I’d finally figured out a long summary / synopsis of my story. I felt like I had it all figured out. I started to write, then I got stuck.
It turned out that my outline explained what was happening well, but I had not worked out how to tell that story solely through dramatic scenes. There were some scene ideas that had sprung into my head fully-formed, and that was great, but often the outline gave more general explanations of why things were happening, or statements like “G & B meet and are attracted. It is very romantic.”
These statements are functional in an outline, but then I sit down to write and think – what on earth are they going to do? I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t want it to be this:
My latest task has been to convert the first half of my outline for book 1 into specific scenes, each allocated to a POV character, and so I have been giving some thought to this process.
What does a scene involve?
The difference between a clear scene and mere outlining of your plot is that a scene involves specific things visualised in a specific place, so that you could theoretically pick up a camera and film a scene, and you’d know where and what you were filming.
It is the how, what, where, and why of a moment unfolding in time. It is the difference between ‘A & B meet’ (outline), ‘A and B meet at an art gallery’ (the hint of a scene but still pretty much just outline), and ‘A is displaying her art at an avant-garde gallery opening in her last chance to get a break before she’s broke. She finally get a patron, and also meets B, who is posing as a work of ‘street art’ to get free canapés’ (scene).
Scenes have to accomplish more than be specific:
- to be justified, they have to also involve a change that impacts the plot (if you write genre fiction, you will be advised to cut any scene which does not have this quality);
- to be dramatic, they have to have stakes for the main character and involve a change that advantages or disadvantages the character;
- they immerse you in the experience of being there by involving most of the five senses of the POV character and being limited to that character’s viewpoint and knowledge;
- a mood / tone for the reader (eg. funny, scary, romantic, melancholy, exciting, eerie etc.);
- they have a setting (time and place, sense of space, lighting, temperature, cultural context, significance to POV character); and
- your characters arrive at the scene in a particular mood, in a particular state of physical health, wearing particular clothes, and with particular objectives (for their day/life, not because they realise they are in a scene, obviously).
Devising scenes to work together
It gets more complicated. When you end up telling these scenes in order together, you want them to vary dramatically, visually, emotionally etc. If you have some breathless action scenes, you’ll want to intersperse them with some scenes for everyone to catch their breath. Your characters should have reversals of fortune – mix up the scenes where things go well and things go badly. If you have multiple POV characters you want to make sure all of them stay in the story, that the timelines for their scenes make sense and fit together – that is to say, you’ll want to think about continuity.
You’ll probably want to include some early scenes that foreshadow later scenes so that your story builds in a purposeful way. Hopefully your outline gave some thought to the general structure, but likely there’ll be some gaps, particularly in terms of what specifically happens to advance the subplots.
I first sketched my scenes on Scrivener (which has recently been upgraded and now allows you to arrange your virtual index cards along different plot lines – I have done 3, one for each of my POV characters):
Each of these ‘cards’ has a more detailed scene or notes attached to it. I had a number of false starts where I developed some subplots that turned out to be overly complicated to illustrate some minor points. I have a ‘plot heavy’ story where I’m trying to advance the stories of three main characters, so I needed to make sure that most of my scenes did double or triple duty. I had to abandon some scene ideas which merely advanced a single aspect of the story.
I chucked down ideas I had for scenes which sounded interesting. Then to devise the remaining scenes, I jotted down what situation the characters were at the start of this section of the story, and then what situation they were in at the end. This gave me a bit of a road map of what I was aiming for. I made notes of anything they had to accomplish in the middle, then I came up with ideas for specifically how they could accomplish those things that seemed en route from their starting situation to their end. It took some trial and error.
Then I refined what I had on Scrivener by transferring summaries of each scene to physical index cards, fixing details as I went. I laid these out in order (the colours indicate the POV character, and the shorter first column is a brief opening when the characters are younger):
Next I blu-tacked these to the wall behind my computer, arranged chronologically and by character:
I then added smaller cards to note where the subplots appeared. I colour coded these using washi tape (which is basically thin, decorative masking tape you can get in a variety of colours and patterns). The cards with the yellow bands running along the top is a sort of uniting subplot around the family’s political situation. Here is a close-up:
The events on the cards take place over a couple of years. This meant I would be going through changing scenes, and the characters would be ageing noticeably (being children), so I devised an impromptu calendar (numbered for the years of the current King’s reign) and made a little chart showing Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and how old each of my main characters are as the years turn:
This then allowed me to quickly add notes tracking the season and how old the characters were in various scenes:
The idea of laying it out like this is to help me easily see how the scenes fit together. I can consider each subplot separately and check it has a logical progression. I can check continuity issues when I’m switching POVs and moving forward through time. A novel is such a big project it can be easy to get lost in it, whereas here I can easily see where everything fits. If I don’t get all these scenes written over the next couple of weeks, it gives me a clear map that can keep me on track even around all the other distractions of life.