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Monday, January 14

Four Ways to Pre-Write Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Some writers can sit down, open up a page, and write. Others need a little prep work before diving into a new scene. I'm one of the latter, and I've found I'm a lot more productive if I take a few minutes to figure out what I'm going to write before I write it.

There are all kinds of ways to plan your scenes, but consider figuring out the plot-driving elements first. Knowing your protagonist's goals, their motivations, and the conflicts of the scene will make it easier to move the story forward. If you're not sure how it ends, you might think about taking a little extra time at the start to figure that out. Often scenes get stuck because the writer doesn't know the next piece of the plot to move the story to the next scene. How this scene will setup and transition to the next.

Of course, feel free to mix and match or adapt any of these basic ideas to your own process. If you prefer a traditional outline that focuses on the character arc instead of the plot arc, then go for it. A detailed summary that gets the plot perfect first, then run with it. Find what works for you.

Using The Shifter as an example, let's look at some ways to plan your scenes:

1. Outlining Your Scenes

For the structured writer, try a traditional outline. This allows you to hit the major points of the scene in chronological order. A structured template can craft a step by step guide to how the scene unfolds.

I. Nya is stealing eggs
A. Guard and rancher catches her, she tries to talk her way out of it but they don't buy it
1. She throws the chicken and makes a run for it
a. The guard chases her through the ranch

b. He trips and breaks his ankle

c. She heals him, shifting his pain

d. The rancher shows up and hits her, trying to capture her
2. She shifts the broken ankle into the rancher and makes a run for it
B. She escapes, but runs into two boy from the League who just saw her shift pain
1. They question her about what she's done, how cool it is, how impossible
a. She tries to convince them she didn't actually do it, but they don't believe her

b. She knows the rumors about her will be all over the League by tomorrow, and that's very bad for her. The soldiers will find her and grab her.
A traditional outline can be useful to map out how the scene unfolds without going into a lot of extra detail. It focuses on the plot and actions the character takes, and less on the emotional layers.

2. Outline the High Points of Your Scenes

For the writer who likes structure, but wants a little more freedom, try hitting just the high points of the scene. The basic structure pieces, like the goal, conflicts, stakes, and climax, but also the motivations and why the character took these actions or made these choices. This gives you enough to know what the scene has to accomplish, but still gives you the freedom to let it unfold organically.
Scene: Nya gets caught stealing eggs

POV: Nya

Goal: To steal eggs for breakfast, then just to get away

Internal Conflict: She feels bad about stealing, but if she doesn't do it she'll starve. She also shifts pain, which she promised she'd never do.

External Complication: She gets caught by a cute guy, but his rancher boss wants to arrest her for stealing. She has to run, and she gets chased. She's also seen shifting pain by two wards who will tell on her

Stakes: She'll go to prison if she gets caught, starve if she doesn't get the eggs, and could get captured by the occupying soldiers if they find out she can shift pain.

Climax: Nya is seem shifting pain by two League wards, which could get her reported to the soldiers

A loose outline allows you to flesh out ideas before you start writing, and even be a bit more character focused with the whys. It can put more focus on the motivations and help you figure out what kinds of choices the character might make in the scene.

3. Summarizing Your Scenes

The free-form writer might try a summary paragraph. This allows you to write almost as a stream of consciousness, covering everything you plan to do. It hits the important elements, shows the actions and motivations of the character, and a general sense of what happens in the scene. The writer can run quickly through the scene without actually writing it. A summary paragraph can be one paragraph, or much longer depending on how much detail you want to put into it.
Nya is stealing eggs for breakfast, but nearly gets caught but a guard and a rancher. She tries to talk her way out of it, bargain for work, but the rancher wants to arrest her. During the conversation, she notices the guard has bad hands and thinks he's too young for it, and how he must have a life as bad as hers. She throws the chicken and runs, but the guard chases her. They run through the ranch before he nearly catches her, but he trips as he grabs her and falls, breaking his ankle. He tells her to just go, feeling sorry for her and not really wanting to arrest her anyway. Nya feels bad about him losing his job over this, so she heals his bad hands out of compassion so he'll be able to find better work. He's cute and she kinda likes him. As she turns to run, the rancher hits her with a pynvium club and stops her. He threatens her with the pynvium and prison, so she shifts the guard's broken ankle into the rancher and escapes. But she’s been seen by two wards who sneaked out of the League. She tries to convince them she didn't just shift pain, but they don't believe her. She knows they're going to tell the League elders and she'll be in a lot of trouble, especially from her little sister. Even worse, if the League Elders find out, the enemy soldiers occupying her city will come after her.
A summary paragraph is great for writers who like to get that first draft done quickly and them polish after, and those who want to figure out everything beforehand.

4. Talking Through Your Scenes

For the verbal or visual writer, try talking through your scenes with a critique partner or knowledgeable friend. This allows you to envision what you're going to write about, but it doesn't make it feel stale by putting it down on paper first.
WRITER: So the scene opens with Nya about to steal eggs out from under a sleeping chicken. It's just before dawn, the ranch is quiet, and she's thinking about the best way to do this.

FRIEND: Has she ever done this before?

WRITER: (thinks) Yes, and she's ever heard a few tricks from guys she's done odd jobs with on how to make it easier.

FRIEND: Like what?

WRITER: (thinks some more) Like waking the chicken up first. Maybe she's thinking about the different ways to steal chickens as the scene opens.

FRIEND: Cool, then what?

WRITER: She hears a voice telling her not to move...
A friend who asks great questions and gets you to think about what goes into the scene can bring up ideas spot problems you might never have seen yourself. And talking through it forces you to explain aspects that might have been too much "work" to write down, but are still important.

Planning a scene can be a helpful way to make the most of your writing time. It gets the creative juices flowing, gives you a framework in which to write, and helps you spot trouble spots or plot holes before you actually hit them.

What do you do before you sit down to write? Do you plan your scenes? Do you review your outlines? Or do you dive in and see where the story goes?