July 9th, 2021

Confessions of a Devoted Scene Writer

by Jenny Hansen

Earlier this week, Karen DeBonis did a post here at WITS about finding your writing process. In the comments, I confessed that finding mine took a long (LONG) time. I’ve tried a gajillion tools in my quest to get a book off the ground and finishedFast DraftW-PlotSnowflake Method. . .and I have a confession to make. They all helped me be a better writer, but none of them got me to "The End."

The only thing I've found that can get me to the end of a story is to embrace my inner scene writer and let her lead the way. This post describes what that actually means.

What is a scene?

First, you have to understand what a scene really is. I love how Margaret Dilloway says it in her amazing post, How to Outline a Novel: 60 Index Cards Method. She explains it like this:

Each scene is an event that changes the character’s situation in a meaningful way.

  • Every scene needs something to happen.
  • Each scene produces a change achieved through conflict.
  • Each scene shows how the character responds under pressure.

If the scene does not meet these criteria, take it out.

Note: I love my plotting and pantsing pals equally! The linked article above explains how Dilloway outlines using a 60 scene method. There is wiggle room in the number - think 60 to 100.

What does it mean to be a "scene writer?"

All those cool linear "big picture" methods I mentioned above aren't forgiving enough to help me finish books. My busy brain says, "Ooooh...GLITTER!" And I'm off doing something else, instead of writing those 60 scenes that make up a book.

Basically "confessions of a scene writer" and "the angst of a slightly ADD writer" aren't very far apart.

The only thing that gets me to "The End" is putting my butt in the chair and writing one scene at a time. The scenes don't even have to be in order, they just have to be finite. If I don't stay completely immersed in the moment and the scene, it's an open door for "Ooooh...GLITTER!" That's the way busy noggins like mine work.

Most scene writers make a list of all the things we know, create a loose structure, and then write to it. Writing a book this way is a little bit like a to-do list.

I didn't really know how to describe my writing process until one of my crafty relatives said, "Hey, you're a story quilter!" It turns out, she was right. Each scene is a piece of the pattern and it all gets stitched together later.

It was Diana Gabaldon who shined light on scene writing as a possible writing method.

I read some articles about Gabaldon and how she wrote the Outlander series. She sees the story as a movie and re-constructs that movie in her head, scene by scene, until everything is on paper. Then she shuffles them all together into the books we know and love. While I won’t pretend to be anywhere near Gabaldon’s league, we both do books in short little pieces. Perhaps it has to do with being a busy mom.

When I read about Gabaldon, a light went on in my head. I finally accepted the truth.

I’m a scene writer. 

I stopped trying to write from beginning to end like all my friends and accepted that I'd be walking a different path. Some of us are "story quilters" and that's the way we're made. (The very thought of it gives my organized linear pals hives.)

My scene-writing process in a nutshell

1. Like many writers, each book usually starts with an idea or a scene that comes into my head fully formed. I write that scene to get it out of my head and onto the page. I keep writing until all the initial scenes are out of my head. Usually, there are between 5-10 scenes that come with the initial idea.

2. Near the beginning of the process, I bat some ‘what if’s’ around with my writing peeps and decide on the overriding theme for the book and the internal and external conflicts for the main characters. I might be wrong, but it gives me a place to start.

3. If I’m really lucky, the turning points get decided in advance too. At the very least, I take time with my critique group to discuss what I think the turning points are to see if I’m remotely on target and if it all sounds believable.

4. I make a list of all the scenes I know and I write whatever I can see clearly until they're all done. If I get stuck, I just go down the scene list. If I get really stuck, Margie Lawson gave me the brilliant idea of writing scene prompts down on slips of paper and picking the day's scene out of a hat. She's so smart.

In my old life (that's the life of creating unfinished stories that taunt me) whenever I'd get stuck, I'd stop. I'd stare at the page, clean my kitchen drawers, come back to the page and stare some more. Sometimes there was crying. Almost always, after a few weeks, I'd give up and start another story.

Now I just pick a new scene and write it and the pantser half of my brain works the problems out. Most important, this method lets me keep writing. That immersion is what keeps most writers engaged with their story.

5. When I'm deep in story mode, I try to write at least five days a week as it keeps my brain open to receiving new scenes. When I let more than a week go by without visiting my story, I start to lose focus.

6. I use a timer. My deal with myself is I have to do at least 30 minutes of work on my fiction for those 5 days a week. While it doesn't sound like a lot, it really makes a difference. If I'm digging it that day, I go way longer than 30 minutes. If I'm not digging it that day, I know "I only have to do this crap for 30 minutes."

Must-Haves for the "scene writing" approach

You don't have to have every one of these mastered, but it really, really helps if you at least have the first one. I use them all, especially in the editing process.

You must have a good grasp of 3-Act Structure.

Otherwise you end up with a pile of scenes, or "story blocks," you can’t use. It also helps to know the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey. Here’s a great link I’ve found on the hero's journey. I work with 3-Act structure because I can keep track of it better in my head.

