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Wednesday, February 13

An Easy Tip for Getting Unstuck in a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

When you get stuck on a scene, you might just need a little push to get you started again.

Last week, I got stuck with a scene. It wasn’t writers block, and I knew what I wanted to write, I just couldn’t get started. I kept looking at the scene and the words didn’t want to come, even though I could picture it in my head.

After quite a few false starts and a lot of deleted paragraphs, I stepped back and tried something I’d never done before.

I broke my scene summary down into smaller tasks and wrote them one task at a time.

Simple as this sounds, it gave me a clear situation to write and I was able ignore everything else in the scene until I was ready for it.

As an example, here’s a paragraph from the sample outline in my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure book:
Bob and Sally flee upstairs, zombies close behind them. They barricade themselves in the extra room and Sally breaks out the guns and camping gear (she keeps her adventure survival stuff in the spare room), and starts packing. She seems oddly prepared for this, though Bob doesn’t really notice [lay groundwork for later reveal about her work at the lab]. He’s still having a hard time coming to grips with what just happened, worrying about Jane and having no clue how to get to her. Sally snaps at him to suck it up and be useful, which angers him again. But he does what she orders and they figure out a quick plan to get out of the house and down to the fire station a few blocks away. They think they’ll be safe there. It’s on the way to the office, so he agrees, hoping the firemen can help with Jane’s rescue. A small part of him wishes he could rescue her like Sally did him. Wouldn’t he be the hero then?
This is a good example of how I write my scene summaries. It covers the basic action and what’s going on internally and externally, has some explanation I might need, and some reminders of things I want to foreshadow. So if this were the scene I was struggling with, I’d break it down like this:
Bob and Sally flee upstairs, zombies close behind them.
This is an easy sentence to dramatize, as all I have to do is show Bob and Sally running upstairs with zombies on their tail. Just starting with “They ran” gets the scene moving and the description of that pulls me into the scene.
They barricade themselves in the extra room and
Again, here’s a nice solid piece of action I don’t have to think about. They run into a room and barricade it. What would they need? How would they do it? What pieces of furniture would they grab? What are the zombies doing during all this? It doesn’t take much to write this out.
Sally breaks out the guns and camping gear (she keeps her adventure survival stuff in the spare room), and starts packing.
It’s easy to keep moving with this piece, because packing is another task I don’t have to think much about. I know how to pack. All I have to do is imagine how Sally would do it and what she’d shove into the bag.
She seems oddly prepared for this, though Bob doesn’t really notice [lay groundwork for later reveal about her work at the lab].
At this point, I’d pause and go back over what I’d just written and sneak in any details or clues that support this sentence. I’d think about how Sally would be prepared and add or edit those details. Maybe she has a bag ready to go, maybe there’s a rope ladder by the back window. I only a need a few hints, then it’s back to the scene at hand.
He’s still having a hard time coming to grips with what just happened, worrying about Jane and having no clue how to get to her.
This task turns more internal, but by now, the scene is moving along fairly nicely and the change of pace from describing action to internal thought is a welcome one. I give Bob a little meltdown and let him worry, building up tension.

(Here's more on getting through hard to write scenes)
Sally snaps at him to suck it up and be useful, which angers him again. But he does what she orders and
More easy-to-write details that don’t take any thought at all to write. I know Sally, I know how she sounds and how she’d snap (the words are right there). I know how Bob shows (or not shows as the case is with Bob) his anger.
they figure out a quick plan to get out of the house and down to the fire station a few blocks away. They think they’ll be safe there. It’s on the way to the office, so he agrees, hoping the firemen can help with Jane’s rescue.
Getting close to the end of the scene now, and most of this task will be dialogue as they discuss the plan. All the details I need for that conversation are right here. How they get out of the room has probably already been written when I described how Sally was oddly prepared for this. If not, this is where I’d have to figure that out, and possibly go back and drop a few more details into the earlier portion.

If this was the part that actually had me stuck the whole time (a strong possibility), I may or may not need to spend more time here. With luck, I’d have worked it out as I wrote it.
A small part of him wishes he could rescue her like Sally did him. Wouldn’t he be the hero then?
And finally, a sad internal thought from Bob as they escape the zombies.

How stuck I am at the start of a scene will determine how well the scene turns out. Some scenes will be solid once I get started, others will be rough and need more work later, but they’ll be enough to get me to the next scene.

(Here are five things to ask when you're stuck on your story)

This worked so well for the few scenes I got stuck on, that I’ve started doing it with every scene. I don’t always need to go task by task, and once I start it often flows right to the end, but it’s helpful to breakdown the scene and review all the pieces before I write it. I think that review actually makes the scene easier to write.

Next time you’re stuck on a scene, try breaking down the individual tasks of that scene and tackling them one at a time.

If you don’t do summaries before you start a scene, try writing one. That might be enough to get you unstuck and you don’t need to go any further.

How do you handle a stuck scene? Do you think this trick would help you?
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
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • 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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2 comments:

  1. Very interesting concept. I'll definitely have to give this a try! Have you also tried bullet points? If so do you find that the scene sketch works better than a list of bullet points - or is it six of one and half a dozen for the other?

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    Replies
    1. I've done both, and it's really a matter of what works for you. It's essentially the same idea as bullet points. Small bits that are easier to manage

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