How I Write A Scene

I’m currently about one third through my first draft of Prophecy, my second thriller novel. Given that we are all on a journey and I expect to be doing this in many years time, I also use this blog as a kind of journal – so I can see where I have come from and how far I’m getting. We all write differently so I hope you find this useful. (Text below the video for those who like to read).

Right now, I write a scene like this:

  • Decide on basic idea for scene – 1 liner. For example, my protagonist Morgan is kidnapped by the bad guys. I start to think about this and what will happen as well as the point of the scene. In this scene, stakes will go up a notch, the reader will want to know what happens next. I can also show character traits of the antagonist as well as Morgan’s ARKANE partner Jake in planning the rescue. In other scenes, I can demonstrate what a kick-ass heroine Morgan is and of course, move the story forward (why kidnap her in the first place?)
  • Decide on great setting which is hugely important for thrillers. I need big locations and I want cinematic style writing which requires a venue. I am also a travel addict so I like to incorporate places I’ve been. Last month I was in Paris and there is a room in the Louvre that is perfect and I also have the perfect location for where Morgan is taken afterwards (which is another scene).
  • Composting. I literally daydream about the scene and write down little ideas. I usually have 3-4 scenes percolating at any one time, mulching down into something interesting until I really need to get it out. My day job is crazy right now so I am not writing every day, just in bigger chunks.
  • Decide on whose point of view it will be written from. In thrillers, it’s most common to use multiple third person POV so I tend to pick a different character and tell it from their angle. I have to switch the ideas around until I am happy with who is seeing the scene.
  • Sit down to write 2000 words at least in one session. I seem to be writing in scene-length blocks right now and for me, that’s around 2000 words. I have a general plan of about 30 scenes for Prophecy but these are added to as I write and come up with new ideas – so I am part plotter, part pantser/discovery writer at the moment. I will end up with 40-50 scenes in the finished book. I am using Scrivener on my Mac to write and although I am now in England, it’s summer so I am listening to Rain on my iPod (yes, it’s just the noise of rain!). 2000 words is currently taking me about 2-3 hours because of the next point.
  • Adding in details as I write. While writing Pentecost, I spent so much time redrafting as I didn’t add enough detail in the first pass through. I don’t want to do 7 drafts this time. I would rather to 3-4, so I want to add more detail on the first pass. I also had feedback that some people found Pentecost too fast-paced. Now I love fast-paced, but I can see some scenes needed a little more description/padding or more dialogue. So I am trying to weave that in at first draft. I may go back to using Write Or Die for messy first draft writing if I get stuck but for now, this pace is suiting me. I find details through Google for detail e.g. the Louvre website for plans and detail of the statues in the room I am using for setting. I also use Flickr.com for imagery that help me with description e.g. you want an original word to describe the colour green. Go to Flickr.com and put in ‘green’ and describe what comes up.
  • End with a page-turner. Forgive me, I’m a genre writer. I need to keep the reader up all night. I want you to miss your favorite TV program because you’re reading my book. I want you to race through it! So I end the scene with some sense of urgency to turn the page, a new hook.
  • Come up with idea for the next scene. Once I have written one scene, I know what the next one will be. It’s a form of discovery writing I guess. So as long as I have 10-15 big scene ideas, they will in turn spawn more scenes each. So I always have scenes percolating.
  • Save, back up. Scrivener backs everything up but it will also compile a version you can export as a .doc. I chronically back up everything :) I have an external hard drive, but I also have cloud storage and I email my WIP to myself on gmail so I always have the latest copy. I still get emails from people who lose their work – seriously guys, please save and back up everything you do! (For the blog, I use BackUpBuddy wordpress plugin)

I’m not reading my work at the moment, just writing it. So I won’t look at these scenes again until the first draft is finished. I’m aiming for 80,000 words for first draft… I’m getting there!

If the penny hasn’t dropped about writing scenes yet, I recommend Larry Brooks Story Engineering – check out our interview here.

How do you write scenes? Please let me know in the comments. I love to learn new techniques.

