The Happy Little Trees of Writing a Scene

When you sit down to write a new story, do the words flow out in perfect order from chapter 1 to The End? Maybe that’s the way it happens for some people, but I’m not one of them.

The longer I’ve been in this crazy business of writing books, the more I realize that everyone has a different way of tackling a manuscript. Beyond the division among writers of plotters and pantsers, there are fast drafters, 1k/1Hr people, those who chart characters in a multitude of ways, those who use software systems to track the plot, linear and nonlinear writers, those who gather in cafes and at retreats to bang out words, and those who prefer to work alone…the list goes on. There is no right or wrong, there is only what works for you.

I find it interesting to learn what other writers do, not because I’m going to change what I do, but because there might be some element in their plan of attack that changes the way I see my own process. I recently broke the rule that I’ve heard over and over from countless authors—I went back and started reading through the document before I got the last few scenes written. But guess what, I needed to go back. Personally, I’m a nonlinear plotter, meaning that I storyboard the entire book, then draft out of order. So I got down to the last 8 scenes that were scattered through the story and became stuck. I had to go back to the beginning to find my place. It wasn’t wrong in the way that everyone claims, for me, it was necessary.

My point is this: there is no wrong in writing. I thought today I would tell you a little bit about how I write each scene within a story. I hope you take away something helpful, but at the end of the day just keep writing—that’s the important part.

When I look at each scene in a book, I see every one as

a painting on canvas.

Maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of Bob Ross painting on TV, but it just makes sense to me. I noticed when watching these instructional TV shows about painting that they never start at the left or the top and just paint the thing. A painting isn’t like a piece of paper feeding out of the printer, instead it’s steadily built upon and constructed in layers. To me, scenes in a story are the same. Therefore I write my scenes in 4 steps or passes through the document.

4 Steps to writing a scene as learned from a lack of cable TV when I was a kid.

Step 1: The blue sky background- Framework. When I begin a new scene I start with the setting, where the characters are in the beginning and where they go, who is there, etc. This blocking of the basic concept is like the pale blue sky that the artist always starts with on the canvas. Everything is added from there.

Step 2: The happy little trees that make up the horizon- Dialogue. Once I know who is present and where they are, I write out the dialogue between the characters. This is the bulk of the scene, just like the forest and stream are the bulk of the painting.

Step 3: The white movement of the water in the stream- Action. Every scene needs a little action. Usually this is accomplished through action tags for the dialogue I placed in the story in the last step. But when I’m writing action scenes or sex scenes, I make notes of all action in red font as it happens and then go back and lace in the actual action as it will appear in the story. This keeps awkward sequences from happening like the heroine feeling up the hero’s rippling muscles when he never took off his shirt. This method helps me keep my sanity the most when writing action-heavy scenes. Separating all of these layers out, allows me to focus on the details when there’s a lot going on.

Step 4: The light and shadow- Deep POV. Maybe it’s my background in art, but to me light and shadow are what make something feel real. In books, this is the character’s interpretation of the scene at hand. We’re seeing the scene through that character’s eyes and everything is colored by their perception of events. I always add this step last since it finishes everything and makes it feel like a finished product.

After these 4 steps, when I move on to the next scene, I’ve already cleaned each scene as I go. So this makes me a plotter, nonlinear writer, a writer who dislikes weeks of edits, and a painter…well, maybe not. I think I’ll stick with painting with words for now.

How do you write your scenes? However you do it, keep going!

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