Monday, September 05, 2022

Take the Work Out of Writing a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Don’t try to write the whole scene at once.

Last week, I was having a bit of trouble writing a scene for a new book. I’d been away from writing in general, and this book in particular for a while, so I was no longer in the writing flow. I had my outline summary, I knew what the scene entailed, I just couldn’t start it. So I did what I always do when a scene doesn’t want to start.

I took my summary and turned it into the individual moments that made up the scene.

This is as easy as just hitting a hard return after a line, and turning my summary into something closer to bullet points. That let me focus on smaller moments in the scene, and not the entire thing. I didn’t have to worry about the end, because I was working on the little bit at the start.

Scenes are easier to write when you break them down into bite-sized pieces.


Especially if it’s a scene with a lot going on. We can get scope-locked on how it ends, or one critical element, or trying to set the scene or show the world building—and that can make the entire scene feel hard to write.

There’s so much to do! Where do I start? How do I manage to get all that into one scene??

This is how.

Let’s look at an example scene summary from the sample book in Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure:

Note: This is based on an on-going example on the site, the Bob and the Zombies, apocalyptic love story. Go here if you’d like a little backstory and context before reading on.
Bob and Sally are arguing about what they plan to do that day. Sally has the day all scheduled doing things Bob doesn’t want to do, and as much as he protests, she won’t compromise. He says he has to work today and go into the office and she doesn’t buy it. She starts belittling him as always, making him feel worthless. [Show how bad Bob’s marriage is and why he wants to divorce his wife and get away.] Bob heads into the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes while Sally goes upstairs to get dressed. He’s feeling less than manly, still bristling from the fight, thinking of all the things he should have said. One thing stands out above the others—he should have asked her for a divorce. No, he should have told her he wanted a divorce. He imagines the scene in his head, using it to build up his courage to actually do it. His fantasy shifts to what he’ll do after he’s free of Sally. [Show Bob’s dreams and goals and what he really wants from his life that he doesn’t have now.] He thinks about Jane working at the office on a Saturday, and wishes he’d been able to convince Sally he really did have to work. Bob has just about gathered enough courage to confront Sally about the divorce when he hears a weird moaning coming from outside. At first, he ignores it, thinking it’s an animal. But when the noises get louder and it sounds like things are getting knocked over, his built-up righteous anger sends him outside to investigate and give the trespasser a good lecture.
This is a typical scene summary. It shows the action, some motives, a few notes about what I should add for subtext or backstory, etc.

(Here’s more with How to Write Scenes (and What Qualifies as a Scene))

Because this is a big block of text, it can feel overwhelming to write it.


It’s hard to remember everything a scene needs to do after reading the summary. Unless you really know how this scene unfolds, you’ll probably need to check back several times during the drafting process to make sure you got in everything you needed to. It’s also common to gloss over some of these details to get to the important, scene-driving aspects, which can result in a shallow, too-short scene.

So break it down into its keep components, and focus on one element at a time.

This allows you write out each moment without worrying about the next, and work your way through the scene more easily. You’re not writing the whole scene, just this tiny piece of it. That’s a lot less intimidating.

Start by turning the summary into smaller “moment pieces.”
Bob and Sally are arguing about what they plan to do that day. Sally has the day all scheduled doing things Bob doesn’t want to do, and as much as he protests, she won’t compromise.
This is the opening of the scene. It focuses on the argument, and even tells you what the argument is about and what’s being said. The conflict here is that Bob wants X and Sally wants Y.

Notice that the exact details aren’t in this summary. Not being specific enough is a common problem in outlines—it looks like all the right pieces are there, but when you sit down to write it, you can’t. Before you do anything else, brainstorm what Bob and Sally are specially arguing about.

(Here’s more with Beware the Vague Goal When Outlining a Scene)

Then write the argument, leading up to the moment where the argument turns mean.
He says he has to work today and go into the office and she doesn’t buy it. She starts belittling him as always, making him feel worthless. [Show how bad Bob’s marriage is and why he wants to divorce his wife and get away.]
Bob taking a small stand and saying he has to work to get out of doing what Sally wants is an action-beat for Bob, which is why I made it its own moment. Bob standing up for himself and Sally shooting him down is important, because of all that info about his marriage in the bracketed notes. It’s different from them “just arguing,” so I wanted to call attention to why this scene is important to the story. This sets up the problem between these two, and what Bob will have to overcome as part of his character arc.