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Comments

  1. Andy Van Loenen says

    Interesting, Joanna. Like you, I know my major plot points. The scenes just sort of come to me as I work. One thing I occasionally do is end a scene (or particularly a chapter) with one of my MCs in serious trouble, and then have the next scene/chapter be about someone else. I think it builds a sense of urgency in readers. Of course, you should be kind and get them back to your MC fairly soon.

    Great job and great video, Joanna.

    All the best.

    • says

      Thanks Andy – I do the same thing too – leave one character in the lurch and then cut to the other – I’m writing a series of scenes in Paris with that exact aspect at the moment.

  2. says

    I always love to see how other people approach their scenes! For me, I see it play out like a mini movie in my head, and I write down what everyone says, describe the “set”, etc. Then when I’ve captured it, I can go through and move people around, change their lines, etc. I re-read the scene and then decide if a “re-shoot” is in order.

    • says

      ooh, that’s fun – can you change the angle of shooting in your head too?
      This kind of reminds me of Temple Grandin (and I am not implying you’re autistic in any way) but she can design and troubleshoot equipment in her head – so that it performs in real life as it did in her head – extraordinary visualisation skills.

      • says

        You can, yes! Sir Alfred Hitchcock used to shoot an entire film in his head, which is why there was so little “spare” film left on the cutting room floor – he only shot what he needed!

  3. says

    It’s fascinating to discover how other writers come up with their scenes. Through practice, we each find what works for us. I’m definitely a plotter – not a discovery writer. For me, the magic lies in the post-it-plotting.

  4. says

    I do the same thing — I underwrite scenes and need later to go back and add detail.

    I let myself do this, though. If the scene is sparse, so be it. The main thing is to get the gist out.

    This means more re-writes, but I don’t mind that so much, as long as I’m writing the scene rather than changing up sentence structure. Nothing is more boring that editing a text without adding to it.

    – Eric

  5. says

    Joanna,

    Great info, as always. Seems the best point is the hardest: Just get the scene on paper (or screen), then go back & fill in details. My dilemma is always the same. How much is too much?
    I tend to write a little more sparse. My wife has a friend who’s on her 6th novel. Very talented. She is known for descriptive writing. People talk about how they “could taste the food” & “feel the breeze.” It works famously for her, but I wonder if it’s more her voice than anything else. Does that make sense?
    You obviously want to ground your reader in the scene, but how do you strike that balance between what’s necessary & what’s obtrusive?
    Anyone have thoughts?
    Thanks,
    Brian

    • says

      That’s funny Brian – I had feedback on Pentecost that there wasn’t enough description – and then other people felt there was too much! You can’t please everyone, so I think just write what you like and see what happens. There are no rules!

  6. says

    Hi Joanna – I use Elizabeth George’s technique for crafting scenes (or what I deciphered from her book called Write Away). When I describe a scene, I have several headings: setting, narrator, timeline, basic outline, dramatic dominoes and open questions. I particularly like the concepts of dramatic dominoes – which scenes are causally connected to the one you are describing – and open questions – what questions do you leave the reader wondering about and, of course, turning the page to find the answers. I recently added one other heading for character development – specific bits of character development you want to emerge in that particular scene. I wrote about it on my blog if anyone wants more details :)

    • says

      I like dramatic dominoes Mary – great analogy. I must try to be more disciplined with those aspects of a scene. The timeline is easy with the thriller genre as it has to be a tight time frame and chapters are often posted with dates and times so we feel a sense of urgency.
      I just popped by your blog as well and added Cloister Walk to my Amazon list. It’s not on kindle though…. You might enjoy Karen Armstrong’s A Spiral Staircase as well.

      • says

        Tried Karen Armstrong’s book but got stuck in the depths of her depression. Perhaps I should have persevered!

        Maybe Kathleen Norris is waiting for someone to offer her a good deal on ebook rights.

    • says

      Hi Cathy,
      I’m not really writing enough to visit this topic much at the moment! I am also in the midst of constructing another blog aimed at my readers as opposed to writers – watch this space!

  7. says

    If you were writing a book on gardening, then you might be, as you say, “Composting.” I’m not sure that that term works here. However, this is a very minor gripe about one small part of one of the most interesting and useful blogs on the web. I don’t know how you do it all while also holding down a regular job, but keep up the good work.

