A Scene Template For New Writers

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

 

Today’s first-page critique provides an opportunity to discuss the nuts and bolts of the basic unit of novel writing—the scene. Let’s have a look the opening and take up this crucial craft matter on the other side.

 

He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico, 
on the first Tuesday in February. I’m enjoying very 
warm days, very hot food and good cold beer. 
Wish you were here.
Frank.”

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

Local people from all over the region had been crowding into the city to witness the event; so had a very large number of turistas. Not one hotel room in town was now available. Frank was glad he’d made all his reservations back in October.

The time was around 8 in the evening. The postcard he’d just signed lay on the table beside a painted glass lamp containing a burning candle. He sat in an outdoor restaurante, beneath the ceiling of a brightly lit arcade, across the street from the Main Plaza of Oaxaca Mexico. The local people called the Plaza “El Zocalo”.

Frank was seated alone, having a dinner of chicken burritos, rice, and refried beans, along with a mug of Tres Equis beer. The sound of performing mariachis came from tables at the far end of the arcade. They sang the traditional “Los Tres Caballeros”. Across the street in the Zocalo, a different band performed “Guadalajara”. The different tunes performed at the same time filled the warm evening air with melodious confusion.

At the table next to his, three stylishly dressed Oaxacan girls in their late teens sat chatting amiably while drinking beer of the Bohemia brand. They had straight black hair, tan complexions and full, firm figures.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

Everyone in the seats around them looked where she was pointing. Frank saw an unsmiling, casually dressed middle aged Mexican hombre, with thinning hair and glasses, moving around the tables in the arcade. If he hadn’t been pointed out, Frank would not have noticed him.

As the man walked past the stylish girls’ table, the three spoke respectfully. “Buenas noches Cacique.”

He replied, still not smiling. “Buenas noches senoritas.”

He continued moving past the other tables, where all the local people respectfully greeted the Supreme High Priest of all the Aztecs.

# # #

JSB: Okay, we’ve got some work to do. I see two promising things in the material: a) the setting (Oaxaca); and b) the potential strangeness of an Aztec priest in the modern world, performing sacrifices yet!

The problem with this page is that the material is front loaded with exposition (i.e., story information the author wants the reader to know), and what minimal action there is comes too late, with too little to keep us interested.

Write this down and stick it near your computer: It is not information that captures readers. Nor is it characters. It is characters in motion toward an objective.

That is what a scene must have—one or more characters who want something, even if (as Kurt Vonnegut suggested) it’s just a glass of water.

Since you seem new to fiction writing, I’d like to provide you with a scene template. As you grow in the craft, you will learn how to riff within this basic structure. But you can’t play jazz piano without first learning the scales, right?

A scene has three component parts: Objective, obstacles, and outcome.

Objective

A novel is about a character using strength of will to attain a crucial objective. For example, in the movie The Fugitive the wrongly convicted Dr. Richard Kimble must avoid being captured, or he’ll be sent to Death Row for a murder he did not commit. To exonerate himself—and get justice for his murdered wife—he needs to stay free long enough to find the one-armed man who killed her.

Now, each scene in the film has a sub-objective that connects somehow to the big one. Thus, early on, the wounded Kimble has to sneak into a rural hospital and treat himself, without arousing suspicion. Later he poses as a janitor in a hospital in Chicago with the objective of gaining access to the records of the prosthetics wing. Why? So he can get a list of one-armed men to track down.

Obstacles

Conflict and tension are the lifeblood of a scene. When the viewpoint character is confronted with obstacles to gaining his scene objective—in the form of opposing characters, physical barriers, time pressure, or all three—things get tense.

In the rural hospital scene from The Fugitive, Kimble must sneak past the loading dock and find a treatment room. After stitching himself up, he needs to shave off his beard and steal some clothes. He does this in the room of a patient who is out like a light. But a nurse walks into the room! And a state trooper has arrived because Kimble might be in the area! The tension mounts as we worry about his cover being blown at any moment.

Outcome

A scene has to end at some point, and needs to answer the question: did the viewpoint character realize his objective?

The answer can be: No, Yes, or Oh my gosh!

A NO answer is always a good default, because it makes the character’s situation worse. When a character is set back in his quest, the reader’s worry mounts. And that is what readers want to do: worry about characters in crisis all the way to the end.

