Discover Your Scene

by James Scott Bell

We’ve often discussed here the different approaches to writing a novel. In dualistic terms, we sometimes use the terms “plotters” and “pantsers.” Or, “outliners” and “intuitive (or discovery) writers.” There are some ’tweeners (“plantsers”), too. Doesn’t matter, as long as the author creates a finished work that’s the best he or she can do.

But that’s on the macro level. Today I want to focus on the micro level—the scene—and make a pitch for the mini-outline.

A scene is a unit of action, usually defined by a single setting and linear time. To work as dramatic action, there needs to be a viewpoint character with a scene goal—the Objective—who is met with conflict—the Obstacle(s). The scene ends with the Outcome, which can be failure, setback, or portent.

The occasional success is allowed, but should lead to more trouble. Like in that great pet-the-dog scene in The Fugitive where Kimble, posing as a hospital custodian, checks a kid’s x-ray and determines he needs the operating room, stat. He changes the orders in the elevator. And saves the kid’s life. Success! Ah, but a doctor saw him looking at the film, confronts him, and calls security. Trouble!

All right, you’re about to write a scene. You know who the viewpoint character is.

You can pants it. Or you can plan it. This is our micro issue.

Some simply start writing, letting the scene unfold in their head as they take it down. Like transcribing a movie playing in the mind.

The other way is to take a few minutes to think about the three Os listed above.

Objective—Who is the viewpoint character? What does this character want to achieve in the scene? (As Vonnegut once said, a character has to want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.)

Obstacles—Brainstorm possible areas of conflict, e.g., another character with an opposing agenda. Or physical barriers (the bridge is out; the building is locked). Make a list, push past the familiar, then choose the best ones.

Outcome—I see five possible scene endings: 1) success; 2) success, but with a cost; 3) failure; 4) failure with a setback (the situation gets worse); and 5) open-ended (we have to wait for the outcome. This is a staple of multiple POV thrillers, cutting away from one scene to another scene with a different POV).

Writing with this mini-outline enables me to pick the best course among many possibilities. It also helps me to avoid clichés and stereotypes, which are often the first things that come to mind when you simply start writing a scene.

In short, I dig up the best nuggets with a few minutes of brainstorming instead of writing a scene, seeing what I came up with, and doing a lot of fixing. I’ll still have things to fix, but I do that with light editing of my previous day’s work. (Whatever approach, it’s the fixing that is the key to writing books that actually sell and not just take up space. That’s why I wrote a new writing book up for a pre-sale deal now.)

I’ll give you an example from my WIP, my next Mike Romeo thriller. I have a scene where Romeo goes to a house that used to be owned by a key witness. His Objective is simple: find out where the guy moved to.

In my head I had Mike knocking on the door and hearing a voice ask what he wants. Mike lays it out, but the voice refuses to answer the question, tells Mike to go away. There’s an Obstacle. Despite his best attempts at persuasion, the Outcome is failure.

That was my first thought, and it wasn’t enough. Had I written it out and moved on, I know I would have been disappointed upon revision.

So I brainstormed. First, more Obstacles. I thought about the setting. What else was there? How about a smell? Maybe dust…or smoke…ah! Popping into my mind: the odor of marijuana. The “sweet, skunky” smell of burning hippie lettuce. Where would that come from?

Why, the house next door. I brainstormed who it might be. Not one, not two, but three young guys, in folding chairs by a car they are presumably working on, passing around a pipe.

Mike asks them if they knew the guy who lived next door. Their answers are less than helpful, but sure does make them laugh. Mike tries the house across the street and this time it’s a thin old guy on a lawn tractor holding a hoe like a lance. Reminds Mike of Don Quixote. They guy is a misanthrope, not helpful at all.

So after three Obstacles, the ultimate Outcome was failure. Mike doesn’t get the answer he’s looking for.

What follows is a reaction beat. A full reaction beat is made up of Emotion, Analysis, and Decision. (Many of you will recognize all this as the Swain/Bickham “scene and sequel.”

Which we can go into another time.)

Point is I came up with a scene that works for my WIP, with ideas formed with a few minutes of brainstorming.

So I ask: What is your approach to scene writing? Fly into it? Plan it out? Something in between?

29 thoughts on “Discover Your Scene

  1. Excellent refresher, Jim. Couldn’t arrive at a better time, as I’m doing one last read-through before creating ARCs.

    To answer your question, I’m somewhere in between. I usually barrel into the scene. Halfway through, I walk away to mull over possible Os. And, of course, during revisions I nitpick each scene to death.

  2. Great reminders, and working on a scene is far less angst-inducing than thinking about how many more words you have to write to finish the book.
    Coincidentally, I was organizing my office after having to move and disconnect everything for a new window (the glass, not PC) install and ran across my folder on scenes. I can’t remember who gave the workshop, or when it was, and can almost read my notes.
    “To justify a scene: POV character must have something happen to alter the course of the story. Change in behavior/attitude either set in scene or set up the change. Shoot for a target. Hit it, then STOP. Unless reaction is unexpected, If the reaction is “normal & expected” don’t insult the reader by telling it.”

  3. As a planner/analyzer by nature, you’d think I’d write books with this thoughtful approach but unfortunately, I don’t. I have a very vague outline in my head of the whole story before I start writing, then just sit down and see what comes out of my head and onto the keyboard.

    But immediately as I was reading your post, 2 ways to use this three O’s assessment of Objective/Obstacles/Outcome that I think would work for me are: 1) after I’ve created an outline (detailed or not) for my story & use the three O’s to tackle the first couple of scenes to get me started on the manuscript (and it seems it would become more naturally ingrained to automatically do that as you use the technique more often) and then, 2) the first revision sweep (either if I’m editing the next day or doing a full re-read of the manuscript).