    • says

      I love the composting analogy – my Mum is a gardener but not me. But I love the richness it evokes. The mixed ingredients that mulch down into something that grows new life :)

      Thanks so much – I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I really do enjoy sharing the journey and connecting with like-minded people. I was a lonely writer before I met you all online!

  8. says

    I’m glad to find someone else who backs up by emailing themselves on gmail. I do that too, as well as the external hard drive. And copy it to the USB drive attached to my house keys. (paranoid, paranoid)

    I wish Scrivener had an automatic Cloud backup like Evernote has. I was using Evernote + Word, but switched into Scrivener when moving all the scenes around became a nightmare. My timeline is very compressed and takes place in two locations, so it needs a lot of tweaking to get it just right, and Scrivener is EXCELLENT for that!

    I’m encouraged to hear that you’ve decided that this time you’d rather write in more detail as you go, as it’s what I tend to do naturally but is the opposite of what John Locke recommends, so I’d been wondering about that very issue for my second novel… We all work in different ways I guess. My first draft was finished yesterday at 107,000 words (goal 85,000), and now I’m going to let it rest a few weeks before I start to edit and tighten.

    • says

      I think Scrivener may do that at some point – they were Mac first and when Apple Cloud storage comes in the next few months, maybe they will sort out an auto-synch.
      Re John Locke – I have also been reading Laurence Block Afterthoughts – another man who seems to write a book in a week. Amazing. But we are all different people…

      Congrats on finishing first draft – that is a great length as well – now to editing?!

      • says

        Ooh, I didn’t know you could get Scrivener for Windows. I’m on Mac but have a cheap little netbook I use when I travel, and the cross-platform thingy was another reason I was previously using Evernote+Word. I just googled Scrivener for Windows, and I might check out that beta.

        I might also check out Dropbox too as mentioned by Graham Strong below. I’ll obviously have to check on those reservations you have about it, too. I’d like to find something that’s always synching whenever I’m connected. My current offsite backup via gmail only happens once a day. If I’m on a roll, that can be as much as 4,000 words!! (or only 200 ;-) )

        Thanks again for sharing your process Jo, especially the things you’ve learned between Book 1 and Book 2. It’s really helpful for me. As for editing, that’s a problem for another day… :-)

        • says

          Hi Belinda,

          I am just about finished a post on using Scrivener (for windows) and Drop box with Scrivener.

          Check it out. If you get a referral from someone with Dropbox (like myself) we BOTH get extra space for free. I have tweeted the link to that this morning on Twitter.

          Dropbox is great it updates every few seconds. I even save PDF saves of Scrivener to that. Very handy for me.

          anyway have a look at the post this morning (when i post it) I hope to get up a few pictures into it as well.

          Happy writing!

          Sarah

  9. says

    Fantastic post, I can relate to a lot of things you discuss, particularly the part about having to buff up the information for the reader a bit. I’m still currently writing the first draft of my book, but I know for a fact that I haven’t expanded enough on some of my scenes.
    So far I think I’ve assumed that my reader will pick up on things because my first book is basically aimed at a niche audience. But still I think I should explain things more clearly just in case somebody not too familiar with the subject matter can get what’s actually going on.

    My main focus right now though is just to get every scene down so then I at least have something to work with. I’m basically doing it as John Locke explained in your recent interview with him.

    By the way Joe, do you split up each scene into different chapters; or do you sometimes have a chapter with more than one scene taking place? I find it easier to split each scene into chapters at the moment, as I like you have multiple characters, and therefore it’s easier to split into chapters to focus on their different perspectives.

    • says

      Hi Gary – I am doing a scene per chapter at the moment – some chapters are very short. Some authors have larger time blocks with scenes marked by other means that chapters. I had 40+ chapters in Pentecost and probably the same for Prophecy. I think more, shorter scenes speeds up the story – which is what I am aiming for.

  10. says

    Great post. I normally draw a mindmap of a scene because this allows me to explore every possibility and it helps me think more creatively. Often I will take a part of the mindmap and use that to start a new one.