Two words – Conflict Lock.

If you don’t have a conflict lock, you don’t have a story. So says Bob Mayer, author of Warrior Writer and co-founder of Cool Gus Publishing. Here’s a blog from Shannon Curtis to tell you more.

Scene-dissecting tools like Margie Lawson's EDITS system.

If you don't have tools like the ones Margie teaches you, it's difficult to figure out where you missed with a scene, especially if you're a pantser. Invest in yourself with classes or lecture packets from Lawson Writers Academy...you'll be glad you did.

Understand your story's DNA (theme) before you get too far.

I think hard about theme pretty early in my process for an important reason. If you have a strong visual of your story's underlying message, you automatically write to it. That story DNA will inform every scene choice you make because it has to. John August, the screenwriter for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Big Fish, says it much better than I do in this post.

Pros and Cons of Scene Writing

And yes, these are all going to be completely subjective. However, if you're on the fence about your process, I thought it might be helpful to see why you might like or dislike this writing method.

The advantages

  1. I never get writer's block. There's always another scene to write or edit.
  2. I'm able to write fast and stay immersed, because it's "only one scene."
  3. Scrivener allows me to store scenes separately and move them around.
  4. The story theme is naturally interwoven when you write this way.
  5. I'm able to move between fiction and non-fiction pretty easily.

The disadvantages

  1. I need objective eyes to tell me when the story is "really done."
  2. Continuity edits are a must for long works - I need to know that all the loose ends got tied up.
  3. Scene transitions bug the crap out of me (and I'm pretty sure I'm terrible at them). The story quilting method stitches those glorious scenes of yours together with those transitions, so if you're not good at them, run the work by other writers or an editor.

Final Thoughts

Before I close this out, I want to pause and reiterate something. Like underpants, writing process is personal. You'll find out what fits YOU the best by trying it on for size.

I'm only sharing my process here because several of our commenters asked me to. At the end of the day, the only writing process you have to care about it is your own, and the only writing process you need to embrace is the one that allows you to finish your stories.

Where are you at in your "process journey?" Do you have a method that resonates with you? What do you do when you get stuck? Please share with us down in the comments!

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Jenny

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is More-Cowbell-Headshot-300x300.jpg

By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Facebook at JennyHansenAuthor or at Writers In The Storm.

25 responses to “Confessions of a Devoted Scene Writer”

  1. lorispielman says:

    Such a helpful article, Jenny. I can't wait to try it! Thanks for sharing!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are so very welcome, Lori! One thing I've noticed with all my linear pals...when they get stuck -- really stuck -- the exercise of writing a random scene can help them get back on track. It's nice to know that everyone can get some mileage out of this method.

  2. Jenny, this is great. I love, love, love the idea of being a story quilter. I have long worked on scenes- and not in a defined story order and it has made me feel more creative and not rigidly ordered. Whatever scene comes to me on my bike ride is the one I deep dive for that day. I thought maybe it was too haphazard, even though it works. But you have both given me a really cute term for it AND validated it as a process. There are also so many useful links in this post, that I am very excited to dive into them today. Now....to go get my butt in that chair....

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I'm all for cute terminology, Miffie! And I didn't know you were a scene writer...Julie Glover and I join you in that club. Good structure will carry a scene writer far in this writing life. 🙂

  3. Terry Odell says:

    I write scenes, but for the life of me, I can't write out of order. I do need to pay more attention to plot points, conflicts, etc, as I write my summaries.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I am absolutely awed by all of you who write in order, Terry! To me, that takes terrific organization and talent. I can't get through a story that way, so watching my pals do it just mesmerizes me.

  4. brad217 says:

    Just a terrific post. I also write scenes. That is how I structure my novels. But I love your 3-act reference. That post - using When Harry Met Sally - says it all. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Brad! And if you clicked on that 3-Act post, you got to learn some of Stephen Cannell's tricks. There is a link there where he talks about 3-Act structure in the movie "Love Story." Just stellar...

  5. There's no right or best or correct way to build a story. At least that's my experience. Each book requires its own approach. I guess if I wrote formula genre my mindset might be different. But my stories marry lots of stuff and styles, so my brain has to be open to a mish-mash approach. It took a while for me to understand and accept that.

    I'm liking your quilt concept though, except it doesn't have a clear start and finish point.

    I might think of it as train track. Sections of train track. And I know I need to get from Pittsburgh to Poughkeepsie. I can pre-fabricate the sections of track and arrange/rearrange them. For my mind, I need to know that I'm DONE at the station in Poughkeepsie, not Portland. Though I'm sure the ride to Portland would be spectacular too.

    Bottomline: just write. For those of us who write in American English, we have 26 letters to work with. All we have to do is look down at our keyboards. All of our answers--and stories--are right there. Now go and peck one out.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Your helpful hopeful spirit always gives me a glow, Chris. I think if you make the scene list and the basic turning point/3-act structure chart, it is very clear when the when point comes...cuz your scene list is complete. That being said, I always have to either leave it for several days or weeks, or give it to someone else to REALLY know.

