One Scene at a Time

“How do you find the time to write a book?” As a working stiff who also publishes novels, this is a natural and frequently-asked question. The immediate answer is usually the very true necessity that “I make time.” Countless weekends and evenings are dedicated to writing. It’s as simple as that unless the question is posed by an aspiring writer. For an aspiring writer, the next part of the answer is just as important–I do it scene by scene.

The prospect of writing an entire novel is daunting. It requires endless hours of writing, editing, researching, troubleshooting, rewriting, re-plotting, killing darlings, and many other specific tasks and habits that constitute the throes of writing a novel. But the process of telling the story is a scene-by-scene process. I try to tackle each scene with care. The story will be read one scene at a time, and that is the product I intend to deliver.

Yes, I can plot and plan to my heart’s content. Every writer should. Among other things, it helps me select the scene I will write next. But the scene is the key structural building block. A novel is a long string of scenes. I keep the structure of a scene in mind as I create that initial draft. Later, usually before a second draft, I create an outline based on scenes. Writing instructors and other authors freely discuss the structure of scenes. Here is my take:

A scene has a beginning, middle, and end.

  • The beginning is a goal, either implied or stated. It is a specific goal, usually an immediate goal of the point-of-view character. It is a goal that relates to or furthers some aspect of the entire story. Sometimes it’s character, sometimes it’s plot. It can also be something else. They key is to make sure a goal is either implicit or stated.
  • The middle is the happening. It’s the meat of the scene. It includes the conflict that drives the scene and it is shown by way of some activity, the actions and reactions, the dialogue, if appropriate, as well as description and setting to the extent they bring the scene to life. This is the part most writers were born to write.
  • The end is the result in terms of the scene’s initial goal. For the most part, the goal is either not accomplished, or accomplished, but with a further complication.

When I create scene outlines (a handy tool for revisions), I usually do it in a spreadsheet. I have a column for the point-of-view character (POV), and columns for Goal, Conflict, and Result. I keep these brief. For the Goal, it’s almost always nothing more than one of the following:

  • Yes (the goal is accomplished–this happens, but not all that often)
  • No (the goal is thwarted or postponed)
  • Yes, but… (the goal is accomplished, but a complication deepens the situation)
  • No, and furthermore… (not only is the goal not accomplished, but a further setback or new problem is encountered)

Scenes need to flow, usually with internal reactions logically ordered.

Scenes are usually separated by a reaction scene, sometimes referred to as a sequel. The sequel can lead directly to the beginning of the next scene. It is not an action sequence. It is internal. It can include all or some of the following: emotional reaction, rational thought, a decision or plan, leading to some action. The sequel can be long or short (or even fully implied). Some great stories spend quite a bit of time here in the character’s head. Other great stories move quickly to the next scene. In general, to the extent one or more of the elements of a reaction scene or sequel are expressed, I try to present in the order listed, beginning with the gut reaction and moving toward the rational. The decision and action can lead directly into the next scene.

I don’t necessarily follow the structure rigidly, but it’s helpful to have a structure in mind.

This is merely an overview. There are entire books about writing scenes. Like many “rules” of style, I believe one should (a) know it, (b) generally follow it, and (c) break from it when there is a reason for doing so that serves your story. Also, like many rules of style, I think many storytellers do the whole scene-structure thing intuitively without ever having analyzed it. After all, writers are telling stories. It tough to tell a compelling story without conflict. It’s hard to have conflict without an implicit (or explicit) goal. In reacting, emotion hits first, then thought, then plan.

Scenes help build the story one step at a time.

The point is, when I have a limited time to write, I focus on drafting a scene. It can take anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. I select a point of view, which is often the protagonist. I review the most recently written scene in the story (or if I’m switching POV, I look also to the last scene from the same POV). If it’s a sequel, I consider the new action plan it dictates. If it’s an action scene, I consider where the next scene might go, and first build a sequel to glue it together. Then I consider what accomplishments and/or setbacks make sense at this part of the story. I select the setting and characters for the scene. I place fingers to keyboard and see if it flows. Sometimes it does. (If it doesn’t, I turn to other strategies and alternatives, which we can discuss later.)

That is my general plan. Life’s distractions don’t always cooperate (nor should they). But when a window of time presents itself, I take the opportunity to write a scene. I don’t have to knock off the entire project in one sitting. If I can write a scene a day, I will have a first draft done in three or four months, depending on how many scenes I discard and the overall length of the story (100 scenes is a fairly full story, and some novels have 60 scenes or less). If I write in spurts, then things go much faster.

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