Monday, January 14, 2013

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. 

(Here's more on Thoughts On Writing a Scene)

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?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
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  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

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. Wow, that seems like an awful amount of work before you even get to the writing - do you do this for every scene?

  2. Great tips Janice. I only outline the key plot points but I think it's a great idea to outline out a chapter either in your head or on paper before you write it. I'm struggling with my first draft right now and this may help.

  3. Outlining like this would help me a lot. Thanks for breaking it down clearly.

  4. Suzanne, I do, but it doesn't take that much time. Maybe 5-10 minutes tops. I've tried all four options (and some I didn't talk about), and for me, the summary paragraph works best. It lets me get my thoughts in order so I'm not staring at a blank page trying to figure out what to write. Sometimes I do scene by scene, other times I jot down the whole chapter.

    Natalie, I hope it does. It gets a lot of the brain work out of the way so you can just write.

    Jennifer, most welcome! Hope it gives you a great head start on your writing.

  5. I sometimes write a summary paragraph if I have a real idea I want to pursue but most of the time I sit and dive it, let it flow out and see where it's going.
    I tend to plan more the further I get into the story.

    Great methods though, I will have to try them sometime. Might make me more organised. :D

  6. Hi Janice,
    You're timing is perfect.
    I started an outline this morning to tighten my middle-grade novel. Basically, I was already following your tips, but you added a few pointers I hadn't thought of, and then you showed examples which really helps me. Perhaps, one day I'll get up the nerve and submit a chapter for your blog post critique. :-)
    And my response to your last comment about the book that's been in your drawer for years, go for it!

  7. I think I've done a little of all of this, but I like the way you presented having a discussion with a friend. I think sometimes I'd approach it with is this a good idea, when what I see more here is tell me what you think about this story scene. It's a subtle difference, but maybe I can use this to dialogue with a friend of mine. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Barmybex, everyone's different, but I do like that light structure to keep me focused. Totally helps with the organization, lol.

    Tracy, I love when that happens! One day I will have to go back to that poor trunk novel. I wrote it back before I found my YA niche, so it would be very different these days.

  9. Jae, one of my best buds likes to talk through scenes before she writes, and she has great success with it. Just the act of talking about it forces her to figure things out, and helps her visualize what she wants to do. Might work for you, too :)

  10. Very interesting, Janice, how you organize everything before writing. I belong to the free-form (#3) category. I find it interesting that you aim for a conflict and stakes in each scence. I thought that it's only for the novel as a whole.

  11. I used technique #1 for my recently published novel and found that I changed it quite a bit as I progressed through the story.

    I've adopted a modified #2 for my current WIP using Scrivener & loving it! I need to add the stakes as part of my outline. I think that will help keep me focused on the conflict and avoid the dreaded 'info-dump.'

    I've also found myself using #4 with my critique group OR talking to myself!

  12. I so love all of you who outline. Thank you for the examples of how to do this. Outlining is like a foreign language, but I am trying to incorporate more and more. I learn so much here.

    My best writing comes after I take a really hot bath. I plan out the scenes and "see" them in my head. I try out different versions to achieve where I want the story to go. If I have no idea (except large plot events), I spend some time in my character's head. I talk through the dialogue between my characters.

    On a beautiful day, no one interrupts me before I reach my laptop and the words fly onto the page.

  13. Wow! I am doing a couple of versions of this right now. After not looking at my WIP for a while I decided to recap by "summarizing the scenes." Once that was done I let my hubby take a look at it, which lead us to "talking through the scenes." The questions he asked really helped me develop the plot further.

    I plan on making this a part of my writing process from now on. I like
    point #2 "Outlining the high points." I would also like to in incorporate that into this process too.

    Thanks for another inspiring post Janice. I will definitely share this on my Marti Ink blog.

  14. Giora, conflicts and stakes are what keeps the reader hooked, so putting it in every scene keeps the story compelling. The scene level conflict/stakes vary, but that's what keeps the protag struggling and keeps the story from being "and then this happened, and then this happened..." It turns it into "will they win? Will they get past X?"

    Char, awesome! I'll use #1 and 2 during revisions, when I'm making sure I have all the right pieces. Stakes are great to add in, since they help keep those "why should I care again?" scenes away.

    Rubianna, there are so many ways to outline you kinda just have to try and see what level works best for you. It can be as detailed or as loose as you want. LOL re: the bath. I plot in the shower (especially when I'm stuck) so I can relate tot that. Sounds like your process is more relaxing though :)

    Marti, thanks! That's what I love about this process. You can mix and match, use pieces of it, or use different options at different times. The more tools we have, the more prepared we are and the better the writing will be :)

  15. Thanks for the insight Janice - when I first looked at the traditionalist method, I thought to myself, "Whoa, this is a bit detailed!" but then I realised that this is EXACTLY how I plot, but I don't jot it in point form like that, I write it as a paragraph. (A bit like the free form method but in a lot less detail). One thing I had never considered though, is inserting these 'paragraphs, as-is' into my MS when I'm having trouble fleshing out the details, then coming back to them when later inspired. So thank you!

  16. Melanie, I insert quick summary paragraphs all the time (as well as notes). I color them in red so I can quickly see where I need to come back and flesh out. It really helps get past those sticky points when I still need to work something out. And sometimes, once I'm past that part, I figured out what I need to do and go back with totally new ideas.

    FM, thanks!

  17. Wow, this really helps! I'm about to begin "plotting" and I love the options you offer here. I think the summary paragraph will be great when I brainstorming a scene to see if it flows. I'd write a whole chapter this way, scene by scene, and I can see how easy it would be to go back and fill in the dialog and details. Thanks - this is one of the most helpful posts I've read in awhile.

  18. Marcia, happy to help :) I've found going back through in layers like that works great. First pass is just to get the ideas down, then get all the dialog and action blocked out, then layer in internalization and description. The easy stuff, then the harder stuff :)

  19. I don't usually write an outline, but in the back of my mind I have an idea of what the stakes are and what the goal is for each scene. I know I have to end each scene with a push into the next one.

    1. That's great. That's why these basic building blocks are so valuable, because they work no matter what type of writer you are.

  20. I often will write in layers. First I look at what each character wants in the scene, and what I want the scene to accomplish. Then I'll lay down the dialog track, with minimal blocking. And then once I have the basic flow down I'll bring in the scenery, and props, and change the dialog and actions to suit them - sometimes this can radically change things and sometimes it doesn't change them much. But that first layer of "what do I want to accomplish here" comes in the dialog, and rarely changes unless the whole scene doesn't work.

    1. That's pretty much my process as well. I tend to do my layers in chunks of chapters or even draft passes once I know how a story unfolds.