  6. John Peragine says:

    In Max and the Spice Thieves I totally was a pantser. I had to do 3 MAJOR rewrites on the backend because of it. My sequel- Max and the Isle of Sanctus, I used PLottr and Scrivner. OMG- what a difference. Not only was it plotted out, but I could do it scene by scene. When it came time to review it, I could do it on a micro- rather macro level. I could look at each scene individually- and match them to the plot and character development. It has made ALL the difference. In fact- I removed 3 characters because I realized they were not moving the plot and were virtual bystanders for much of the book. I was able to find the scenes they were in and write them out. I would say I am a Plantser- because even with the best plans- I am often shocked by what the characters decide to do in a particular scene- they can be rather cheeky!

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I love the idea of Plottr, John...tell me more!! I'm delighted that Max 2 was easier than Max 1...I hope it continues to get easier as you go through the series. 🙂

  7. Eldred Bird says:

    I wish I could be more of a quilter, but I'm afraid I'm a straight-up linier writer and a dedicated pantser to the ends of the earth. Some plotting has managed to creep into my process, but my brain fights it. Once I get to know my characters on a personal level, they take over tell me the story. Any planning I've done flies right out the window!

  8. Barb DeLong says:

    Jenny, I wish I could write scenes out of order, but I just can't. I'm a die-hard plotter, with my 3-act structure, beat sheets, spreadsheets, character maps. I could go on. Since one scene leads to another and another, building on past dialogue, info revealed, etc., I'd get hopelessly mixed up if I grabbed a scene to write way ahead of where I am. What would have already been revealed and said in those intervening, unwritten scenes that I wouldn't want to repeat? I know--that's what the editing process is for. I like what Chris said, that we have 26 letters to work with. But like Ikea, there is some assembly required. LOL!

  9. dholcomb1 says:

    I'm helping a friend with formatting her book, and that sounds like the process she uses. She has a background in screenwriting, so it may explain how she came to that process.

    denise

  10. Jenny, this is full of wisdom to unpack. Thank you! I bet many debut memoirists are scene writers, and I think I started that way 20 years ago. Of course, memoirists don't have to make up scenes, just recreate them, and then choose what to keep or kill. Then, of course, we have to tie the scenes together with a narrative - the harder part, IMO..

  11. I'm a scene writer, period. But I go in linear order - which may be harder - one scene polished and finished and cemented into the whole at a time.

    My other go to is extreme plotting, which means I know almost everything about a scene before I start writing it - except exactly how it happens. For me, that means I can concentrate on living a scene as I write it, which is plenty of excitement. I don't get writer's block because I have a long list of heuristics I attend to before trying to write the scene, and by the time I know it that intimately, it usually almost starts assembling itself, and I can focus on the characters and the language and the techniques.

    It keeps what I have to deal with to about the length of a short story - about what I can hold in my head at a time - and uses all the tricks I've learned in thirty years of writing which are a written, ordered 'process' list. When my brain isn't working (often), I can still do a lot of the steps, so when the brain is functional it can do the actual writing of the scene in my controlled environment. Not fast, but it works.

    The only thing that matters about how we write is whether we like the results. I do.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I love everything about this comment, Alicia! I too like to write short and just focus on the scene because too much in my head spoils my joy in the writing. It becomes a chore trying to juggle all that, so I'm super focused on the scene i'm writing (and ONLY that scene).

      I am terribly impressed with you that you can do it all in order!

      • I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had to go back and change something in a prior scene for PURGATORY.

        But it is forced on me by the inability to think well (that ol' brain damage).

        What it feels like, when writing, is that any exploration of the landscape around a scene depends on the history from all previous scenes having been declared canon: so I can depend on them, my brain has now decided that is how those scenes actually happened.

        Unless forced, I return only to read what happened, so I can continue to write forward. If I have the sense to record the little details in the character's bio, or an appropriate file, I don't even have to go back to the scenes themselves.

        I HAVE to do it in order, because I cannot carry uncertainty forward. You're praising something I've no choice about.

        And if I COULDN'T do it, I would have abandoned the writing YEARS ago, so I'm glad it still works for me. Just pray it holds out until I finish; I do, every day.

  12. Bridgitte Rodguez says:

    Thanks for your article! I didn’t realize that I was a scene writer, and that it had a name, until your article! You also gave some very useful tips on how to make my scene writing more productive and structured.

  13. JL Nich Author SFF says:

    I love the idea of quilting it together. I use Scrivener and I jump around in my scenes depending on my mood/writing interests. I don't exactly quilt. I'm a plotter and utilize Plottr software to really work out the beats. But my mind may not be willing to work on a specific scene so I can just jump to another part of the story and start fleshing it out, sometimes.
    I stitch it all together eventually. Thanks.

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