A YES needs to happen on occasion, but when it does, brainstorm how it can lead to more trouble. For example, in the scene in The Fugitive where Kimble poses as a janitor, he is temporarily stuck on a crowded trauma floor. He spots a little boy in distress. When a doctor tells him to take the boy to an observation room, Kimble has a scene objective: Help this boy! As he pushes the gurney Kimble sneaks a look at the X-rays and the chart, and starts asking the boy diagnostic questions. He determines the boy needs surgery right away. In the elevator he changes the orders and takes the boy to an operating room. He alerts a doctor and shows her the orders. The boy will be saved! That’s a YES answer. However, his earlier look at the X-rays was seen by the doctor who asked him to help. She confronts him and calls security. Now Kimble is outed and has to get out of there! He’s in worse shape because of his good deed.

An OH MY GOSH! scene ending means you leave the situation temporarily unresolved (a “cliffhanger”) and cut to another scene (perhaps with another viewpoint character). If you write in First Person POV or Limited Third Person (meaning one viewpoint character throughout the book) you can end a chapter on a cliffhanger and take up matters in the following chapter.

That’s basic scene structure.

Now we have to discuss how you get into a scene. This is, of course, crucial for opening pages, but no less so for any scene you write. So I’ll give you a template for this as well. Learn it, know why it works, then, as I mentioned, you can begin to play around with it.

First thing I want you to do is put the name of the viewpoint character in the first paragraph of every scene you write. Also, give us an indication of the setting and some kind of action.

Here is the first line of Harlan Coben’s Missing You: 

Kat Donavan spun off her father’s old stool, readying to leave O’Malley’s Pub, when Stacy said, “You’re not going to like what I did.”

See that? Named character, setting, and action. (Here’s another tip that will help you enormously—in general, get to dialogue as soon as possible. That forces you to write in scene style.)

In a happy coincidence, here’s the opening line from yesterday’s first-page critique:

The instant her helicopter touched down, Francine threw the door open, leaned out, and shouted, “Any survivors?”

So how about this for your opening line:

Frank Sandrell was about to take another pull on his Tres Equis when a girl at the next table shouted, “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

See how much better that is? The first thing readers look for in a scene is the who. Give them that up front. This line also has an indication of setting (drinking beer and next table imply a café; the Spanish language alerts us to a foreign place).

Next, drop in some details on the setting and situation in the thought-voice-attitude of the character. Here is the next paragraph from Coben’s novel:

O’Malley’s used to be an old-school cop bar. Kat’s grandfather had hung out here. So had her father and their fellow NYPD colleagues. Now it had been turned into a yuppie, preppy, master-of-the-universe, poser asshat bar, loaded up with guys who sported crisp white shirts under black suits, two-day stubble, mansacped to the max to look un-manscaped. They smirked a lot, these soft men, their hair moussed to the point of overcoif, and ordered Ketel One instead of Grey Goose because they watched some TV ad telling them that was what real men drink.

What you have to note here is that the above description is filtered through the voice of the POV character. This is how Kat thinks of the place and the men in it. Thus, your assignment is to take some of the essential info in your page (e.g., Oaxaca, mariachis, brightly-lit arcade) and weave it into a paragraph with Frank’s voice and attitude.

The next part of the template: Somewhere within the first page of your scene make it clear what the character’s objective is. I’m not sure what Frank’s is except that it has something to do with this Aztec priest guy. What about him? Does Frank want to kill him? Learn from him? Take his power for himself?

Next: brainstorm various obstacles to that objective. Go to town with this before you write any scene. Often (most of the time?) our mind first comes up with familiar tropes, because that’s what we’ve seen in countless books and movies. Take time to come up with something fresh. Make a list of possibilities then choose the best ones.

Lastly, you decide what the outcome is going to be. Brainstorm this part, too. You may decide to change it in the course of writing the scene, and that’s perfectly fine. But you need to write your scene with a destination in mind.

Whew! That’s a lot to work on, I know. But it’s absolutely necessary for your development. Because a successful novel is a series of scenes, none of which are dull. It’s a high bar, but we’re not peddling peanuts on the street corner here. We’re attempting to transport impatient and distracted readers into a fictional world and hold them there for the duration!

Let me end today’s lesson with a few style notes:

He wrote on the back of a postcard.

