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Tuesday, October 13

Get Ready to Write a Scene in 10 Minutes

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton


Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: Some days, the hardest part of writing is knowing what to write. Laurence MacNaughton shares tips on planning a scene in just ten minutes.

For some writers, the blank page is terrifying. I know, because I used to feel that way, too. But now, every time I sit down to write a chapter, I'm confident about what I'm going to write, and I'm usually charged up. 

Really, it only takes ten minutes to get ready to write a scene. All you have to do is answer these questions.

1. What does the character need to achieve in this scene, and why?


Your answer should be a short sentence that looks something like this:

Dru must find the magic crystal before the demon comes back. 

Opal must convince Ember to tell her the truth in order to find her missing friends.

Greyson must escape the collapsing rooftop without being discovered by the villain.


In each case, the character must do something specific because something important is at stake.

If you don't know what your character needs to accomplish in this scene, it will be very difficult to write.

Likewise, if you don't know why they're doing it, the reader might not buy it. So make it clear that the character stands to gain something desirable and/or avoid something terrible. 


2. What kind of trouble is in the way?


Once you know what the character is after in this scene, your next job is to put obstacles and conflict in the way.

The most obvious kind of trouble is another character with opposing desires. For example:

Greyson wants to escape. The villain wants to find him – and kill him.

Another good source of trouble is the world around the character:

The building is literally falling apart around Greyson. Timbers and bricks crash down all around. Worse, the place is a dark and confusing maze.

You can also crank things up a notch by giving the main character an internal conflict:

But if Greyson leaves now, before he finds the clue he's looking for, innocent people could die.

Don't be afraid to add too much trouble to the scene. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can. If you're lucky enough to end up with too much material, then just use your favorite ideas. 

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

3. What makes the reader say "uh oh" at the end?


A great way to keep the reader turning pages is to craft the last page, and especially the last line, to make the reader say, "Uh oh!"

The exact nature of your "uh oh" depends on the kind of story you're writing. Essentially, you want to reveal something or add something to the story that makes your character's life more difficult and dramatic.

For example, here's an okay scene ending:

Greyson escapes the collapsing building with the clue he's looking for.

Here's a better version:

Greyson escapes the collapsing building with the clue he's looking for... and it incriminates his best friend.

Uh oh! That makes the reader much more likely to turn the page and start the next chapter. 


4. What gets you charged up about this scene?


Chances are, there's a reason that you really want to write this scene. Not because the plot demands it, but because you're a writer and you need to be excited about what you're writing. Otherwise, it will come off feeling flat.

So if you're not inspired, how do you fix that? Dig down deep and come up with one cool thing about this scene. Something that sparks your imagination. Something that gets you on a gut level.

You need this in your scene.

You need to have something that has you charged up about writing this scene. Whatever it is, find it and shine a spotlight on it. It will make the entire writing process so much easier. 

(Here's more on The Best Advice on Plotting I've Ever Heard: Two Tips That Make Plotting Your Novel Way Easier)

5. What are the most vivid moments in this scene?


Chances are, there are some moments in this scene that are already shining brightly in your mind. Images, bits of dialogue, surprising reveals, and so on.

Write those things down. All of them. Jot them down in no particular order.

Think about your main character. How do they feel? How will they react to what happens next?

Think about your location. What does it look like? What sounds do you hear? Engage all of your senses.

What actions or images stand out in your mind? Are you already thinking up some good lines of dialogue?

Write it all down. It doesn't have to be perfect. It just needs to be there in your notes, so it can help you write the scene. 

(Here's more on The Recipe for Writing a Great Scene)

6. What happens in this scene, from beginning to end?


By this point, you now have everything you need to write this scene. You know what your character is going to do, and why, and what's in the way, and so on.

You could sit down and start writing right this moment. Or you could make your life easier by taking a few more minutes to put all of these good ideas into chronological order. Here's how.

Read through your notes and start visualizing the scene. Make a bullet point list of what will happen, from beginning to end.

That's it. Just a simple bullet point outline. Later, you can refer to it as you write the scene, so that you know you're staying on track. 

(Here's more on 6-Point Story Checklist for Powerful Scenes)

Pro tip: Start every bullet point with the character's name.


A passive main character will kill your pacing quicker than anything. Keep your main character active throughout the scene by starting each bullet point with the character's name. It sounds repetitive, but it works.

Here's a bad outline:
  • The storage room is empty.
  • The wall starts to collapse.
  • There's a window letting in sunlight.

Doesn't that feel a little flat and random? Here's a better example:
  • Greyson searches the storage room, but doesn't find anything.
  • Greyson dodges out of the way as the wall starts to collapse.
  • Greyson spots a shaft of sunlight and climbs out through the window.

See the difference?

Spend the next ten minutes getting inspired.


Are you ready to write your next scene? First, set a timer for ten minutes. Go through this checklist, and answer each question in turn:

1. What does the character need to achieve in this scene, and why?

2. What kind of trouble is in the way?

3. What makes the reader say "uh oh" at the end?

4. What gets you charged up about this scene?

5. What are the most vivid moments in this scene?

6. What happens in this scene, from beginning to end?

If you get to the end of the checklist before the timer goes off, go back and brainstorm some more material. It will help keep you inspired as you write.

If the timer goes off before you're done, that's OK. Just keep going. Keep thinking and jotting down notes as long as you want to.

Even if you go far past 10 minutes and spend your entire writing session getting inspired, that's time well spent. Because when you actually do write the scene, it will be better thought out, more vivid, and ultimately better written.

Do you have any questions about outlining a scene?

Leave me a comment or contact 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

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