    One day I am planning on having a study with about three large whiteboards on the wall (interactive ones if I can afford them) and I can draw mindmaps on the whiteboards as I write the scenes. The advantage of interactive whiteboards is you can record it all and store it on the pc – I know you can photograph and store ordinary whiteboard stuff but it’s not the same. I used to be a teacher which is why like interactive whiteboards. :)

    • says

      I use a lot of mindmaps as well Christopher – you could also try the Smartpen which saves as a digital image as you draw. I also take pics of my mindmaps…. they are a great tool.

  11. says

    Great post,

    I try write scene by scene as well, using the fantastic software by Scrivener. I love scrivener. (Probably mentioned that before though.)

    I do my one liner about the scene in Scrivener’s ‘Synopsis’ area, then a quick plot outline in the ‘Document Notes’ section. Then when I am happy with the brief outline I write the scene.

    As for the ‘detail as you go’ As Belinda Pollard says above there is a lot of people that say “add the details later” I find that if I leave the details they are much harder to put in later, don’t feel as natural or worse muck up plot details entirely. The only time i feel happy leaving the details a bit ‘rare’ is when i know what has to go in and i just don’t have the words to do it justice yet. I can’t leave holes that I have no idea how to fill.

    Can’t wait to read the next book in your series, I enjoyed the first one!

    Sarah

    • says

      Thanks Sarah – I am enjoying Scrivener as well and have a lot of scenes with no text in at the moment. I am leaving some description blank if I really need to do some research, or a character pops in but I haven’t thought deeply enough about them yet.

      • says

        I did masses of research on a trip to my location in NZ wilderness (police, emergency services, terrain, flora and fauna etc), but because I seem to write by Discovery (otherwise known as let-those-cheeky-little-characters-make-it-up-as-they-go-along) I keep finding questions I didn’t ask. This was holding me back, big time. How many staff at that police station? Coroner or pathologist or some other title, and which city are they in, and how long does a helicopter take to get there? How long can a diabetic survive without insulin? But then I decided to just write, and go back and check those annoying details at editing stage, and the book just poured out of me. A couple of years to write 40,000 words. Then 67,000 in less than three months!

        Is this a good system? Editing-time will tell… *cringes under desk*

          • says

            Thanks Joanna. That’s a good point. This is my first novel, and I keep defaulting to the methods I’ve always used for non-fiction writing. Nothing wrong with good research of course, but it’s just insecurity that makes me cling to it too hard. I’ll get bolder with practice. But it actually is true this time that I should “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”. ;-)

        • says

          Hey Belinda,

          I’m actually a kiwi so let me know if i can help.

          Also insulin time will depend on the type of diabetic (type I and type II) , stress, food and water consumption and luck :-) Everyone is different, but i’m sure you figured all that stuff out by now.

          You have to let those characters make something up as they go along, I agree.

          good luck

          sarah

          • says

            Hi Sarah, that would be fantastic to get some help with that. I’ll DM you on Twitter rather than hijack Joanna’s blog with all the things I’d like to ask you.

            But I guess that’s the test of a good blog post! Generates lots of discussion! :-)

  12. says

    Hi Joanna,

    It’s always great to hear how other writers write. I’m not sure why — perhaps it’s the thought that if you’re doing something the same way as a successful author, you’re on the path to success yourself.

    Anyway, I wanted to let you know about a little app I use to back up my work: Dropbox. It automatically backs up any files or folders you have in your Dropbox folder to their server — you can even install it on multiple computers so those files are available no matter which one you’re using. Best of all, there is a free option — I can’t remember the size, but something like 2GB, so plenty of room to back up a novel. Dropbox.com

    ~Graham

      • says

        Hi Joanna,

        Yes, understandably that would freak you out! I’m usually anti-Internet service too for that same reason. The difference here though (for me) is that this information is not readily usable — you can’t just search a database and take what information you want from it. The best example is Sony’s recent troubles — hackers will target names and credit card numbers, for obvious reasons.

        But saving content is different. You have to (a) target a person’s Dropbox account and (b) know what you’re looking for to really find anything worth finding. You could search 100,000 Dropbox accounts, and not find anything worth stealing.

        That being said, I don’t put anything ultra-sensitive anywhere on the web — including Dropbox. If someone wants to read a blog post I wrote on two different computers in Word three years ago, have at it…

        Worth mentioning too that Google tried to pull a similar thing with the ownership agreement a few years ago; I’m sure there have been many others. As far as I know, there has never been a court challenge in which Google or any other Internet company tried to assert ownership over any information, copyrighted or otherwise.

