Scene Planning: Part II

BEWARE: the following information can lead to endless rewriting. Extreme caution is advised.

Although Hemmingway recommended that a writer stop in the middle of a sentence at the close of a day’s work, I’ve never found that to work for me.

When I resume writing the next day, often I can’t remember the rest of the sentence or I’ve lost the mood of the scene.

So what works better for me is to finish the scene before I stop. I have a complete dramatic unit, however rough and shaky, and after a break where I go swim or run errands, I like to mull over the scene and decide if I want to change anything before I roll forward.

There’s danger in doing this, the danger that you’ll rewrite the scene, hate it, rewrite the scene, hate that, rewrite the scene, give up in despair and jettison the whole project.

However, here are a few salient questions to ask yourself in thinking over a scene:

1) Did the scene come out where I wanted it to?

The outcome is the most important element in what you’re trying to accomplish in a progressive plot. And until you gain skill and experience, very often the first or second draft fails to accomplish the resolution you want.

Example: Let’s say that Ermilio goes to his grandfather to ask for the secret family recipe for pizza dough. It’s the key ingredient that will make Ermilio’s pizzas stand out, and give his new little restaurant a chance of success.

But old Guiseppe is senile and forgetful. He confuses Ermilio with another grandson, the unscrupulous one that cheated Guiseppe years ago.

The argument strays from crust to personal family issues. At the end of the scene Ermilio has convinced Guiseppe that he’s the good kid in the family and he agrees to go talk to his cousin Gianni to get Guiseppe’s gold watch back.


Now, Calvin Clueless, the newbie writer, may defend this scene by pointing out it begins with a clear, specific goal and it has lots and lots of conflict. (The old man rants a lot.) And then it’s going to lead to lots of other scenes because Ermilio has to find his cousin, talk to his cousin, etc.

But was a quest to regain the stolen/borrowed/pawned gold watch the intended consequence of this scene?

What happened to Ermilio’s goal of getting the recipe?

It was sidetracked by Guiseppe’s goal of recovering his watch.

These goals are NOT in direct opposition. They split the scene’s focus, and Ermilio is sidetracked into an issue that has nothing to do with his desire to succeed with his restaurant.

If you have written a scene that sidetracks the protagonist, you do need a rewrite. To continue onward means your entire plot is heading off-road. You’re going to have a bumpy ride across rough terrain until you end up in the ditch of no more plot or you break an axle at the corner of dead end and what am I doing.

Go back through your scene and find the paragraph where the antagonist pulled things awry. Don’t delete what the antagonist attempts!

It’s the antagonist’s job to maneuver and evade and confuse and pull things off course.

But it’s the protagonist’s job to weather such ploys and force the argument back to what he wants.

So … “Grandpa, I’m sorry Gianni wronged you. I don’t like him either, but that has nothing to do with why I’m here today. I’m asking for your best recipe to make my pizzas the tastiest in town. Will you help me?”

2) Do I need to plant something in this scene that will support a later story development?

You may have planned the scene initially to plant a clue or support a plot twist that will make the climax work in the third act. But somehow, during the quick give and take of the dialogue, your character never spoke the key phrase. Or, the conflict grew so heated, so darned good that you omitted that passage of description you intended.

Well, go back and stick it in!

Except, it’s not always that easy, is it?

When I was first learning to write cohesive dramatic scenes, I frequently omitted something important. But since I’d also learned to write dialogue that was tightly linked, I found it a challenge to try to insert material later without messing up the snappy rhythm that I’d achieved.

Insertions always felt clunky and awkward.

Sometimes, I could manage it. Sometimes, I had to rewrite portions of the dialogue. I learned to jot down a checklist of key points my characters needed to say and keep it beside me as I wrote. Gradually, I improved at keeping my concentration and no longer needed the crib sheet.

And where do you stop verbal conflict to describe the heavy brass fern pot that will later prove to be the murder weapon?

You don’t.

You can include a sentence of description at the start of the scene, when its setup is occurring and you’re getting your two adversaries in position.

Or you can have your angry, frustrated, flustered protagonist storm out of the conservatory at the scene’s conclusion and fail to completely duck the low-hanging fern. Let him bump his head and shove the heavy pot aside so that it swings slowly and ponderously behind him as he leaves.

3) Have I established the following in my scene?
*High stakes
*Limited number of characters
*Dominant impression for characters

We’ll deal with these one at a time:

High stakes.
I mentioned this element in my previous post and why scenes should be reserved for what’s important to the story.

