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A Quick 5-Point Checklist for Writing a Scene

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Not everyone is a planner—I completely understand that. But . . . there’s something to be said about being intentional with the blank page that sits directly in front of us. Maybe we won’t map out our entire book, but when we carefully make decisions about a scene before writing it, we have the potential to make it richer, fuller, and accomplish more.

I've also realized having a written checklist for each of my book's scenes also comes in handy during the editing phase. I'm able to go back to my checklist and use it as a brief outline of the book. If I've forgotten the timeline in a certain spot, if I need to add a scene somewhere, or if I simply need to review what's in the scene without re-reading it, my scene-by-scene checklist becomes incredibly helpful.

Here are the things I plan out before writing a scene:

1. Time and Date:

I always put the time and date of the scene at the top of each checklist. It helps me keep track of the pacing of the story while I'm writing it so that I don't have half the book happening on one day and then rushing the rest of it.

It also helps me keep the timing of events realistic. Usually falling in love, character growth, and other plot events take time. From a glance at my checklists, I'm able to see that only two days have passed rather than two weeks (even though a lot has happened), and that my characters still need more time to get to know each other before falling in love or having their personal epiphanies.

2. POV (point of view):

The next thing I write down under time and date is whose POV I'm writing the scene in. I always ask myself these kinds of questions: Whose POV would have the greatest impact for the scene? Whose POV haven’t I used lately? Whose POV can best move the plot along?

By keeping track of POV, I can easily see at a glance that I've had four scenes in a row in the heroine's POV and that I've been neglecting the hero's POV. Or if I don't have enough reason to switch POV's, then I have to start asking myself, why? Am I not giving each of my main character's internal thoughts and character growth equal weight? Is one of their arc's weaker? If so, what can I do to balance that out better?

3. Setting:

After POV, I jot down where the setting of the scene takes place, sometimes with a brief description. Like POV, I try to alternate where I'm placing my characters as the scene unfolds.

While I often compare scene-writing to the a play unfolding on a stage, a theater production has a decided disadvantage in that it can't constantly change scenes. Even with the recent Sound of Music theatrical production starring Carrie Underwood, the stage settings were limited to four or five main places.

In our stories, however, we're not bound by financial or artistic constraints when deciding where to have our characters act out the scene. We can put them anywhere. We can add as much variety that we want. Rather than having half our scenes in the dining room or bedroom (yawn!), we can move them all over the place and make things interesting for our characters (and thus our readers).

4. Sensory Details:

Once I figure out my POV character along with the setting, then I try to think about what sights, smells, tastes, textures, and sounds can bring the scene alive? What other details can help set the mood of the scene? I try to make those things unique to the particular setting as well as to the POV character who is acting out the scene.

5. Scene Goals:

Finally, once I've established the scene basics, I move on to jotting a list of what story goals I hope to achieve in the scene.

We should be aiming to incorporate only those things into our stories that have a purpose, whether to move the plot along (related to the external, internal or romance plot), enhance our theme, build our characters, or foreshadow what’s to come.

As I sit down to do the actual writing, things often change, but the goals keep me on target. Whatever I don’t end up including in the scene, I circle so that I can try to remember to include those items later.

My Summary: The other advantage of writing by scenes is that it's an easy way to keep from being overwhelmed by the enormity of writing a book. I take each scene one at a time. And each scene is built on the previous so that slowly the book takes form. (See my recent Writes of Passage blog post: Working in Small Steps but Keeping Sight of the Big Picture.) In the end, one of my books is comprised of 50-60 scenes. But hopefully to a reader the book feels seamless.

How about you? Do you have any other tips for writing by scenes? Would you add anything to my above checklist?

19 comments:

  1. I make many notes and then look at them when I'm editing since it's too much while writing the rough draft. Great points to remember!

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    1. Hi Steven, I agree, while writing the first draft, there's SO much to keep track of. Having notes/checklist/outline to look back at when editing is very helpful for me, especially because I like to set aside my manuscript for a while before coming back to it to edit. So the checklist quickly helps re-orient me to the story.

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  2. I use a free application called yWriter5 which has all these setting available for each scene. It also has (which I love) a daily word count tool which comes in handy when doing NaNo

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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    1. I haven't heard of yWriter5, but now I'm really curious! I'll have to google it and and find out a little more about it! Thanks for sharing!

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  3. Ending each scene with some kind of suspense. It doesn't have to be 'hanging over a cliff' type of suspense but something to keep the reader interested and wanting to read the next scene, the next chapter, etc.

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    1. Hi Shelly, VERY good reminder! Yes, although I don't keep track of that in my checklist, I do try to open my scene with something grabbing (a hook) and then end the scene with some kind of impetus or momentum that will keep the reader wanting to turn the pages.

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  4. I really like this post, and I'm bookmarking it so that I can keep it in mind as I revise my manuscript. I especially like your time and date idea; in my rough draft, I realized that I had lost track of time and wasn't always sure what month it was in the story.

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    1. I totally lose track of time too, especially in some of my stories where months are passing. Having the easy to see checklist has totally been a lifesaver during edits, having saved me from trying to figure everything out again!

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  5. Great suggestions! I will put them to good use. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Darlene! So glad the post is helpful! Thank you for tweeting about my recent posts! :-)

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  6. These are great tips Jody and are pretty much identical to the strps I take although, I tend to make these notes insitu and the notes themselves become the scene.

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  7. I think you've got the most important details covered. I use the Corkboard feature of Scrivener, plus color-coding, to include the who, where, when, and what of each scene.

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  8. Thank you, Jody! These are excellent points to remember . . . you always give such useful tips! :)

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  10. Great tips! Thanks for sharing.

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  11. This is brilliant! I'm not a planner at all, but this would really help me! I'm pinning to use when I start my nanowrimo novel!

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