        I do remember a case where some ad agency was using Flickr photos and got caught — they backed down quite quickly and compensated the family, if I remember rightly. So there is always the risk of having to assert ownership after the fact, but when we’re talking one chance in millions, I’m not too worried.

        ~Graham

  13. says

    Also Joanna I forgot to ask you what software you use to write your manuscript? I’m using plain old Microsoft Word right now, but I would like to know the best software and formats to write in.

    I know HTML so I will be able to format my e-book version easily enough on my own. I’m just kind of worried about the actual physical book, which I am going to have made by print on demand.

  14. says

    To tell you the truth, I put a character (or two or three) in a setting and see what happens. Yes, I will need to rewrite. I write mysteries, and I think (hope) I can make my red herrings more believable by my not knowing who-done-it until late in the book on my first draft.

    • says

      That’s interesting – I listened to Tess Gerritsen a few weeks ago and she writes like that, not knowing who did it and guiding herself through making everything as hard as possible.

  15. says

    I am a dialogue person, so my scene plotting most often starts with an exchange between my characters. Plus, I jump around all over the place in my MS, so I often find that I may not even finish a whole scene at a time, but start or end 2 different ones – as I am also very much a discovery writer.
    I jot notes from time to time – mostly after I’ve gone for a long walk as that is when my mind really works over my story quite well, but I often don’t have the time to physically write down the scene that I wrote in my head – and, those notes are usually dialogue snippets.

    I love that you end with a page-turner. I am not a genre-writer, but I appreciate the hook as an occasional genre-reader! Collins did a wonderful job of this in her Hunger Games trilogy!

    Love that you share your process and love how many great links you pass along via Twitter!

  16. says

    Glad to see that you are still working on the novel. I myself tend to write differently in long hand than I do on the computer, so I do some of both. I’ll take a notebook and sit on the beach, writing in paper slows me down and keeps me moving in a straight line so to speak. On the keyboard I drift back and forth, scrolling through the chapter outlines until a scene calls to me and then writing until I am done with that scene, the I drift up and down the scroll bar again, back to the start, at the conclusion, wherever I find my fancy perching at the moment. But most of my story percolates in my mind away from writing, I teach and sleep and appear to not be writing all week, but the story is there, developing, and when I find myself at the keyboard I’ll write huge chunks with the whole book already there in my mind just waiting for the typing to catch me up.

    Still, you are one of the places I turn first, knowing that if I am not feeling like a writer, seeing your posts and those you link to, will remind me who I am and want to be.

    Dixie Goode
    Duffy Barkley is Not a Dog
    and
    Duffy Barkley: Seek Well

  17. says

    DEAR MS.PENN.I LOVE YOUR WEB SITE,I LISTENED TO YOUR VIDEO ON SCENE WRITING.I HAVE BEEN WRITING FOR 4 YEARS.I WRITE MYSTERIES.I HAVE OVER 200 PIECES WRITTEN.I LOVE WRITING AND HOPE TO PUBLISH MY FIRST BOOK IN 2012.I HAVE NOT READ YOUR FIRST BOOK BUT I WILL LOOK FOR IT.I LIVE IN CONNECTICUT AND IT MAY BE AVAILABLE.HOWEVER SOME OF MY SHORT MYSTERIES ARE FOR SALE.MY BEST REGARDS/RICH SATTANNI/AUTHOR

  18. says

    How I write scenes is probably going to be scary, since my writing process is a lot like throwing paint at the wall. I jump in where ever the scene catches my fancy and start writing. Then I bounce around because I just realized I want to put something above that will work better. Somewhere along the way I might think of a way to open the scene, so I’ll go ahead and add the opening. Or maybe I’ll realize that pieces of that scene need to come out of another scene (this happens a lot). After I mostly finish it, I’ll revisit it later on to add something else.

    Then it’s time for the shuffle! Scene gets moved to a new location. Then I put another scene in front of it. Then I move the scene again. And maybe one or two or ten more times (yes, it really is that bad!).

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