Scene Writing is Where the Fun Happens

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We’ve had some good posts and comments about writing methods, grouped generally under the two broad headings of plotter/outliner and pantser. You can read the latest entries HERE and HERE.

What I want to examine today is a bromide I often hear when this subject comes up. It issues from the pantsing side of the room, and goes something like this: “If I had an outline and knew everything beforehand, that would take all the fun out of writing the book.”

I beg to differ. For the one thing both sides should agree on is that writing scenes is the most fun of all.

Why? Because, of course, the scene level is where the story actually happens, unfolds, gets “discovered.” For the pantser it’s all discovery. For the outliner, the discovery is in finding, and delighting in, the granular details of bringing the scene to life.

Let’s illustrate how this is done. I give you a writer named Jeb David Huggins (this is a mash up of the three writers behind one of my favorite action movies, The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. Jeb Stuart and David Twohy did the screenplay; Roy Huggins was the creator of the TV series upon which the movie was based).

Jeb has a tight outline for the story and knows the ups and downs and ins and outs of the plot. He’s created a fantastic cast of characters, from Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) all the way to the Chicago detectives who muck up the case (Ron Dean and Joseph Kosala). Now he starts writing.

And does he knows how to open a thriller! A murder scene and the arrest of respected surgeon Dr. Richard Kimble on suspicion of killing his wife. Trial. Conviction. Death Row.

Then he’s on the prison bus, and there’s an attempted takeover by the inmates. The crash. The train coming! Kimble saves a wounded prison guard, and barely makes it off the train!

Now, in his outline, Jeb has a scene card: KIMBLE JUMPS OUT OF THE PRISON BUS JUST BEFORE TRAIN RAMS IT.

At outline time that was enough. But while writing the scene Jeb gets a happy idea. What if we keep this going? What if the train derails…and heads straight for the escaping Kimble, who is still in leg irons!

Hot dog! (That’s what writers say when they come upon a delightful idea).

More delight comes in the writing of dialogue. You have so much leeway here. Whether you’ve outlined the scene or are pantsing through it, dialogue is yet to be discovered.

In The Fugitive, after the bus escape, Kimble is alive but wounded. The one guy who helps him is Copeland, a big, bad dude from the bus. Really bad. He’s a stone-cold killer. He says to Kimble, “Now you listen. I don’t give a damn which way you go. Just don’t follow me. You got that?”

As he’s pulling away Kimble says, “Hey Copeland.” Copeland turns around. Kimble says, “Be good.”

It’s a great moment which was not in the original script. Sometimes happy surprises are provided by the characters in the scene!

Let’s cut to a scene further on, where Kimble has managed to find some old coveralls and now must sneak into a rural hospital. He has to tend to his wound, change his appearance, find clothes, and get out.

That could be the scene card: KIMBLE HAS TO TEND TO HIS WOUND, CHANGE HIS APPEARANCE, FIND CLOTHES, AND GET OUT.

Both outliners and pantsers need to understand scene structure. I break it down into the Three O’s: Objective, Obstacles, Outcome. This is where you brainstorm.

Kimble’s objective is as described above. You—be ye pantser or plotter—have an idea of the outcome (Kimble will get away, but with more trouble following).

Now the fun of the obstacles. In the movie we have the following: time pressure, finding a room with medicine and stitching supplies; a state trooper arriving; a fax coming in with Kimble’s face; finding a room with a sedated patient; Kimble shaving off his beard…(brainstorm, brainstorm) a nurse enters the room! Kimble hides, nurse leaves, Kimble needs food…he takes the uneaten breakfast of the sedated man…Kimble finds a doctor’s smock and puts it on and starts walking out…(brainstorm, brainstorm) the state trooper is coming right toward him! The trooper says, “Hey Doc, we’re looking for a prisoner from that wreck. He might be hurt.”

Kimble keeps walking. “What does he look like?”

TROOPER: Six-one, 180, brown hair, brown eyes, beard. Seen anyone like that around?

KIMBLE: Every time I look in the mirror, pal. Except for the beard, of course.

So far so good. Anything we can add? (brainstorm, brainstorm). Ah! As Kimble is about to walk off, the trooper says, “Hey Doc.” Uh-oh. Why? Then the trooper indicates Kimble should zip up. His fly is open. Happy surprise! (Any time you can add a little laughter relief to a thriller, do it.)

Outcome: Kimble exits the hospital and steals an ambulance. Wait…we can do better. As Kimble comes out an ambulance pulls up, and out of the back the paramedics have trouble with the gurney. Kimble helps, but on the gurney is the guard whose life he saved! The guard starts to say his name, so Kimble nabs an oxygen mask and presses it on the guard’s face.

Now what? Kimble tells the medics to inform the attending physician that the guard has a puncture in his upper gastric area. One medic says to the other, “How the hell could he tell that by looking at his face?”