Low or trivial stakes can be dealt with in narrative summary. No need to wrap a full-blown scene around burning the toast.

Perhaps it’s more useful to consider how a high stake is differentiated from a low stake.

Calvin Clueless sits in his writing class and day after day hears the mantra … the stakes must be high.

Calvin thinks about space invaders hovering over Chicago, causing panic in the streets. He thinks about King Kong crushing high rise buildings in New York. He thinks about a meteor crashing into the Earth and knocking it off its orbit, thereby obliterating life as we know it.

Yeah, those are high stakes all right. But as stupendous and colossal as they are, they mean nothing without character perspective.

What does the situation mean to your character? How important is it to him or her?

In the classic film THE BISHOP’S WIFE, starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, Niven plays a young, ambitious bishop who’s trying to raise millions of dollars to build a new cathedral. He’s stressed and cranky, and when his wife hands over an old Roman coin donated by an elderly impoverished man they used to be close friends with, the bishop tosses the coin aside, saying, “What good is a worthless old coin like this?”

In his zeal to accomplish his goal, he’s forgotten all the essential values of kindness, charity, faith, and compassion. He’s completely missing the Biblical point of the “widow’s mite.” His wife sees it, of course, and she’s heartbroken at how he dismisses this gesture of affection and support from the old professor.


Stories have settings, of course. But scenes do as well. When establishing a scene, take a few words to inform readers of where the scene is happening, whether it’s night or day and the presence of any critical props.

You don’t need a huge, stalled information dump, but sketch in what’s key. Remember that your readers don’t have a camera lens to show them what you see. And depict for them only the setting details that are germane to the scene itself.

In other words, if the tall Victorian vase full of dusty, faded peacock feathers standing beside the fireplace isn’t necessary either to convey mood or information about the house’s owner or hides the murder weapon that will be discovered later, don’t mention it.

The classic film GASLIGHT is heavily focused on its setting because the house itself contains all the clues that will solve the mystery. Even the title conveys the most important clue of all.

Limited characters:

Last time, I explained why a scene should be limited to two characters whenever possible. This keeps the focus on the scene combatants–the protagonist and antagonist. It helps mitigate interruptions and makes it less likely to split the focus.

So when you think over the scene you’ve just written, have you followed my suggestion or have you allowed Sidekick to remain present?

Has Sidekick stayed in the background like a good little character or has Sidekick butted in at some point? And if the latter, did that comment steal focus away from the protagonist? Did that comment pull the scene away from where you wanted it to go? Did that comment cause you to forget the important remark you wanted to include?

Dominant character impression:

What are each of the two primary characters doing as they enter the scene? Have you given that any thought?

If you haven’t, then consider it now.

Actions convey impressions much more vividly to readers than mere description.

Compare the following:

Robert stood by the desk, waiting. He was a tall, well-built young man with broad shoulders. He wore a tailored navy blazer and a striped tie. His face displayed an expression of impatience. He held a letter in his hands.

Robert paced back and forth by the desk, glancing at his watch with every other step. He paused, glaring at the door, then grabbed the envelope off the desk and ripped it open. He read it fast, then read it a second time before crumpling it in his fist. “Erica!” he shouted.

I think you can see the difference between the static depiction and the active one.

If you confine your examination of a scene’s draft to technical areas such as these, you should be able to fix problems and then continue forward with your story.

But if you’re just going to rely on whether the scene “feels right” then it’s best not to look back. Keep going with your draft or you’ll be mired forever in revision quicksand.

1 Comment

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One response to “Scene Planning: Part II

  1. In examining the advice on scenes and sequels, it’s easy to find examples by looking at Star Wars or the work of Butcher and learning what it looks like in practice. So it’s not hard to assess one’s own success in applying the lesson.

    In examining advice on outlining, though, I have trouble. Yes, one needs to track each scene’s goal, conflict, and disaster, not to mention its setting, characters, the key props, and the stakes. But there’s more that seems to need to be in an outline, besides these. There are details that tie things together, notes on the themes hit by the book and how the scene plays into them …

    … and I don’t easily picture what this organization looks like on the page. I tried retrospectively outlining some things I wrote so I could get an idea how to outline in advance where the rest of the work goes, but I find the things I’m tracking don’t help me understand what the story is doing.

    Are there some specimens or forms you can share to help us see through example what it looks like in practice? I’m almost sure I’m doing this wrong 🙂

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