Tuesday, March 10, 2020

6-Point Story Checklist for Powerful Scenes

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: The scene is the building block of the novel, and the stronger each scene is, the stronger the novel will be overall. Laurence MacNaughton shares his checklist for writing powerful scenes. 

The hardest part about writing is getting started. Where should you kick things off? How do you make it exciting? How do you keep the momentum going? To find the answer, use this easy scene checklist. It walks you through everything you need to know to write a scene. Keep your notebook handy.

1. What does success look like to your character?

Every scene revolves around a character who wants something here and now. What does your character want?

Too many times, I've seen outlines that say something like: "Jack goes to the crime scene." From a story standpoint, that falls flat.

The question is: why does he go to the crime scene?

What is he looking for? Is he trying to find a clue that will lead to the killer? Is he hoping to find an eyewitness? Is he trying to destroy evidence to protect someone?

Your character's intention drives the entire scene.

Always ask yourself: What does success look like to your character, here and now? Write it down.

The moment your character reaches that success, or something happens to make success impossible, the scene is over.

(Here's more on Two Questions to Ask for Stronger Character Goals and Motivations)

2. Who is trying to stop your character, and why?

Now that you know what your character wants in this scene, you can figure out who could prevent them from getting it.

Almost every scene in fiction is a conflict between two people. One person wants something, while another person wants something else. Someone is going to end up sorely disappointed.

Why does this other person try to stop your character? Are they hiding something? Are they afraid of losing something? Do they want the character's objective for themselves?

Put yourself in the other person's shoes. What does success look like for them? How does that bring them into direct conflict with the main character? Write it down.

(Here's more on Don’t Make This Common Writing Mistake: Creating Cardboard Conflicts)

3. Where is this happening?

Decide where and when this scene will take place. Then jot down a few quick bits of description.

Are we inside or outside? Is it day or night?

What does it look like here? What sounds do you hear? What does the air smell like? Does your character touch anything?

Bonus points if you include an important feature that stands out because it's beautiful, dangerous, or unexpected. If you could take a photo of this scene, what would be its most defining feature? Write that down.

(Here's more on 10 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Setting)

4. What other obstacles are in the way?

There are two other kinds of obstacles that can make your character's life difficult.

The most obvious kind is an external obstacle: locked door, geographical distance, bad weather, lack of information. Ask yourself if there's anything that could physically stop your character from getting what they want.

Then there's the other, more complex kind of obstacle: inner conflict. This happens when your character wants two mutually exclusive things.

They want to play it safe, but they also want to take a big risk. They want to be a good friend, but they also want to say what's really on their mind. They want their family's approval, but they also want to pursue their career. And so on.

Is there anything that you can add to this scene to pull your character in opposing directions? Can you put them in the middle of an inner conflict? Write it down.

(Here's more on Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

5. What else could go wrong?

This is probably my favorite part of the whole brainstorming process, because I love it when things go completely haywire.

Look over your notes about the character's intention, the opposition, the location, and so on. Start jotting down a list of everything that could possibly go wrong.
  • What if things are much worse than your character expected?
  • What if somebody does something or reveals information at the wrong moment?
  • What if you character gets a reaction that's the complete opposite of what they expected?
  • What if somebody is supposed to be here, but isn't?
  • Who could show up unexpectedly and ruin the character's plans?
  • What if somebody has been lying?
  • What could somebody break, accidentally or on purpose?

This is your opportunity to find ways to make your character's life more complicated, mysterious, surprising, difficult, and generally more dramatic.

Jot down some ideas. You don't have to use all of them when you write the scene. Just pick your favorites.

(Here's more on Four Questions to Ask to Make Your Scenes Pop)

6. What interesting thing is about to happen?

By now, you've probably come up with some interesting image or moment that you're excited about adding to your story.

That's great! Start writing about that interesting thing. Even just a paragraph or two is good. You could use it at the beginning or end of your scene, or even somewhere in the middle.

Begin the writing process with whatever interests you the most. Because that will also interest your reader.

If you don't already have something interesting in mind, don't worry. Look back over your notes for this scene and see if you can come up with something dramatic or unexpected.

You don't have to go over the top and set something on fire (although, to be fair, I've done that plenty of times). A single provocative line of dialogue or decisive action can be enough.

Have a character do something or say something they shouldn't. What kind of reaction do they get? Take that idea and run with it.

If all else fails, hide something from your main character and have them worry about it. Who's knocking at the door? What's in the briefcase? Why does that person look scared?

Start with something that grabs the reader's attention, and then just keep writing.

(Here's more on What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

Bonus Tip: Are you a Plotter or a Pantser?

Much ink has been spilled about the difference between plotters (those who plan before they write) and pantsers (those who make things up as they go along, writing by the seat of their pants).

This checklist works no matter what kind of writer you are. That's because it splits the difference.

You're not exactly planning it all out, because this is just a big list of thoughts and possibilities.

And you're not exactly making it all up as you go along, because now you have a bunch of ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

Don't feel you have to use all of these ideas in your scene. Just use the ones that work. And if you come up with something better on the fly, great! Go with it. Be creative. After all, that's why you became a writer in the first place.

What do you think about these story questions? Leave a comment below or reach me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. Great post! This is getting bookmarked. TY!

  2. That's something I often do, even as a pantser. For trickier scenes or key scenes especially, I'm more likely to sit with pencil and paper and mentally set the scene one piece at a time. I consider the purpose, and mull over what might go wrong or right. As I do, I'll jot down snippets of dialogue, description, or ideas as they occur. After letting that simmer in my unconscious for a bit, I finally start madly writing (or typing).

  3. Thanks! I really appreciate this list. Checking these elements again after the scene is written would be a great way to create a scene by scene outline of your novel as you go.