Assembling Scenes To Create a Novel

I’m at the point in the process of prepping to write the next book where I’ve almost done with the outline and am about to use it to assemble a list of the scenes that I want to include in the draft as I write. Once that’s done, I’ll be able to start doing the series of intense writing sessions that will produce the first draft of the book. I’m in an odd position where I also have a bunch of material that I’ve written; much of it will end up going into the book, but I need to figure out the order of each scene as well as its relationship to subplots and what changes need to be made to it to make it a coherent part of the whole.

In order to generate my outline, I used a closet door and index cards held in place with museum putty. In order to start, I looked for what I’ve heard called “tentpole scenes,” scenes that prop up major portions of the narrative. Examples of such scenes are major confrontations and moments of revelation or resolution. With each, I marked down a phrase that identified it on an index card and put it in place on the door so I could see where it was in chronological order with the other moments. I also think of the chronology as happening in three phases, like the acts of a play, and divide it into Acts I, II, and III, each of which will take up roughly a third of the book.

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For example, “arrive at gate” marks a point where the ship and its crew go to an interstellar gate only to find it isn’t working, midway through Act I. “Arrive at spacemoth” comes much later, at the end of Act II.

Once I had the tentpole scenes marked, I made a card for each of the major characters. This book is told in omniscient POV and there are eight major characters, so for each I thought about what they wanted at the beginning of the book, and what would change for them over the course of it. Each character got an index card up towards the top: “Niko: in mourning,” “Talon: full of anger,” “Atlanta: adrift”. Having done this, I filled in some of the major scenes for each of those arcs. Talon’s anger leads him to do something unexpected, and so I made cards for each of the major moments of that minor arc.

As I did this, I looked for places where things overlap. The ship’s subplot will lead it to help Talon do what he does; Atlanta’s personal quest will play a part in that as well. I labeled each subplot with a number and marked its moments on existing cards, so with each index card representing a scene, I know the major things that play a part in its existence.

Generating a Scene List

This is all a necessary part of creating my list of scenes. With each I will be creating a paragraph or two of description/notes that will help me write it when it’s time for that stage. So once this rough outline is down, I go through my list of scenes and start fleshing them out. To do so, I ask the following questions.

  • Who is present in the scene? What characters are participating, and what does each of them want?
  • Where does the scene take place? If I don’t know where, it’s going to be hard to write and in the name of being interesting, I want to pick locations that have some visual kick or other entertainment value to them when possible.
  • What are the relationships between the characters? These relationships are not just emotional but spatial, in terms of where they are physically in the the space. What do they want from each other? What are the power dynamics?
  • Why is this scene necessary? How does it drive the plot? What is being revealed to the characters and/or the reader? Can it raise the stakes or up the tension in some way?
  • What happens in this scene? What are the major moments of action? What changes are taking place in it for each character? Are there minor repetitive (someone keeps shouting outside the window, trains are coming and going, there is periodic thunder, children are playing a game) or one-off (a clock sounds the hour, a maid comes in to take away the dishes, a child loses their game and overturns the table) events that take place during it?
  • What thematics are played out in this scene? What sort of emotions do you want the reader to come out of the scene with? Are there symbols or motifs that you want to repeat and if so, what are they?
  • What has happened just before the scene? Is there evidence of it? Does what has just happened affect the characters in any way?
  • What will happen immediately afterward? Are there circumstances or happenings that should be foreshadowed? How do the characters feel about what will happen and are they doing anything to try to change it?
  • What are the long-term impacts of this scene? What later scenes depend on it? Are there outcomes that it brings about later that will need to be shown somewhere? (If so, I note that on the later scenes as well so I can go back and look at the earlier scenes before writing them.)

I may not answer all of these questions for a particular scene, but what I emerge with is a list of notes that I will go over and think about before I sit down and start working on the scene. When I’m deep in the writing part of this process, notes like these are invaluable, because I am writing to fulfill them rather than just putting words down and seeing what happens. I don’t mean to denigrate the latter, and it’s something I do sometimes, particularly with short stories, but it’s not how I want to write this book.

Things to Remember When Thinking About Scenes

There are some basic things that I keep in mind when working with scenes.

