Friday, October 28, 2005

Scene Comp

Writers are always talking about plot, themes, pacing, voice and so forth, but I rarely see anyone discuss scene composition. I have very little idea of how other writers compose scenes, either, other than the prep work they put into thinking about them and doing notes and outlines and other ways of getting ready to write them. Actually writing scenes seems to be the hard part.

I've talked about my before-writing prep for scenes, but here is what I do to write any scene in any book in any genre:

1. I open with action or dialogue (or as close to it as is possible.)

2. I write straight through the scene, layering action with dialogue and working in whatever else I need to match what I saw in my head when I visualized. The research and notes and particulars from the novel notebook pop up in my head whenever I need a detail, but mostly I'm a voyeur scribbling down what I see.

3. If I get stuck, and it's usually on setting, which I hate, loathe and despise above all other components of the book, I'll put a rewrite marker in brackets like this: [***description of Central Park in winter***] and move on.

4. I do not back track or re-read anything I write while I'm writing new material. Ever. No exceptions (this is a huge time-waster.)

5. When the scene is done, I take a break (usually a cup of tea or a walk around the house) and then move directly on to writing the next scene.

If I'm not writing with the voice recognition software, I'll sometimes recite dialogue lines out loud as I type it to get a feel for the flow of the words (yes, I'm told this seems as amusing and ridiculous as someone who sound out words while reading. Tough. It helps.)

I also don't worry about descriptive words or if I'm showing enough of the setting in the scene. What hits the page is usually enough, but if I think I need more I'll add it during editing. I think this might be a key problem for writers who get hung up while writing a scene -- they hit something they don't want to write, aren't ready to write, can't express correctly, etc. and sit there staring at the screen. I suggest putting in a rewrite marker (see #3) and moving on.

I've gotten into the habit of backing up the document after I finish a scene, even though Word does a auto-backup every couple of minutes. This is more like a nervous habit, from a lifetime of living in the lightning capital of the U.S., but it also helps me move on. I have no idea why, but it does.

More info: Holly Lisle's Scene-Creation Workshop -- Writing Scenes that Move Your Story Forward has some excellent ideas to help you out with scene composition.

Don't know what the elements of a scene are? Check out Writing Fiction: A Beginner's Guide Part 7: Scenes and Half-Scenes (this is creative writing for teenagers article series, but a good breakdown just the same) or Vicki Hinze's article Elements of a Scene.

Randy Ingermanson's Writing the Perfect Scene.


  1. Great post. I recently persuaded a buddy to try NaNoWriMo this year. I'll notify him of your wonderful advice.

  2. Anonymous2:17 AM

    Thought that about settings. :) I've read two of your books, and they were as minimalistic when it came to description as it gets. Sometimes that meant nein, nada, no description at all beyond the formal layout (i.e., it was a "small office," or a "big lavish room" or whatever) Reason why I mention it? You are the only 'voyeur' author who does that, in my experience. Most, if not all, visualizing authors I've met are also visual when it comes to descriptions, so you can see everything as you are reading without mentally making up for the author's lack of description on the page. So it's pretty curious--it's like you save your visuals for yourself, not sharing with the reader :-)
    Anyways, that was my point. Most other description-minimalistic authors I know don't see their books as they write, which is the reason for the small amount of description. They hear the dialogue or feel the emotion or something.

  3. Soooo much to digest ;o)

  4. Anonymous6:22 AM

    I am pretty minimalist on description. I don't "see" the scene as much as hear or feel it, and i fly right by the usual descriptions of locations because a kitchen is a kitchen, a hospital a hospital, and so forth. Unless there's a critical need to describe a room and it's contents, I race right by and get to action and dialog, which I prefer.

  5. recite dialogue lines out loud as I type it to get a feel for the flow of the words (yes, I'm told this seems as amusing and ridiculous as someone who sound out words while reading. Tough. It helps.)

