14 Steps to Stronger Scenes

AUTHORS NOTE: This article is a work in progress and will grow as I grow as a writer.

At the most fundamental levels, the stories we write are made up of words. But between the individual word and the entire story, there is a unit of story telling critical to the success of the over all story: The Scene.

A scene is commonly defined as the portion of the story’s plot that happens in one place, at one time, and observed by one person. If any one of these three things change, it is a different scene.

The following are fourteen steps that I use to prepare writing a scene. As a “plotter” who prefers to have everything in order before the first draft, I follow these steps to make sure that my first draft is as clean as it can be. These steps are helpful for “discovery writers” as going through these steps will strengthen the story that is already on the page.

An action question will be included after each step’s description.

Scene Foundation

The first ten steps focus on the foundational information needed for each scene.

For Plotters: Depending on how detailed your outline may be, you could complete as many steps as would seem practical for every scene in your story before continuing onto the alter steps. I would recommend at least steps 1 (Summary), 2 (POV), and 6 (Location).

For Pantsers: Make sure that you can answer all nine of these questions as you go through your first editing round. Any missing answers are excellent starting point for corrections to make in the next round.

Step 1: Simple Summary

ACTION: What is a one sentence summary of the scene?

Step 2: POV Character

ACTION: Who is telling this part of the story?

Step 3: Antagonist Force/Character

ACTION: What or who is stopping the POV Character from accomplishing their goal? How are they stopping them?

Step 4: Other Characters

ACTION: Who else is in the scene?

Step 5: Oragnizations

ACTION: What organizations are included or impacted in the scene?

Step 6: Location

ACTION: What locations are used in the scene?

Step 7: Advance the Story

ACTION: How has this scene moved the story closer to the climax of a character’s arc?

Step 8: New Information

ACTION: What new information is provided to the reader?

Step 9: Pull Reader Forward

ACTION: Why this scene is cool and entices the reader to continue reading the story?

Step 10: Irrevocable Decisions

ACTION: What are the irrevocable decisions or consequences that resulted from this scene for the characters?

Scene/Sequel

The “Scene/Sequel” Method of planning scenes is espoused by many writers. I found it very helpful in planning what should happen next while traveling between plot points. Steps 10 through 12 are repeated twice. Please delete the steps that do not apply to the scene or sequel that you are working on.

There is no hard requirement that a writer must alternate between each structure. Having multiple scenes or sequels in order may help quicken or slow the pacing within the story.

Step 11: Scene: Character’s Goal

ACTION: What is the main character’s goal for this scene?

Step 12: Scene: Conflict

ACTION: Describe the conflict, from who or what? Is there a goal from another character providing the conflict?

Step 13: Scene: Disaster

ACTION: Describe the disaster that resulted from the conflicts between the different characters.

Step 11: Sequel: Reaction

ACTION: What is the reaction to the disaster?

Step 12: Sequel: Dilemma

ACTION: What dilemma was created by the reaction?

Step 13: Sequel: Decision

ACTION: What proactive decision does the POV character make? (This is the next goal when they appear next.)

The Details

With all of this information, it’s time to get it all together into a usable list.

Step 14: Plot Points

As much as I like the scene/sequel method for planning the structure of the scene, I do not feel that it is the best order to provide the information. The final step in preparing to write the scene is to create a list of “story beats” that will occur in the story.

Like a heart beat, a story beat is what keeps the action pumping through the story. The beats may follow this pattern:

  • POV Character performs an action
  • Secondary Character reacts to the action and responds.
  • Both characters participate in a conversation that results in more action.
  • POV Character peforms another action
  • (repeats until the end of the scene.)

This very sterile example should be expanded upon to include almost all of the information collected in the previous thirteen steps. All of this information is important to ensure that the scene has a solid foundation.

I recommend that your first plotted draft or second pantsed draft have all of this information. Later drafts may be used to shape, polish, or remove excess information.

ACTION: What are the scene’s beats in order of occurrence? Make sure that this detailed outline achieves all of the previous objectives.

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