A scene is not the same thing as a chapter. In fact, one may put a chapter break in at a moment of high action in order to convince the reader to keep on going rather than glancing at the clock and calling it a night. This is something that will be affected by the POV choice for the book, because one of the traditions of novels is that with multiple POVs, you usually switch POV in between chapters rather than during a chapter.

The beginning of a scene orients the reader. You must supply the information that lets them figure out where and when and who as fast as possible while being careful not to put in any ways that the reader can create a contradictory scene in their head. You don’t want a reader going, halfway through the scene, “Oh, they’re on the beach, I thought they were in the castle because that’s where they were when I last saw them,” because you’re reminding the reader that they’re reading, which is one of the best ways to destroy immersion in a frustrating manner. (Though some writers do it very well, such as Jasper Fforde or Italo Calvino).

Scenes will get added as the book is written. I adjust the outline at the one-third written mark, and then again at the two-thirds mark, a practice I picked up from David Farland’s Book Writing Million Dollar Outlines. Stuff will always be occurring to you, to the point where part of the writing the final draft is rejecting some of the shiny things that pop up and would require rewriting everything. It may be worthwhile pursuing some of those flashes towards the end, but the closer you are to the end, the more chance they won’t pan out, and will prove exhausting and discouraging.

Using the Scene List

Once I have my scene list, I have no more excuses to employ against getting butt in chair and writing. Here mileage will vary quite radically; I tend to slide over on the pretty prolific side and aim for 4–5 thousand words for each day, a goal that requires a pretty strict process that I adapted from Chris Fox’s writing book 5,000 Words Per Hour: Write Faster, Write Smarter. I get up at 5:30 AM, eat a protein-rich breakfast, work-out while thinking about what I’m going to work on, and then engage in a series of thirty minute writing sprints with a 5–10 minute stretch break in between until I have hit my word count for the day. Crucial to this is the fact that I avoid e-mail and social media (usually the Internet in general) until I have hit that target.

This is surprisingly exhausting, and somewhere in there I may grab a 15–20 minute nap where again I am thinking about what I am writing. I have plenty of coffee and a protein rich snack like yogurt or nuts at hand. I work at a standing desk, but do have a stool that I can use if I want to sit down for a bit. This practice is necessary because my back will seize up if I sit working too long.

While writing, I use a combination of typing and dictation; dictation is for when the flow-state is seriously on me and the words are coming fast and furious. When stuck, I do not stop writing to consider what I’m doing, but move into a mode where I simply describe the beats of what is happening: They find a tiny shack and explore it. They find firewood inside. Marcus gets scared by a mouse and Gwenda makes fun of him for it. If I continue doing this, sooner or later I will get back into the groove and move into writing the actual words of the scene.

I move through the scene list in chronological order, but if there is a spot where I really don’t want to work on a particular scene, I may skip it and come back to it at the end. This sort of resistance usually signals to me that I haven’t figured out something important about it, and I won’t figure that out until I write one of the later scenes and can work backward from that.

A major advantage of this writing process is that I don’t have to put as much work into the rewrite as I do with the Tabat books, which are written in a much slower, let-the-words-accrete style. I’m actually thinking that I will use this process with the final book of the Tabat Quartet, Gods of Tabat, since this will help me figure out the dependencies on the earlier books.

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Conclusions and Caveats

One thing to always keep in mind with writing advice is that everyone’s process differs. The advice that clicks for one person may not work at all for another, and beyond that, your process will change and adapt to your circumstances over time. You can train yourself — or so I believe — to be in the habit of writing, but there will always be some times when it is flowing well and others when it feels as though you are scraping the words out of your skull in order to put them down on the page.

I’d like to emphasize that this has not always been my process. I learned it the hard way by writing messy, sloppy, glorious books that then took a great deal of work to make into coherent drafts. This is how I’ve been writing the space opera series that will be coming out with Tor MacMillan, and the fact that Tor liked the first book, in fact enough to offer a three book deal on the strength of it, is result enough to tell me this process is worth pursuing and refining.

Writing will never be effortless, alas, but sometimes it will be easier than others. Pre-planning the scenes in this way helps me achieve that flow state that I enjoy so much, and that being in the flow state helps me create work that is engaging and interesting, in which the joy I’m finding while writing shows through and shares itself with the reader. I love that feeling, and hope some part of this advice helps you find it as well.

World Fantasy and Nebula-nominated speculative fiction writer/editor. I read and write a lot.

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