This is also the reason why Bob walks away in the next moment, which is key to keeping the scene moving.
Bob heads into the kitchen to wash the breakfast dishes while Sally goes upstairs to get dressed.
This might just be a transition moment, but it’s important because it breaks the action and shows the necessary stage direction to get the characters where they need to be for the rest of the scene to happen. Since a lot of transitions get skipped in an early draft, this ensures it gets written. It might be only a few lines, but that’s all that’s needed.
He’s feeling less than manly, still bristling from the fight, thinking of all the things he should have said.
This is a bit of a sequel, showing Bob’s reaction to what just happened.

Since this will establish his emotional state and motives for the rest of the novel, spending a little time to make sure readers get him is important. It will also give readers a sense of who he is by what he “should have done” versus what he actually did.
One thing stands out above the others—he should have asked her for a divorce. No, he should have told her he wanted a divorce.
This is a big moment for Bob in this scene, and a big moment for the novel as a whole, so again, that’s why it gets its own line.

Bob wants a divorce and is too scared to ask for it. This is a moment that needs emotional impact in the scene, not be something that gets a casual mention in the middle of a paragraph—which would have been so easy to do if we were just writing this without really thinking about it.
He imagines the scene in his head, using it to build up his courage to actually do it.
This matters because it’s when readers get to see how Bob wishes he could be.

If you want him to be right about himself, this is the person Bob will grow into by the end of the novel. If you want him to be wrong, this is the false belief or lie he’ll need to realize and overcome.
His fantasy shifts to what he’ll do after he’s free of Sally. [Show Bob’s dreams and goals and what he really wants from his life that he doesn’t have now.] He thinks about Jane working at the office on a Saturday, and wishes he’d been able to convince Sally he really did have to work.
Next, we see Bob’s hopes and dreams, and the reason why he wants that divorce and wanted to go into the office.

He’s in love with someone else, and doesn’t have the guts to leave his wife. Now, Bob could have come across as a jerk here—maybe even a cheater—if readers hadn’t seen the argument and saw first-hand how unhappy Bob is, and how controlling Sally is. I’m not saying Bob is innocent here, but if readers hadn’t seen the darker side of Sally, Bob would have come across a lot worse than he does now. And since we want readers to sympathize with the poor jerk, that’s important.

Because things are about to change. Big time.
Bob has just about gathered enough courage to confront Sally about the divorce when he hears a weird moaning coming from outside.
This moment triggers the end of the scene, and the hook to keep readers reading.

So far, this novel has seemed like a normal domestic/romance story about a troubled marriage. But now, the first hint of the zombie aspect has appeared. Readers will know from the cover blurb what this is, so they’ll probably get excited to see what zombies are like in this world.
At first, he ignores it, thinking it’s an animal. But when the noises get louder and it sounds like things are getting knocked over, his built-up righteous anger sends him outside to investigate and give the trespasser a good lecture.
And finally, the scene ends with the hook.
Bob, who doesn’t have the guts to stand up to his abusive wife, has worked himself into a frenzy since the argument, and that puts him in the right mindset to storm out there and give someone a piece of his mind. But readers know that’s not so simple, so they’ll want to read on to see if that’s the zombies they’ve been looking forward to.
(Here’s more with What Writers Need to Know About Hooks)

Breaking the scene into individual moments helps remind you what matters and why.


It gives you a chance to think about what every line in your summary means, and why it’s there. It’s more than just showing what happened or describing a bit of history, it’s moving the story in a meaningful way.

Remember…a single sentence might have a lot more depth and meaning that you first realized. And once you do realize it, it will be much easier to write it with the importance it requires.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and break down one of your scenes into individual moments. If the scene is written, did you break it down with the same importance or meaning in the actual scene? If it’s not written, what did you learn about first, the scene you didn’t realize before?

Do you think breaking your scene into moments will help make writing a scene easier? Why or why not?

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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound

4 comments:

  1. So he goes to give the intruder a piece of his mind, and it tries to eat a piece of his brain.

    So good to have you and Bob back, Janice!

    ReplyDelete
  2. This post could not have come at a better time. I have been struggling with a crucial scene in my WIP. Forcing myself to write even when the writing wasn't working. Determined to persevere. This post gives me a path to that I think will work. Thanks!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh good! I hope it helps with your scene and gets you past your current sticking point.

      I've found forcing myself to write almost never works, unless the reason is a simple "I just don't feel like it." Then sometimes, once I start, I get back into it.

      When I get stuck, a shower usually helps me find the solution, crazy as that sounds. There's something about a mindless task that pulls focus away from what I'm actively trying to figure out, so my subconscious can work it out for me.

      Delete