Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Quick Steps to Writing a Scene—Plot. Description. Emotion.

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writing in quick steps can help you knock out a scene fast.

I may have wound up an author, but I started out as an artist. I drew (and wrote) since I was a little kid, and later, I went to school for design. Because if this background, I approach writing the same way I approach drawing or designing a layout.

First, I sketch it out.

Then, I fill in the sketch.

Finally, I add the detail and polish.

This simple three-step process has served me well for longer than I’d like to admit in public (grin). I write a minimum of three drafts of every novel—the sketch, the filling it out, and the detail and polish. It’s a layered approach that captures an idea and gets the story down so I know what I have before I really dig into it.

For now, let’s just talk about step one—the sketch.

The Benefits of Sketching Out a Scene

A sketch of a scene is the bare bones of what the scene is going to be about and how it basically unfolds. My sketches fall into two styles.

1. The outline sketch: This is a pre-writing technique I use to quickly outline the key points of the scene so I can get it straight in my head before I start writing. I usually write between one and four paragraphs, depending on how much I know about the scene going in. I try to capture the core elements to guide me, though I’ll also add snippets of dialogue if I “hear” them, and anything relevant to the scene or story. For example, if something happens that has greater meaning or requires knowing the motivation of a non-POV character, I’ll add it to the summary: “He acts like he’s upset to throw her off.”

Essentially, this is my brain dump of ideas for the scene.

2. The scene sketch: This is the first draft of the actual scene. I take my outline and write it, focusing on getting through the scene so I know how it unfolds and what happens. If I don’t know certain details, I leave myself notes and move on. For example, if I feel a character needs to react in a certain spot, but I’m not prepared to delve into their emotional state yet, I’ll write [reaction] and keep going. I can fill that in on the next draft. If I know it takes place in a restaurant, but nothing more, I’ll write [describe] when character first enters the restaurant.

Essentially, I do a fast draft of the scene as fleshed out as I can write it without slowing my momentum to think to hard about what I’m writing.

These two sketches let me to quickly summarize my scene and collect my thoughts, which in turn makes the scene easier to write. I already know the framework of that scene.

When writing the scene sketch, here are three aspects I focus on.

The Plot: Or, What Happens in the Scene

I’m a plot gal, so for me, knowing how the scene unfolds is critical to laying the “story foundation” of that scene. Even if it’s sparse and rough, at least I know how the plot works out and I can build the rest of the scene from there.

This step is all about what happens in the scene. What the characters do, what their goals are, how they get from the start of the scene to the end, and how that scene advances the plot to the next scene. Sometimes I know the plot needs to go in a certain direction, but I’m still working things out, so I write it and trust I can figure out the deeper layers later. And I usually do.

Using this in your own writing: Try writing without thinking too hard about the specifics of the scene. Let your mind run with it like you’re doing a word sprint. Whatever yo know, write it. Whatever you still have to figure out, skip it, or leave a note and then skip it.

(Here’s more on A Goal-Checking Trick for Plotting Your Novel)

The Description: Or, Where and How Things Happen in the Scene

I’m not a fan of writing description, so this usually takes the form of stage direction and a very general look at the setting. I try to capture where the scene takes place and how the characters move through that scene and interact with their environment.

I leave myself a lot of notes here, because I usually have to do some research or refer to research I’ve already done (fantasy has a lot of this). The stage direction is also fairly list-like and choppy, because it’s just there to help me block out the scene.

Using this in your own writing: Try writing the bare minimum you need (or see) to understand the setting and descriptions in your scene. If you know a lot, then write a lot, but don’t let the scene stall while you try to figure out what a room looks like or what outfit the heroine is wearing.

(Here’s more on Finding the Right Balance With Your Stage Directions)

The Emotion: Or, Why Things Happen in the Scene

The last step focuses on the why. This usually connects to the characters’ emotions, because they’re motivated to act based on how they feel about the situation. I try to include at least one declaration of their goal and motivation, so I understand why they’re acting as they are, such as, “I had to find the file before my mother discovered I’d relapsed.”

If you’re a strong character writer, you might write a solid draft on the first pass, but if not, it’s very helpful to skip the heavy emotional aspects until you’re ready to write them. Your instincts will probably tell you where a character needs to react emotionally, or feel a certain way, but stopping to delve into that might kill your momentum. A [furious] or [emotion] note can work great in these cases.

Using this in your own writing: If you’re just not in the right head space to craft a deeply emotional scene, skip it until you are. Sometimes it’s easier to write a series of emotional passages all at once than to keep shifting from internal emotion to external action.

(Here’s more on What's My Motivation? Tips on Showing Character Motivations)

This is also useful for writers who get so caught up trying to write the right words, they don’t get any words written at all. Forcing yourself to slam that scene down and revise it later can help you get past a sticky point. It takes the pressure off.

For example, I know the draft is going to be rough and won’t include a lot of elements, but I also know that revising is easier than drafting (at least for me). Once the scene is written and I see how it fits into the larger story, I can develop it into a stronger scene.

Sketching out scenes won’t appeal to every writer, but for those who enjoy quick drafts and brainstorming on paper, it can be a huge time saver and boost to productivity.

Next writing session, try sketching out your scene quickly and see if it increases your productivity or makes it easier to write.

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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  1. Thank you for this. This is how I approach my writing, but I've never really thought about it in detail as you've set it out. Head space for different parts is important to me, as is getting something - anything - down on paper to work from later. This article makes me feel more comfortable about my process, when other articles want to tell me I'm doing it wrong. (Former art major here also.)

    1. Most welcome, and I'm glad it helped. You're totally not alone, and it's fun to hear this might be an artist trait :) There's no right or wrong for a writing process--if it works for you, it works.

  2. That sounds like how I approach my paintings. I also started out an artist. Not that artist is something that goes away!

    1. Nope :) I suspect this holds true for a lot of artists. The rough sketch to finished image concept just makes sense.

  3. My education was in architecture, I call it a bubble draft. This goes here, that there, this big, relating to that and so on. I never really write this down though. It germinates till the scene comes up the the characters take over. Everybody has their method, and everybody wants to know how writers do it.
    I do agree with the description though, doing those details right takes care and several passes.
    Thanks for this.

    1. I actually did a year of architecture before I shifted to graphic design. :) Interesting process. It's like outlining or sketching it out in your head. No one says you have to write it down, and I agree--whatever process works for you is the right process for you. Everyone does it differently, and it's always fun to see how other do it. Let's new writers know they aren't alone in whatever their process is.