How I Write a Scene

When I write my novels, I have them all planned out somewhat thoroughly. I have my cast of characters, the plot they follow, the beats the scenes need to hit (I’ll explain that later), and the “plot cards” I created for this part of the story. These contain what the current chapter will be about. Some points, I work out more, some less, depending on whether I need clarification for something, or if I can make do with a one-liner as a guideline. Here’s an example of a very short card:

Here’s one with a little more detail:

And here we got one where I’m a bit more specific, because I want certain things to be in the scene for later, because it explains an important detail, or because there’s foreshadowing for something down the line:

When that step is done, and I get to the drafting stage, I look at the cards and the next phase starts. Suddenly, “what’s it about” isn’t enough anymore. I need a good idea what I want to happen in the scene, and it has to work in the bigger picture of the story, so now things like pacing come into play, too. I just had a slow build-up. Now there has to be something important to happen. That could be a chase, a fight, a dialogue, or rushing down the stairs at the station to catch that vital train.

That means each scene has to have a purpose. “Showing this or that side of the character” would work for certain genres but not others, and sometimes, just showing the character doing nothing isn’t enough, either. I don’t want to step on any landmines here; there surely are genres where just that is an integral part of the work, so I’ll not go deeper into it. I, however, write Sci-Fi with a tinge of Fantasy. It’s an overarching universe with standalone novels. Showing a character doing nothing but navel gazing “to show the decision process” would be deadly, so I have to make the correct decisions: What do I want to show, what to tell? This depends on the type of beat I’m trying to hit here. Am I in the first act, where things lead to the character going on an adventure? Is it the first half of act 2, where things get better/worse, to culminate in the midpoint, only to go the other way on the second half? These are macro-considerations that influence the story on the micro-level. And it’s not all. Tension rises and falls, the story speeds up and slows. If it’s dialled to eleven all the time, then there’s a flat curve, and no tension at all. The reader will be tired after only a few pages and wonder what just happened. That’s when I look at the outline (my kanban) and think about the ebb and flow I want to establish.

Then comes the structure. It’s general wisdom that a scene has to have things like a goal, a dilemma etc, and that there are two kinds of scenes, “scene” and “sequel”. I’m breaking this rule every time I design a scene.

What I want to do is

1) Intro (establish the Where and the Who, sometimes the When),

2) build-up,

3) climax. Sometimes I cut it here and go to the next scene, sometimes I write a short

4) lead out (a “sequel”, if you will), and sometimes, I put the winding down of tension right there.

This depends on several factors. Big, flashy scenes sometimes have their own “intro scene”, in which I show the character going through their plans, getting their things in order and preparing themselves; sometimes, the character is literally “getting there” in the spatial sense. These “intro scenes” have to be short, else they tank the pacing of the story.

What I need to know before I write is: Who wants to achieve what in this scene, what obstacles are there to overcome, and are there consequences? Not always does a fight have to end with the protagonist getting shot and limping for the rest of the story, but it can make sense to tone down a character like this. I did it with Daniel in Emergent, before he could become too overwhelming to handle. I have characters die in Synthesis, to show that the antagonists are not fucking around.

Not every scene needs an intro or an outro, either. Some scenes are best shown in medias res. The same rule that applies for a book as a complete work is also valid for each individual scene. Start late, finish early. In my first drafts, that means I need some sort of hook to start with, that includes information on the whereabouts and the POV character.

In the edits, I sometimes kick out whole passages, even paragraphs, and I cut scenes in half or remove them entirely, but during my drafting process, this isn’t important. What happens at the start? What’s the goal, what the problem? How does it end, and what does it mean for the plot from here on?

Every scene needs to end with either a proper conclusion, to give the reader time to digest, or the first step in the direction the story will go. The character leaves the room. The character gains an insight that informs their next action.

I’ll show you the “starting image” of Pendulum to explain at every step what I did and why I did it. This was my first novel, written before Emergent, and it’s free to read on this blog.

This passage here sets the scene. It has a hook, to make the reader want to know more. A sandstorm in Dublin? That’s odd.

Here’s a small piece of characterization past the tone of voice of this scene, which is rough and obscene by design. It shows how the protagonist deals with adverse weather conditions.

The goal of this scene from MY side is to introduce the setting and the protagonist. The problem in this scene isn’t a grand conflict, it’s just my character with her peers, and her enduring the sandstorm while waiting for her transport shuttle.

This next part would be her overcoming the conflict/the problem getting solved. It’s not a conflict in this case. Her back-and-forth with the lurikeen is part of the characterisation effort, so there’s no antagonist in the flesh, and the problem (“waiting in shitty weather”) will be solved by simply “getting into the shuttle”, but it’s important to note that all these components are in place. Intro, conflict, solution, outro.

Then follows the end of the scene, which shows Deirdre taking her first step into a new stage of her life, something she has worked for and is looking forward to. It’s meant to build anticipation for “what comes next”.

That’s it, basically. I make a list of these important milestones in the scene to come and let it play out while writing. From time to time, my characters don’t go along with it. If they have their own idea of how to deal with an obstacle, then I’ll stay with them and see where it leads me.

What’s set in stone before I write? Role in the story, POV character, conflict, pacing.

What’s up for negotiation with my character? How they deal with the problem.

Deirdre decided to be silly, being there with her friend Maya, in some slight distress, and trying to hide her nervousness behind being goofy. It was Deirdre who dictated how the problem got solved. The next part of the plot is already planned, but if the way she solves this scene creates new, unforeseen complications, I can either embrace them, or try to find a way to make them not as impactful, or rewrite the thing by changing the initial conflict. Had she started a fight with the lurikeen, for example, things could have gone down a very different route, but she’s a “head and intuition” type of person, not a roughneck, or a trained combat expert, like Daniel in Emergent.

That’s how I write a scene.

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