Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Using Layers to Pre-Write Your Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Like thousands of other writers, I'm gearing up for NaNo, and this year, and I'm doing a lot more prep work to maximize my writing time during November. I've always been a planner, but I enjoy a loose outline that still allows for a lot of spontaneity.

Not this year.

This year, I'm trying something a little different.

I'm writing a much more detailed summary of every scene before I write it to work out all the snags and bumps ahead of time. I'm still leaving room for the story to develop organically, but I want to know what the scene is going to cover so I'm not sitting there staring at the screen trying to figure it all out when I should be writing (Let's say I was inspired by Rachel Aaron).

I've always pre-planned my scenes before, just never to this level of detail, but I figured NaNo was the perfect time to test this tweak to my process. I can already see where this is going to benefit me in the drafting process.

If you're the type of writer who hates to plan ahead and the joy is in the discovery of that first draft, this process probably won't work for you. Feel free to skip over to something more your style, like maybe this wonderful look at building strong inner conflict and character arcs.

But if you're looking to get a solid start on your scenes (be it for NaNo or just to up your writing game), then consider a layered approached to pre-writing your scenes.

How This Works

I like to create a template with my estimated number of chapters and start filling it out. I know roughly where my major plot points fall (the inciting event happens by chapter three, chapter six is the end of act one, chapter twelve is the mid-point, etc,) and can easily see how many chapters fall between those turning points. Use whatever process works for you.

Once the major points are filled out, figure out what needs to happen per chapter to get to those points. Whatever you know, write it down, and if you don't know some steps just leave those chapters blank. If you don't want to plan these points ahead of time and want to do a chapter by chapter discovery, then try that.

Next, start at chapter one (or anywhere you like of course) and start summarizing the chapter. This should force you to think about the specifics and give you a decent idea of what happens in chapter two, and that gets you a few more chapters toward the next major plot point. Do as much of that as you can until you're not sure what happens next anymore.

Then go back to chapter one and do the serious summarizing on a scene by scene basis, using the layers below. By now, you should be comfortable with the overall plot and where it's going, even if there are a lot of holes still. But you should be able to see the story arcs and get a general sense of how things connect.

The goal here is to brainstorm on paper before the actual writing starts, so that when you sit down at the keyboard, you know how that scene will unfold and what will happen in it. If there's a conversation, you'll know what the topic is, even if you don't know the exact dialog yet (or maybe you do if you went that far in your summary). You'll know the specific actions characters will take in pursuit if a goal and why they're doing it. You'll even know how this connects to other scenes in the novel, and where people are hiding information or secrets.

What makes the layer technique so handy (and fun), is that you can jump around and build the story without spending a lot of time on the actual text of the novel. Figure out a really cool twist in chapter nineteen, but it needs a setup in chapter five? No problem, go back to chapter five and add it in. It's just a summary, so you haven't written anything yet. No edits to worry about! If one part of the story is clearer for you, work out from there. Work climax to opening scene if that appeals to you. There are no rules here, it's about going from vague idea to focused scene.

Layer One: What's the Scene About?

This one's easy, as you'll write down the whole reason this scene is in the book. What's the point of it being there? Maybe you'll write down one line, maybe a page, it all depends on how much you know and how much you want to get on paper. It might even focus more on an emotional or thematic aspect vs. a plot aspect. "Bob realizes he might lose Jane forever" is more character-based than "Bob finds a way to blow up the lab full of zombies." However you approach it, you know you need a scene about X.

Why this is important: Because it helps you determine why you want this scene in the book and what you expect it to do for the story.

(Here's more on making scenes pop)

Layer Two: What Happens in It?

Now we get into the plot side. Write down the actual things that happen, what the characters do, what they figure out, how they act. This is all the stuff that will move the plot and the story forward and what you'll be writing when you sit down to write this scene. "Bob gets Jane out of the cell and blows up the lab."

Why this is important: Because it helps you pinpoint what the action is and what you'll dramatize that for the reader.

(Here's more on plotting with goals)

Layer Three: Why Does it Happen?

This part's all about motive and character. No one is acting for no reason, they all have motives and agendas, some good, some bad, some might even be unconscious reasons. This is for you as the author so you understand how to write that character. If the protagonist is only doing this to make Daddy proud, you're going to write it differently than if the protagonist is doing it to save the love of their life.

Why this is important: Because it helps you understand why your characters are doing what they're doing, and this will make it easier to write their actions and reactions later.

(Here's more on character motivations)

Layer Four: Okay, Now Get Specific

Here it gets tougher. Sure, "Bob blows up the lab" sounds good and seems like it contains all the information needed to write that scene, but how exactly does he do it? If you wait until you're at that scene in the book, you might be left struggling with every line as you figure out where he gets the explosives, or the mechanics behind igniting the gas from Bunsen burners. Take some time and figure out the specifics in the scene. You don't have to get everything--it's okay to put (need research on explosives) in the draft, but at least figure out the basic elements of the scene that will allow you to write the narrative.

