Monday, November 22, 2010

Plotting the Scene

Whether you plot your book in advance or write by the seat of your pants, it’s a good idea to know the elements in a scene before you write it.

First, what is a scene?
According to Jack M. Bickham’s book Scene & Structure: “A scene is a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical.”

Mr. Bickham goes on to describe the pattern of a scene as:
1. Statement of goal
2. Introduction and development of conflict
3. Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

In other words, each scene takes place in real time—it’s not a memory, it’s not a character reflecting, and it’s not a summary of events that took place at another time.

Decisions to make before writing the scene
I think most writers have an internal sense of story whether they plot, write a brief outline, or completely wing it. However, to avoid missing key story points along the way, one thing that can help is to plot your scene in advance. I plot all of my scenes before writing them, but do what feels comfortable. You might find plotting a scene helpful when you’re stuck.

Answer the following questions for the scene you are plotting.1. Where does this scene take place?
2. What day and what time of day is it?
3. How long after the last scene does this take place?
4. Who is in this scene?
5. Which main character has the most to lose in this scene? This answer will decide whose viewpoint the scene is told in. For maximum tension, write from the viewpoint of who has the most to lose.
One of the popular “rules” of writing is to avoid head-hopping. This means that each scene will take place from one character’s point of view. Other characters may be in the scene, but the reader will be experiencing the action from the point-of-view character. It’s a personal call on your part if you choose to follow this. I prefer to write each scene from only one character’s point of view because it clarifies the scene for me.6. What is the mood of the viewpoint character?
7. What is the viewpoint character’s goal in this scene? (What does he want?)
8. What is the viewpoint character’s motivation? (Why does he want it?)
9. What is the viewpoint character’s conflict? (Why can’t he have it?)
10. How does this scene affect the character—what is his growth?

When you answer these questions, you’re ready to write your scene. Remember to include the setting details (who, where, when) at the beginning of the scene, and state the scene goal early. Unless the scene takes place immediately after the previous one, the reader won’t know three days have passed and the character is now in a deli unless these details are clarified up front.

Getting tripped up on the character’s goal? It can be as simple as Jim wants to buy a cup of coffee. His motivation? He needs caffeine to think straight. His conflict? Before he enters the coffee shop, his mother bumps into him.

If you review the Jack M. Bickham’s scene essentials from above, you’ll see this fulfills the criteria.
Scene goal: Jim wants a cup of coffee
Introduction and development of conflict: His mother bumps into him, preventing him from entering the coffee shop.
Failure to reach goal: He does not get the coffee.

Obviously, to keep the reader interested, you would want this meeting to increase Jim’s conflict and allow him to grow in some way. If this is just a nice meeting between mother and son, it probably does not belong in your book.

If you try this and find it helpful, you might want to record your scene outlines in a spreadsheet. I use Microsoft Excel with the following columns.

Scene POV Setting POV character’s GMC Character’s Mood Char. Development Growth Chapter Notes

This allows you to keep track of how many scenes are in your book, how often each character’s viewpoint is being used, if you’ve overused a setting location, if each scene has a clear goal, the reason for the goal, and a failure to meet that goal, the character growth and if you’ve missed any loose threads, and how many scenes are in each chapter. It also allows a place to jot key details in the notes section.

Whether you’re stuck and only plot one scene or you use this as a tool to plot all of your scenes, I hope this serves to enrich your writing and move your story along.

This article is available on the articles page of my website, Jill Kemerer, and it is linked on the side of my blog.

Join me on Wednesday when we return to our discussion of plateaus.


  1. Great pointers, Jill! I tend to have a high-level idea of the scene and let it develop as I write. I'm a big plotter, so this is one way to let the pantser side of me out. :)

  2. Another informative post Jill! I tend to want to get writing instead of planning but, like many things in life, a good plan results in success.

  3. Excellent article, Jill! I'm forwarding it to my friend who is working on his first novel.

  4. Thanks for the great information, Jill. After several major rewrites, I've learned the value of plotting my scenes before I write them. Answering those questions helps ensure that each scene deserves to be in the story.

  5. Oh how I wish I could be to this point in my writing! Your organization skills have paid off! Trying:)

  6. I just finished my synopsis, but this was great advice.

  7. Great insights on scenes. I have found these points to be true too - I'm looking forward to your advice on plateaus!!! :)

  8. There are places in books where a charcter gets what they want, for a time at least. And also, usually at the end of the book. But these things they get would still have to be part of a scene.
    Other than that, the whole process sounds like a good way to do things.

  9. I'd like to wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful for all of the good tips and help you give to your readers.

  10. Sarah: I find so many things out when I'm writing! If I knew everything before, it wouldn't be as fun. :)

    Lynn: Sometimes it's freeing to just open a page and see what happens!

    Rosslyn: Welcome! Thank you for passing it on--hope it's helpful!

    Keli: I love plotting. It's my map--no meandering through the woods!

    Terri: I think we all try on different writing methods until we find the one that fits. :)

    Patti: Congrats on finishing the synopsis! Celebrate!

    Jaime: Yay! Another plotter!

    Nancy: Oh, definitely! I've found that by writing in two points of view--the hero and heroine (I write romance)--I can make sure the person who gets what he/she wants isn't the viewpoint character!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  11. I might have to try this Excel spreadsheet thing some time :) I really like having an idea of what my scene is going to be about before I begin and make sure there's a point in having it and it moves the plot forward. Thanks for the post!

  12. Great info thanks Jill.

    I love to map out my work, but I do it as I write cause it changes such a lot. I have very very brief plans before writing and go from there.

  13. I am horrible at writing down plots and/or scenes ahead of time. I am a panster. But, while I am writing one scene the next two have been written in my head with regard to what is going to happen next and from which POV so I know where I am going. I've never done well with writing it out ahead of time, just mentally tracking it.

  14. Awesome article, Jill! I need to be more intentional with each scene as I write. These are great tips.

  15. Cindy: I'm going to play around with OneNote too. It looks like a great tool!

    Tabitha: Sounds like you know your process!

    Amy: I love hearing from non-plotters. It's amazing how much we can keep together in our brain, don't you think? :)

    Heather: You're welcome! And I think most writers have a natural instinct to write effective scenes.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

  16. I have to tell you between last week and this post, you have become an ace at writing tutorials! I LOVE these posts! Thank you for your wisdom!!!!!

  17. Jill,that makes so much sense. I am glad you cleared that up. I have heard the technique before, but I just couldn't understand how it would work. Thanks again for great help.


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