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Writing a Novel Scene by Scene

Tips for WritersWhat I’m going to say will either sound like writing blaspheme, or will set you free.

Also, I’m going to give you a disclaimer: the process I’m sharing works for me. I don’t expect it to work for everyone. Some of you may be kindred spirits; some of you exact opposites. Wherever you stand, take a stand for your own writing. Try a different way or analyze it; you can improvise, accept or discard.

Stop outlining.

Okay, I said it.¬† Stop outlining your novel before you write it. And yes, I know that there are outliners and pantsers, but I have always been an outliner. What I’ve found is that you need both skills, but at different times in the process. When I was 13, I outlined my first novel. I’m not going to tell you how many novel journals I’ve outlined since, including two independent projects in college.

However, it was also in college that a professor taught me to write in scenes. I’ve never looked at movies the same way because movies are constructed that way. It’s easier to see the construction in a movie than in a novel, so I’ve studied movie scenes ever since. It’s also how I began to recognize the hero’s journey.

But I didn’t know how to bring it together–outlining, scenes and journey–until¬† I took Mary Carroll Moore’s workshop on book development. That is where I learned to map the hero’s journey to a storyboard. It also provided me with a big “a-ha” moment regarding scenes.

When I took Moore’s class, I was proud of the fact that I had 99 pages including my outline. She was unimpressed. She explained that in order to work the storyboard, you needed material to break down into scenes. So, she had me break down all my pages into scenes.

You see, we tend to write linear and put all the back-story in the front of the book, as if needing to explain what is happening. Outlining is also linear and these processes tend to shut down the creative possibilities.

My professor who taught me to write in scenes also told me to let my characters talk. Whenever I let a character have dialog, I feel like I’m channeling somebody else. I’m not crazy, it’s just that dialog allows me to tap into that creativity stifled by my years of rigid outlining.

And the characters always take the story in a different direction than I intended.

I was beginning to understand what it means when writers advise other writers to “just write.” So stop outlining and write. You might be surprised at what happens. I actually finished two novels in less than one year. Granted, one novel took me four years to get to 99 pages. The next novel, I cranked out 400 pages in less than 30 days with no outline.

I’m going to give you three scenarios for writing a novel scene by scene using the storyboard. The first is based on my introduction to the storyboard. The second reflects how I tossed outlining to the wind. The third is a compromise if not outlining unsettles you. You can improvise, use your own colors and change up the process.

Scenario #1: Incomplete Manuscript with Outline

  1. Buy a stack of yellow sticky notes, a black pen and a red pen.
  2. Break down your manuscript into scenes. A chapter is made up of many scenes, so make sure you are breaking down into small chunks.
  3. Use a pen to line across the page to indicate a scene-break.
  4. Summarize each scene concisely (such as, “Mindy robs the candy store,” or “Detective Bard books Mindy downtown”).
  5. Write each scene that you have written in black on a yellow sticky note.
  6. Refer to your outline and write down each scene that you don’t have in red (next week, we’ll talk more about finding gaps).
  7. Pick out your most crucial five scenes. These are your anchors that express the hero’s journey. In “Miracle of Ducks” I opened with my character’s husband leaving for Iraq which sets her up–reluctantly–for the hero’s journey.
  8. Map out your novel according to the “W” and write the “red” scenes that you don’t have yet.

11-New System for Tagging Scenes

Scenario #2: Use NaNoWriMo to Write Your Novel

  1. Sign up for National Novel Writing Month at nanowrimo.org.
  2. Commit to 1,667 words a day for 30 days in November.
  3. Write. Just write. You will be so surprised! I wrote an entire novel, scene by scene by just writing each day in November and I had no idea what I was going to write beyond my opening scene.
  4. If that makes you freeze, but you want to break the “outline the whole book first” habit, just start with a single scene the first day. Place the scene on your “W” and think of a couple more possibilities without outlining every chapter. Give yourself the creative freedom to jump around.
  5. Write scenes as if they were islands. During revision (in a few Mondays from now) we’ll explore using the storyboard to revise. Set yourself free from your inner critic and write. Don’t worry about gaps. That comes later.

15-Writing Scenes for NaNoWriMo

Scenario #3: Use the Storyboard to Map the Five Anchors of a Hero’s Journey

  1. If you can’t breath unless you have some sort of outline, try outlining just the five anchors of the hero’s journey: the call, the test, the cave, the transformation, the return.
  2. Write a scene for each of those.
  3. Next, write the scenes that connect each anchor to the other.

12-First Leg of the W

Be a writer and write. Give yourself material before you start committing to structure. Structure is the first step of editing, and editing is not writing. Allow yourself to make big mistakes; to not know if your scene is plausible or accurate. That’s research and research is also a part of editing, not writing. Allow yourself to make little mistakes. If you are constantly scanning and going back and correcting punctuation or spelling, you are editing, not writing.

The importance of thinking in scenes is that you are creating a movie of sorts in the reader’s head. You will later link scenes to tell the story in such a way that is engaging. Don’t tell everything. Decide what to withhold, how to pace, when to reveal your character’s motives–but that all comes with revision. Write like the wind; revise slow and bright like a long summer day.

Use your board to track or map your progress as you write scene by scene, and next week we’ll discuss how to use it to find gaps.

How would you use the “W” storyboard to write a novel?