When I stumbled through my first manuscript eleven years ago, I didn’t know much about scenes. I didn’t know how to write a scene. I didn’t know much about writing a book, come to think of it, but the best way to learn is to just do it. (And, of course, read up on the subject at places like The How To Write Shop.)
Back then, I likely lacked specific scenes, with beginnings, middles, and ends. And conflicts. And maybe even identifiable points of view. I don’t know for sure because that manuscript was such a “learning experience” that I’ve blocked it out, never to lay eyes on it again. I hope. 🙂
So I’ve learned a few things since then. I know more about scenes. Like, for instance, your book should have them. I now think in terms of scenes because that’s what works for me. Some people think in chapters, or “acts,” or who knows what else, and that’s fine because when you’re writing, you have to, to an extent, do what works for you.
But no matter how you consider your book’s overall makeup, you do need scenes. You need to know how to write a scene. And you have to take it one scene at a time, whether you plan them all out before writing or just wing it as you write each one. As someone who plots only to the extent that I have a vague idea of the ending, the turning points, and a few highlights in between, I do my scene planning right before it’s time to write the first line of the scene. (Or sometimes I do it after I’ve written a few lines and it hits me I don’t know what the heck needs to happen in this scene.)
You know that little burst of panic when faced with a blinking cursor and you have no idea what comes next? Yeah. That’s when it dawns on me that I need to either make my scene plan or check it.
How to Write a Scene: My Method
A few years ago, I developed a method of loose scene planning that works for me. I used to use index cards when I tried to be more of a plotter and write with more of a plan. I’d list all the scenes I knew were coming, in a vague sentence if necessary, sometimes even as vague as “love scene.” Sometimes more specific, like, “heroine tells hero about her mother’s death.”
Now that I’ve (mostly) embraced the fact that plotting heavily doesn’t work for me, I do my vague planning in Scrivener, and if I have an idea for a scene, I jot it down and try to put it in chronological order (love the corkboard view in Scrivener).
While my overall process has evolved, planning the specifics of a scene has not. So here’s what I do when I’m staring at the blinking cursor and I have that realization that I have no earthly idea what I’m going to write.
How to Write a Scene: In 8 Easy Steps
1. Open a blank document or a new Scrivener file or grab an index card.
2. Write or type these headings:
3. Fill out the items I know first. But I’ll explain each one in order here. The first four are obvious. Who is in the scene, what happens in the scene (sometimes, when I don’t really know, this one turns into a ramble until I write my way around to the answer), where the scene takes place, and when it happens.
4. Next, 3 reasons. That’s 3 reasons for the scene to exist. Because every scene has to have a reason.
In fact, my personal rule is that every scene has to have 3 reasons. If I can’t come up with 3 reasons, then I need to re-evaluate. Sometimes that means combining scenes. Sometimes it means scrapping one. I’ll be the first to admit that some of my “reasons” are less important than others, but it works for me.
Reasons might be: to show character, to set-up X in the plot, to foreshadow, to deepen the conflict, to hint at something that will be revealed later, to let the reader in on Y, etc. And as a romance writer, my reasons can also include first kiss or love scene, etc. Sometimes I list “midpoint” or “dark moment” as a reason. Sometimes it’s a stretch, and often I have to add more than anticipated to the scene to give it three reasons. But, with few exceptions (the final scene, for example), I make sure I have 3 reasons in my head and on my scene planning document for every scene I write.
5. POV is whose point of view the scene is in, and if I know it needs to switch mid-scene, I note that.
6. Beginning is where I come up with the (hopefully) catchy line that starts the scene. This might just be me, but if I don’t have a sentence that interests me, then I can’t start the scene.
7. Summary is where I jot down things I need to include. The scene might be where the heroine tells the hero about her mother’s death, but if I need to have her wearing a certain necklace for some reason, I jot it here. And if I still don’t have a good feel for the flow of the scene, then I ramble some more in this spot and try to work my way through a synopsis of the single scene.
8. Ending is pretty obvious, but for someone like me who has to have that endpoint on the map in order to get there, it’s key that I think about this and write down what I want the very last line of the scene to be. Sometimes it comes out as a good scene-ending hook that I can transfer directly to the story, and sometimes it’s more of a sloppily thought-out vagueness, but as long as it’s an ending point for me to aim for, it does the trick.
That’s how to write a scene in eight steps. The blinking cursor is no longer so intimidating because I’ve already got my first line. And then notes on where the scene needs to go. I’ve already thought out whose point of view I need to be in. I know the setting and everything else. And then it’s time for the fun part…the putting the words together…the writing. 🙂
Looking for more on how to write a scene? Check Lori Devoti’s series on scenes at the How to Write Shop.
Amy Knupp is the author of 12 contemporary romance novels for Harlequin and 2 self-published short stories, as well as a freelance copy editor for Blue Otter Editing LLC. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, two sons, and five cats. She graduated from the University of Kansas with degrees in French and journalism and feels lucky to use very little of either one in her writing career. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, buying books in excess, traveling, breaking up cat fights, watching college basketball, and annoying her family by correcting their grammar.