?
10  Does this scene generate excitement? If so, how?
11  Why should the reader care about this scene?
12  What will make the reader turn pages in this scene?
13  Does this scene turn, twist, or otherwise alter the reader’s perceived plot trajectory?
14  Does the main character say anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
15  Does the main character do anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
16  Do other characters do anything interesting/unexpected/embarassing?
17  How does the POV character feel (excited, ill, tired, alert, etc.)?
18  How do other characters feel?
19  Look up, down, left, right, forward, behind – are the surroundings realistically described?
20  What does the POV character hear in the background?
21  What does the POV character smell?
22  What does the POV character taste?
23  What tactile sensations does the POV character feel?
24  Do other characters see, hear, smell, feel, taste anything different? If so, what?
25  What key detail is brought out through the senses?
26  What does the POV character learn in this scene?
27  How is the story theme addressed in this scene?
28  Is there enough dialogue? Can more dialogue be inserted?
29  Is anything “told” that could be “shown?”
30  Is any sentence passive that could be active?
31  Is any action/circumstance passive that could be more active?
32  What is the scene’s question that drives the reader to the next chapter?

About Jess

Jess Harris started writing fiction at a very early age. As editor of his High School paper, his motto was “All the news that might have happened if life in this town was just a bit more interesting.” Any reporting of actual events was produced by others. A Bachelor’s Degree in Music and Theater opened the gateway to a variety of exciting jobs, imparting invaluable skills such as basic home repair and car deal negotiations. He also became privy to more knowledge than any human should be allowed about where turkeys come from. While none of these noble professions turned into a career, they provided a lifetime’s worth of scenes, situations and characters. Several reputable publishers have demonstrated temporary lapses of judgment and published his stories, including Toad’s Corner,, Short Story America, and Fiction 365. We sincerely hope you won’t hold it against them, and visit their sites anyway.


Checklist for Chapters and Scenes — 4 Comments

  1. Hi, Jess, thanks for sharing that list. You call it a checklist, so I interpret that to mean it is a mental exercise to scan the list and convince yourself you have accounted reasonably for each item. Is that right?

    Do you ever use the checklist to drive your initial outlining? The list is a little daunting at first, but when you consider what a “no” means when there ought to be a “yes,” the writing without the required fix will be less satisfying to the reader.

    I will probably try your list on for size. Using it will lead to the best comments on sufficiency, redundancy, and all those other “cy’s.” In a couple weeks I let you know how it worked.

  2. I don’t look closely at the list before writing the first draft, it’s primarily for the first re-write. Then I look at it again after the re-write to make sure that I’m satisfied that I’ve adequately addressed all of the questions. I do think that someone who is not familiar with the questions would gain from reading them over before each phase.

    For the outline, I use the device you mentioned in a recent post. Mostly I just want to give the scenes direction, and find the proper mix and flow of energy/excitement.

    By the way, not all categories require a clear yes, depending on the type of story, the purpose of the chapter/scene, etc. For instance, question 8 may be irrelevant for a very short or unresolved scene or chapter.

  3. Something I have failed at in the past is the use of conflict–so I try to always pose the question before writing a scene: What does my Protagonist (and perhaps the Antagonist) want in this scene and who/what is preventing them from getting it? Argument is not necessarily conflict. Fighting is not necessarily conflict. I think that having a reasonable answer for this question is a pre-condition to being able to check off many of the items in your list.

  4. That’s a good point. “What are the primary and secondary sources of conflict and tension?” is the key question that’s part of the chart I use before writing the first draft. I think I should add it to the rewrite checklist, too, even though some of the other questions are seeking the same issue. As you pointed out, “conflict” in story is essential, and not inherent in fighting, arguing, etc. Those are merely some of the possible outcomes of conflict. The book “Ordinary People” is a great example. It’s bursting with conflict until you find yourself aching for a fight or argument to relieve it. I definitely need to add conflict and tension among the first questions to the “rewrite” checklist. You can never have too much!