Perfect! Kimble gets the ambulance, but because of his act of decency (he’s a doctor, he can’t help it!) he is going to get in more trouble pretty quickly.

This is fun! (Note: Outcomes should generally set the character back, make things worse. You can have an objective realized, as in this scene, but then have the good outcome lead to greater trouble down the line.)

Here’s another area for surprise: how we characterize. In The Fugitive, the best lines come from Sam Gerard and the great turn by Tommy Lee Jones. Remember the spillway scene? Kimble has a gun on Gerard. Kimble says, “I didn’t kill my wife!” And Gerard says, “I don’t care!” Great dialogue! (Again, not in the original script; many of these lines were improvised on set.)

And then Gerard has a team with him, who provide more comic relief. At one point Gerard asks his youngest teammate, “What are you doing?” The young man says, “I’m thinking.” Gerard: “Well think me up a chocolate donut with some of those sprinkles, as long as you’re thinking.”

See how much fun we’re having? Yes, even the outliners!

So find your delight in your obstacles and outcomes, your characterizations and dialogue. If you’re doing this right you’ll say “Hot dog” a lot!

Are you having fun yet? Tell us about it. Note: I’m on the road and in the air today, so I’ll be sketchy checking in. Talk amongst yourselves!

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16 thoughts on “Scene Writing is Where the Fun Happens

  1. My daily writing goals revolve around scenes. What’s supposed to happen, and how can I make it happen? And what would happen if what I thought was going to happen didn’t happen? My characters are on a train from London to Edinburgh. Just yesterday, I had set things up for the obligatory “first kiss” in my mystery romance. But when I went to write it, this happened (note: This is still ‘first round writing. Cleanup and polishing comes later.)

    Heather stepped away from the counter, moved through the vestibule connecting this car to theirs. Chase caught up, grabbed her hand. She spun to face him. Her instincts might be shot to hell, but that was heat in his eyes. She tilted her head upward.
    He dropped her hand as if it had been hiding a scorpion, and pulled open the vestibule door. “After you.”

  2. Also one of my favorite movies. I’m a junkie for underdog heroes who have no way out. Oh, another fave! No Way Out with Kevin Costner.

    And in The Fugitive, my favorite line has always been the “I don’t care!” by Jones, and another one. I think it’s the last line in the movie, Ford says as they both sit in the cop car, something like, “So, you do care.” Jones responds with a grin as he removes the handcuffs, “Don’t tell anyone.”

    Great post, JSB. Very quickly, because I hear knocking at the door-other TKZers wanting in, I’m currently working on getting my MC into more trouble as I edit scene-by-scene, and work on my Reverse Outline.

    You’re right. I’ve said “Hot dog!” just a few times.

  3. JSB, I have a question for you, off-topic. Hope it’s okay with you.

    I’m reading Breach of Promise right now. Enjoying it immensely. As I read any novel these days, I consciously look for “the mirror moment”. I think I found it in this book and wanted to find out if I’m right.

    On my Kindle, it’s page 188. Mark is talking to his agent, Nancy, and she asks him for a decision about where he wants his career to go. He thinks, about his career, and about Maddie. Then, he chooses and gives her the answer. (Not going to be more detailed here-some of y’all might want to read the book.)

    Am I right?

  4. Great positive! The scene is the thing, so to speak. And I love The Fugitive.

    Here’s a fun aside: My favorite pulp writer, David Goodis, who was also a fellow Philadelphian and fellow alum of Temple Univerisity (I’m biased homer), posthumously won a court appeal against the producers of The Fugitive TV series. He alleged copyright infringement as the premise was very similar to his serialized novel Dark Passage (later, a great Bogie and Bacall film).

    • Sure about that? Because I believe the TV show was based on the real case of Dr. Sam Shepherd, accused of murdering his wife. Maybe it was another show…(Love Gaddis BTW).

      • I’m sure about his estate winning the lawsuit. It’s google-able. Was it the proper outcome? Who knows.

  5. I have a counter example from my hybrid plotter/pantser attempt at my first novel: I had intended it to be a straight mystery. No romance. Just a puzzle solving exercise. But things changed.

    I wanted the first clue to be found when the MC takes her car in for servicing. The owner of the auto repair shop was to be a nice, middle-aged friend of the family who discovers the clue. But when the owner appeared in the scene, he turned out to be a handsome and successful young man. Even though he had known the MC for years, he shows a sudden romantic interest in her. HOT DOG!

    Writing that scene was fun. The characters did all the work. But I had to restructure the entire story to include a subplot of the romance between these two.

  6. Great post. I’m an outliner and you hit all my buttons. I think my scenes are even better because I know where I’m going thanks to the outline. I can concentrate more on them instead of worrying where I’m going next.

    I look at the outline as a map. That doesn’t mean I can’t take the occasional side trip or scenic drive.

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