    I'd like to reinforce this point. If you have trouble with dialogue (and most people do from time to time) this is the best way to fix it.

    This is particularly true if you have a line of dialog that you are really attached to for some reason. Say it out loud: if it is hard to say, or sounds like something only a dork would say, you should probably change it.

    Great advice, by the way. I'm going to start using the rewrite marker technique. Immediately, in fact.

  6. I do the rewrite marker thing, too. That allows me to move forward instead of stopping to agonize over something.

    I hear dialogue in my head, so saying it outloud tends to rip me out of the story. But then a scene will come to me in dialogue before anything else. I hear entire conversations while I'm driving, shopping or cleaning. Pretty freaky.

  7. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Anonymous wrote: it's like you save your visuals for yourself, not sharing with the reader.

    Minimal, yeah, I'll cop to that, although I think it's more a personal aversion on my part than any desire to hold out on the reader. There is nothing that shrieks "Look at me, Mommy, I can write big!" or "I got an A+ in creative writing class!" more than a novel with huge descriptive passages. Also I think setting is about as interesting to write as wallpaper is to hang.

    This is not to say this is a good attitude, and I'm working on it, which you should with any weakness in your work. My next release has more descriptive passages in it than anything I've written, so I think I'm making some progress.

  8. On dialogue, as a former actress. Some lines don't look like much on the page but come alive when spoken out loud. So I think it can be a little dangerous--well, for me, anyways, because I have a similar habit. I recite dialogue out loud as I write it, but sometimes things that sounded *good* turn out to be kinda bland when they are read, not heard.

  9. I rarely hear conversations. I see scenes. Like I said over at Diana P.'s blog, the whole story idea comes to me first as a sort of a movie trailer. And later, if I can't see it, I can't write it. One of the drawback is that I seem to use physical sensations very sparingly. All those hammering hearts, tired feet, cold sweat... I'm an observer in my own story, so I see and hear and smell, but I don't associate much with the characters' physical state.

  10. I think it's a style thing. Just like some write like Anne Rice and some, like Hemingway. I don't do long passages because I like the pace to be fast, but I always describe the setting because setting is a big part of atmosphere to me, along with the word choice, and I'm obsessed with creating atmosphere.

  11. PBW, this is a really interesting and helpful post. Thank you for sharing.

    It made me look at my own steps of creating a scene. I think of myself as a visual writer, but I'm very lean with my description on settings. I know it's something I need to work on, yet I also realize I have no patience for reading long passages of description in novels. I tend to skim over them until I get to the meat of the scene.

    Sometimes I wonder if the author is filling for word count, but I'm probably wrong. =) It may just be his/her style of writing.

  12. I suck at dialogue, and it's something that has been a weakness I know I need to get over. I will try speaking the dialogue aloud. I think that will help. :)

    I also see scenes like scenes from a comes to me almost in a flash. And, I hear dialogue all the time in my head -- it's like I have a running tape playing in the background. Problem is, it's so damn fleeting that I can never stop to jot it down....I just try to remember the gist of it and recreate it when I sit down to write.

    I find your writing to be perfect -- fast-paced, interesting, and most of all, not boring. So whatever it is you do, it's right in my book. :) Pun intended.


  13. Your suggestions are outstanding. Thanks for generously sharing.

    In my manuscripts, I type markers and then electronically highlight them in red. These are often reminders like, "Research Size of Live-Aboard Boats" or "Add something here about carving". They allow to continue forward progress.

  14. 4. I do not back track or re-read anything I write while I'm writing new material. Ever. No exceptions (this is a huge time-waster.)

    *nods* I do the same. This can have some ... um ... interesting results, though, when you do go back and reread. (Eg: "OMG. I wrote this?" *bit later* "And I didn't finish it!?!?!?!?" *headdesk*)

    And I so hear you on the description. Minimal description of setting is probably my biggest problem when it comes to prose. I tend to have little to none. (Though I like to think I'm getting better. :P)


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