Why this is important: Because it will help you figure out the things you'll actually be writing about in the book and save you time.

(Here's more on dramatizing a scene)

Layer Five: Does This Tie Into Anything?

If you know a scene is important because it sets up the dark moment, or it shows the start of a deep character arc, mention it in your scene summary. If Bob hears an explosion off in the distance, and that explosion is really a gas leak that cuts off their escape route, write it down so you know how much attention to give that moment in the scene. If a decision will come back to bite your protagonist, write it down so you know where they went wrong. Novels are built scene by scene and seeing how all the pieces interconnect will only make the novel stronger in the end.

Why this is important: Because it will allow you to determine the connections that will later make the novel feel tied-together and well plotted.

(Here's more on plotting with story arcs)

Layer Six: What Isn't Being Said?

We focus so much on what happens we always don't think about what people are hiding or what they don't want to do or say. But this is where a lot of the conflict can come from, so it's not a bad idea to figure out ahead of time where people are being less than honest or forthcoming. It's also a great way to consider the level of subtext in a given scene. You'll write those scenes very differently than ones where characters are being open and honest. If Jane doesn't want Bob to know what's in a particular crate, she'll act in ways to keep him from it. Maybe you want it to be obvious, maybe you want it subtle, so it feels like an inevitable surprise later when he finally does open that crate and see what's inside.

Why this is important: Because it allows you to figure out where clues and secrets will be inserted into the story, as well as how to write the scenes that need deeper subtext.

(Here's more on story revelations)

How much you pre-write is up to you, and for some, it might even be an ongoing process as you write a few chapters, figure things out, then pre-write a few more. Whatever works to make the most of your writing time and keep the words flowing.

Do you ever pre-write your scenes? How much detail do you like to know beforehand? Do you think doing more (or even less) would benefit you? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. i've generally outlined my scenes with the first two layers you describe, with some justification for having the scene following. This gives me enough to know why i'm going there, and what the scene needs to accomplish, but still leaving me enough freedom to go off on tangents and/or follow what happens as i'm drafting.

    i like to have a pretty good idea of what the scene needs to accomplish, while still allowing me the room to go where the drafting takes me. still, a more thorough scene sketch should make the drafting of the scene easier... i'll look at expanding my scenes and see which way i like better.

    1. Sounds good, and similar to my usual process. It'll be interesting to see how the expanded outline/summary works. I'm already seeing how the layers work together and I'm excited to start writing. Keep me posted on how it works for you.

  2. When I try to outline in detail I find the energy spent on the scene goes into an outline instead of a usable product, and much of my original excitement about the scene burns off. I'm absolutely confident effective outlining improves the final product, but I haven't found a mechanism with which to record the information that I can use, that isn't more work than writing and editing.

    Any information on structuring outlines? Examples?

    1. I hear that from a lot of non-outliners and I can totally understand that. It might just be something that doesn't work for you, or something you do after the first draft is written to help you revise.

      Have you tried just doing a bullet point list of ideas or plot points? Maybe quick thoughts about the story to keep you on track and give you direction, but not enough to steal that creative energy.

      I did an article that covers four different ways to outline, maybe one of them might click for you:

  3. Great post Janice. Going to try this to see if it helps to unstick me. :-)

    1. Thanks! Hope it helps. I've found working back and forth is quite effective. I'll figure out something later on and then go back and flesh it out earlier, or leave clues or whatnot. Kind of a "I know this needs to happen here, so what do I have to do to get here?" deal.

  4. I've just finished off a scene-by-scene plan for NaNo that was born of a process very similar to this! It's the first time I've tried doing something like this for fiction, but I realised I used to build my essays like this all the time in university, so why not give it a go? It's great and efficient to be able to do the "better foreshadow that!" work in outline rather than edits - now my only question is whether I'll still be excited about writing the thing when I'm writing it, or whether my brain will now think "...but we've written that already" and refuse to cooperate.

    1. Glad it worked out well for you. Fingers crossed that the excitement stays, or that you find another thing to get excited about that keeps you motivated. That is one downside to a heavy outline for some writers.

      Oddly, I find knowing what I'm going to write gets me more interested to write it, as there are still so many details to figure out. I may know what a conversation is going to be about, but the actual dialog is often a surprise.

  5. I usually do three or four bullet points of what the scene needs to accomplish and to set up future scenes.
    Sometimes I'll have a few reminder notes of what's already happened to help me stay focused, but I discovery write A LOT of each scene, which usually leads to a lot of rewriting later... :-)
    I like your idea of the template. I do something similar on 11 x 17 paper to give me lots of room to write stuff down.

    1. Nice. I keep a list of key "what's happened" points myself, with what chapters they happen in. My summary outline also helps there (a paragraph for each scene by chapter), and I update that as I go. Makes it easy to refer back to see the flow of the story.

      You could probably do a template form with Excel or Word to make it easy to fill out.