    I sincerely appreciate this post and the timing. I just finished the first draft read through of a mystery manuscript I’m working on with a friend. One of the things I want to do is make a list of the scenes and I think putting this list on a spreadsheet with the three O’s for each scene would help greatly. There are a few instances in our manuscript where I read and say “Why did we even do this scene?” That’s where those three O’s come in.

    Thanks for giving me a lightbulb moment! I needed that.

    • Glad to help, BK. That’s a great idea, to put your scenes in a spreadsheet with the three Os, then you can see what needs to be fixed and what needs to be deleted.

  4. Terrific overview, Jim. Like Sue, this arrived at a great time for me as well, as I’m doing a final revision on my mystery, and working on a new opening scene, one that goes before the original opening scene. The original opened with Meg dealing with a disturbance in the library, which segued into a great disturbance, which bore directly on the mystery itself.

    However, this is a cozy, and my thoughtful betas wanted a better grounded in my heroine right up front. So the new opening deals with her arriving a couple of hours earlier as the branch opens on her first day temporarily in charge.

    To answer your question, I’m an outliner, so individual scenes usually flow from the brief description I’ve worked up. I usually have the three O’s running in the background of my mind.

    In the case of this new opening scene, the other challenge was to introduce a few characters up front, along with my hero, and having some opening tension counterbalanced with a cozy feeling that establishes a warm feel for the library before I disrupt it with the Boombox Kids playing Tears For Fears 🙂

    • Well, you know me, Dale. Stress the tension. I’ve sometimes started with the disturbance in line one, then dropped back to fill in what the day was like before it happened. Boombox me!

  5. Thanks for mentioning Bickham, Jim. Before I heard Jack Bickham at Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in the ’90s, I thought just filling lots of pages with interesting characters and a few murders was how to write a mystery. The scene and sequel concept made the lightbulb go on.

    Later, I discovered this guy named Bell who wrote Plot and Structure.. That book reassured me that was okay not to outline as long as certain goals were accomplished. What a relief for this pantser.

    Like Sue, I fly into a scene then get stuck partway. Going for a walk gives the subconscious a chance to pop a solution up. Then on rewrites, I work to strengthen the three Os. The objective grows more ambitious, the obstacles grow higher, broader, and deeper, and the outcome is usually the worst possible turn of events that launches into a new point of no return for that character.

    You always explain complicated concepts in a clear way and spell out practical, doable ways to take action. Many thanks!

    • Thanks for the good word, Debbie. Bickham was a big influence early on in my writing, too. And it’s good to give the subconscious space to do a little work.

  6. Thanks for this reminder, Jim, that a scene is a story in itself. I tend to begin a scene without a clear understanding of what will happen to end it, but I know it has to have an arc, and I keep your O-O-O structure in mind.

    Having said that, my WIP is out to beta readers and my copy editor. I will still make changes before it’s published, so I have time to review each scene to make sure it adheres to the three O’s.

    • Sol Stein used to recommend going through a manuscript and deleting every weak scene. I have found that using the three Os eliminates that need most of the time. It becomes mainly a matter of strengthening what’s there. Especially the scene endings.

  7. Movies of my story play in my mind from the moment I come up with the idea. I love them, and they run much faster than I could ever write, so I call that my pantsing. That said, by the time I sit down to write, I know what my scenes are. My philosophy is, I can plan the events but I can’t plan for how the characters will react, which makes the writing interesting. And of course, sometimes I have just one line notes for a scene like “cousins hang out and take care of baby,” which develop into the most emotionally charged scene ever.

    • I also like to think of movies in the mind. The nice thing is you can have the characters improvise there, and come up with good moves, just like in theater rehearsals.

    • I am with you 300%.
      I am a pantser and learn backward the craft of writing.
      It has a time-cost, but what a creative joy.

  8. I like your system, Jim. I think I’m doing something very similar – with the “something in between.” I use a broad-strokes outline with plot points, signposts, mirror moment, etc., and use a brief paragraph to describe what will happen in each scene. When I’m ready for a specific scene, I brainstorm at the same time I’m writing sentence fragments in my detailed scene notes (on a Google doc page). That way I can “see” what I have, delete, add, rearrange. When the left brain has the mess organized with the objective laid out, the obstacles/conflict defined, and the outcome/cliffhangers/surprises determined (along with other scene objectives), then it’s time to turn the right brain loose in Scrivener.

  9. Great learnin’ post, Mr.Bell!

    I think I’ll take a leaf out and create a “scene synopsis” doc on my current WIP.

    Question: would it work on a non-fiction somehow? How would it be different?

    Happy Sunday all?

    • Good question, Deb. In a history or memoir, you of course have the objective facts. But you can find the drama and choose the points to emphasize. I have a great lecture series from The Great Books, by Rufus Fears, on Churchill. Fears turns history into storytelling, and has a way of ending a lecture on a note that makes you want to go immediately to the next one (like flipping the page). So…yes.

  10. Yeah, Dr. Bell’s Os are embedded in my workflow, although I’ve tweaked them a bit. I have a full tab doc called Scene Summary where I list every scene with the key points noted. I have the scene Mission at top (aka Objective). Then, under Location and Day/Time I have Opening, Obstacle(s), and Outcome. Works for me.

  11. “Burning hippie lettuce” almost made me fall out of my chair. Never heard that description before. Love it.

    Thanks for the laugh this morning, Jim.

  12. Thank you so much for such clarity and the illusion of simplicity.
    I’m a 300% atrocious pantser learning to outline when my umpteenth revision turns out to be a rewrite of everything because I changed, thanks to one of your books, my concept, premise, and theme.
    The triple O scene outline is now pinned on my wall.

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