Confessions of a Devoted Scene Writer

by Jenny Hansen

Earlier this week, Karen DeBonis did a post here at WITS about finding your writing process. In the comments, I confessed that finding mine to a long (LONG) time. I’ve tried a gajillion tools in my quest to get a book off the ground and finished. Fast Draft, W-Plot, Snowflake Method and I have a confession to make: They all helped me be a better writer, but none of them got me to “The End.”

The only thing I’ve found that can get me to the end of a story is to embrace my inner scene writer and let her lead the way. This post describes what that actually means.

What is a scene?

First, you have to understand what a scene really is. I love how Margaret Dilloway says it in her amazing post, How to Outline a Novel: 60 Index Cards Method. She explains it like this:

Each scene is an event that changes the character’s situation in a meaningful way.

  • Every scene needs something to happen.
  • Each scene produces a change achieved through conflict.
  • Each scene shows how the character responds under pressure.

If the scene does not meet these criteria, take it out.

Note: I love my plotting and pantsing pals equally! The linked article above explains how Dilloway outlines using a 60 scene method. There is wiggle room in the number – think 60 to 100.

What does it mean to be a “scene writer?”

All those cool linear “big picture” methods I mentioned above aren’t forgiving enough to help me finish books. My busy brain says, “Ooooh…GLITTER!” And I’m off doing something else, instead of writing those 60 scenes that make up a book.

Basically “confessions of a scene writer” and “the angst of a slightly ADD writer” aren’t very far apart.

The only thing that gets me to “The End” is putting my butt in the chair and writing one scene at a time. The scenes don’t even have to be in order, they just have to be finite. If I don’t stay completely immersed in the moment and the scene, it’s an open door for “Ooooh…GLITTER!” That’s the way busy noggins like mine work.

Most scene writers make a list of all the things we know, create a loose structure, and then write to it. Writing a book this way is a little bit like a to-do list. I didn’t really know how to describe my writing process until one of my crafty relatives said, “Hey, you’re a story quilter!” It turns out, she was right. Each scene is a piece of the pattern and it all gets stitched together later.

It was Diana Gabaldon would shined light on scene writing as a possible writing method.

I read some articles about Gabaldon and how she wrote the Outlander series. She sees the story as a movie and re-constructs that movie in her head, scene by scene, until everything is on paper. Then she shuffles them all together into the books we know and love. While I won’t pretend to be anywhere near Gabaldon’s league, we both do books in short little pieces. Perhaps it has to do with being a busy mom.

When I read about Gabaldon, a light went on in my head. I finally accepted the truth.

I’m a scene writer. 

I stopped trying to write from beginning to end like all my friends. Some of us are “story quilters” and that’s the way we’re made. The very thought of it gives my organized linear pals hives.

My scene-writing process in a nutshell

1. Like many writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene to get it out of my head and onto the page. I keep writing until all the initial scenes are out of my head. Usually there are between 5-10 scenes that come with the initial idea.

2. Near the beginning of the process, I bat some ‘what if’s’ around with my writing peeps and decide on the overriding theme for the book and the internal and external conflicts for the main characters. I might be wrong, but it gives me a place to start.

3. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. At the very least, I take time with my critique group to discuss what I think the turning points are to see if I’m remotely on target and if it all sounds believable.

4. I make a list of all the scenes I know and I write whatever I can see clearly, until they’re all done. If I get stuck, I just go down the scene list. If I get really stuck, Margie Lawson gave me the brilliant idea of writing scene prompts down on slips of paper and picking the day’s scene out of a hat. She’s so smart.

In my old life (that’s the life of creating unfinished stories that taunt me) whenever I’d get stuck, I’d stop. I’d stare at the page, clean my kitchen drawers, come back to the page and stare some more. Sometimes there was crying. Almost always, after a few weeks, I’d give up and start another story.

Now I just pick a new scene and write it and the pantser half of my brain works the problems out. Most important, this method lets me keep writing. That immersion is what keeps most writers engaged with their story.

5. When I’m deep in story mode, I try to write at least five days a week as it keeps my brain open to receiving new scenes. When I let more than a week go by without visiting my story, I start to lose focus.

6. I use a timer. My deal with myself is I have to do at least 30 minutes of work on my fiction for those 5 days a week. While it doesn’t sound like a lot, it really makes a difference. If I’m digging it that day, I go way longer than 30 minutes. If I’m not digging it that day, I know “I only have to do this crap for 30 minutes.”

Must-Haves for the “scene writing” approach

You don’t have to have every one of these mastered, but it really, really helps if you at least have the first one. I use them all, especially in the editing process.

You must have a good grasp of 3-Act Structure.

Otherwise you end up with a pile of scenes, or “story blocks,” you can’t use. It also helps to know the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey. Here’s a great link I’ve found on the hero’s journey. I work with 3-Act structure because I can keep track of it better in my head.

Two words – Conflict Lock.

If you don’t have a conflict lock, you don’t have a story. So says Bob Mayer, author of Warrior Writer and co-founder of Cool Gus Publishing. Here’s a blog from Shannon Curtis to tell you more.

Scene-dissecting tools like Margie Lawson’s EDITS system.

If you don’t have tools like the ones Margie teaches you, it’s difficult to figure out where you missed with a scene, especially if you’re a pantser. Invest in yourself with classes or lecture packets from Lawson Writers Academy…you’ll be glad you did.

Understand your story’s DNA (theme) before you get too far.

I think hard about theme pretty early in my process for an important reason. If you have a strong visual of your story’s underlying message, you automatically write to it. That story DNA will inform every scene choice you make because it has to. John August, the screenwriter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, says it much better than I do in this post.

Pros and Cons of Scene Writing

And yes, these are all going to be completely subjective. However, if you’re on the fence about your process, I thought it might be helpful to see why you might like or dislike this writing method.

The advantages

  1. I never get writer’s block. There’s always another scene to write or edit.
  2. I’m able to write fast and stay immersed, because it’s “only one scene.”
  3. Scrivener allows me to store scenes separately and move them around.
  4. The story theme is naturally interwoven when you write this way.
  5. I’m able to move between fiction and non-fiction pretty easily.

The disadvantages

  1. I need objective eyes to tell me when the story is “really done.”
  2. Continuity edits are a must for long works – I need to know that all the loose ends got tied up.
  3. Scene transitions bug the crap out of me (and I’m pretty sure I’m terrible at them). The story quilting method gets stitched together with those transitions, so if you’re not good at them, run the work by other writers or an editor.

Final Thoughts

I need to take a moment and reiterate something. Like underpants, process is personal. You’ll find out what fits you best by trying it on for size.

I’m only sharing my process here because several of our commenters asked me to. At the end of the day, the only writing process you have to care about it is your own, and the only writing process you need to embrace is the one that allows you to finish your stories.

Where are you at in your “process journey?” Do you have a method that resonates with you? What do you do when you get stuck? Pleas

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