“I’m in Oaxaca (Pronounced “Wah-Hah-Kah”) Mexico …

The disembodied “He” writing on a postcard did not create a picture of a character for me. The message, too, was a bit odd. Would a guy writing a postcard really use up valuable space giving the pronunciation?

Further, don’t put quotation marks around written text. That should be called out via italics, a different font or a block indentation.

23 year old Frank Sandrell thought;

Never begin a sentence with numerals. It should be: Twenty-three-year-old Frank Sandrell thought …

And you meant to use a colon, not a semi-colon. That’s a typo, obviously, but a big one, because I don’t want to see you use a semi-colon in fiction ever!

This new El Cacique Premiero of the Aztecs received his Investiture on New Years Day. He’s been going around the Country, performing sacrifices in all the major Cities. He arrived in Oaxaca today, just like I did. While I’m here, he’ll actually be immolating a devout Aztec maiden under the midday sun; [AHHH!!!] presenting her as an offering to Los Teochacos, keeping them satisfied, so they will continue “to sustain the World and all that is therein”.

This doesn’t sound like a real thought. It’s exposition from the author. Note: interior thoughts are generally short, a line or two. Otherwise it tends to sound fake. Rework these sections so the thoughts sound like the character’s voice in that particular moment.

Also, that last quote looks odd. It’s supposed to be the Aztec priest, I guess, but it throws us. Try not to do that. And, of course, the punctuation always goes inside the quote mark.

The time was around 8 in the evening.

As a general rule, spell out numbers from zero to one hundred. Thus: The time was around eight in the evening.

This can be a confusing style issue, but here’s one helpful article you can refer to.

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

When a foreign language is spoken by a character, render it in italics. Thus:

One of the girls called out and pointed. “Mira! Hay El Cacique Premiero!”

That’s enough for today, writer! I hope it helps. Write, learn, edit, rewrite, get feedback.

Repeat …

Your turn, Zoners. Any other advice for today’s writer?

9+

Herd Your CATS

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know that getting a reader inside a lead character’s head is one of the keys to compelling fiction. But it has to be done seamlessly so it doesn’t jerk us out of the narrative and put a crimp in the fictive dream.

Which means we have to learn to handle what I call “Character Alone Thinking Scenes” (CATS) in a deft manner.

The first issue is whether to begin the book with a CATS. As last Wednesday’s first-page critique demonstrated (in my view, at least) the answer should almost always be No.

Why? Because we have to have a little personal investment in someone before we can care deeply about their feelings.

Imagine going to a party and you’re introduced to a fellow with a drink in his hand. You say, “How are you?” and the guy says, “I’m really depressed, man, I wake up every day and the room looks dark and the sun never shines, even though it’s out there, and I don’t see it because of the dark dankness in my soul, and life has lost its meaning, its luster, whatever it was it once had for me when I was young and ready to take on the world. Ya know?”

AHHHH!!!!

Well, the beginning of a book is like walking into a party. The reader wants to meet interesting people. And interest is aroused by what people do. The way you catch readers from the start is through action and disturbance, not feeling and expounding.

I can’t tell you the number of manuscripts I’ve read over the years that did not begin with a real scene, but instead opted for the inside of a character’s head. What I usually do in such cases is flip the pages until I get to some dialogue, because that automatically means we’re in a scene. And 98% of the time that is the best place to start. (Sure, an argument can be made that a great style might be enough to carry the opening pages. But it better be truly great and truly brief.)

So, re: the opening—save your CATS for later.

Once you’re into the novel there are two types of CATS to herd—active and reactive.

In an active scene, the character is alone but with a major scene objective (something that materially relates to the plot), and thinks while trying to overcome whatever scene obstacles are in her way.

In a reactive scene, the character is alone with a chance to reflect. She may be thinking about what’s already happened in the story, or her current psychological state, or the other characters. When done well, reactive scenes strengthen our emotional bond with the character.

A couple of examples. The first is from Dean Koontz’s Intensity. A young woman named Chyna Shepherd is thrust into the dark world of serial killer Edgler Vess. After Vess murders a family (not knowing Chyna is in the house, too) Chyna sneaks into his motor home in the hopes of saving her best friend, whom Vess has dumped there. Alas, she’s dead. But it gets worse. Vess starts driving away and Chyna is trapped in the back of the motor home.

Her objective now is survival. She must keep her presence in the vehicle a secret, find an adequate weapon, and somehow kill or disable Vess. As she looks for a weapon she makes a grisly find—the body of a young man hanging in the small closet, his eyes and mouth sewn shut.

She pulled shut the pleated-vinyl panel. Though flimsy, it moved as ponderously as a vault door. The magnetic latch clicked into place with a sound like snapping bone.

In all the textbooks she had ever read no case study of sociopathic violence had ever contained a description of a crime sufficiently vivid to make her want to retreat to a corner and sit on the floor and pull her knees against her chest and hug herself. That was precisely what she did now – choosing the corner farthest from the closet.

She had to get control of herself, quickly, starting with her manic breathing. She was gasping, sucking in great lungfuls, yet she couldn’t seem to get enough air. The deeper and faster she inhaled the dizzier she became. Her peripheral vision surrendered to an encroaching darkness until she seemed to be peering down a long black tunnel toward the dingy motor-home bedroom at the far end.

She told herself that the young man in the closet had been dead when the killer had gone to work with the sewing kit. And if he’d not been dead, at least he’d been mercifully unconscious. Then she told herself not to think about it at all, because thinking about it only made the tunnel longer and narrower, made the bedroom more distant and the lights dimmer than ever.

She put her face in her hands, and her hands were cold but her face seemed colder. For no reason that Chyna could understand, she thought of her mother’s face, as clear as a photograph in her mind’s eye. And then she did understand.

To Chyna’s mother, the prospect of violence had been romantic, or even glamorous. For a while they had lived in a commune in Oakland, where everyone talked of making a better world and where, most nights than not, the adults gathered around the kitchen table, drinking wine and smoking pot, discussing how best to tear down the hated system, sometimes also playing pinochle or Trivial Pursuit as they discussed the strategies that might bring utopia at last, sometimes far too enraptured by revolution to be interested in any lesser games …

Koontz then gives us a page-and-a-half of backstory, filtered through Chyna’s perceptions and thus relevant to the present action. She’s alone, but moving toward her scene goal. Her thoughts—which in real time would flash through her mind but in fiction time are detailed—are part of the action.

Now let’s take a look at a reactive CATS. This is from John Fante’s classic Ask The Dust. Arturo Bandini is a young writer living a meager existence in L.A. He has just decided to he’s going to steal milk off a truck. In his dingy hotel room, he reacts to his decision:

The night came reluctantly. I sat at the window, rolling some cigarets with rough cut tobacco and squares of toilet paper. This tobacco had been a whim of mine in more prosperous times. I had bought a can of it, and the pipe for smoking it had been free, attached to the can by a rubber band. But I had lost the pipe. The tobacco was so course it made a poor smoke in regular cigaret papers, but wrapped twice in toilet tissue it was powerful and compact, sometimes bursting into flames. 

The night came slowly, first the cool odor of it, and then the darkness. Beyond my window spread the great city, the street lamps, the red and blue green neon tubes bursting to life like bright night flowers. I was not hungry, there were plenty of oranges under the bed, and that mysterious chortling in the pit of my stomach was nothing more than great clouds of tobacco smoke marooned there, trying frantically to find a way out. 

So it had happened at last: I was about to become a thief, a cheap milk-stealer. Here was your flash-in-the-pan genius, your one-story writer: a thief. I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth. Mother of God. Headlines in the papers, promising writer caught stealing milk, famous protégé of J. C. Hackmuth haled into court on petty theft charge, reporters swarming around me, flashbulbs popping, give us a statement, Bandini, how did it happen?

The scene continues, with Bandini eating an orange, doing some typing, all the while thinking about his prospects as a writer. The chapter ends with Bandini making the milk snatch, giddily bringing the two bottles back to his room, opening one and taking a long drink. And immediately spitting it out. He’d stolen what he hated—buttermilk.

There should be activity in a reactive CATS. It is often innocuous (rolling cigarettes, eating oranges, typing) but it provides the space for emotion and analysis.

The big thing to know about CATS is that they are the best way to control pace. If you need to slow things down a bit, give us more thinking. If you need to pick up the pace, compress the thoughts.

In other words, learn to herd your CATS and the readers will lap up your fiction.

11+

Creating a Scene Outline for Your Novel

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

@JodieRennerEd

(This is a quick fill-in post for P.J. Parrish, who’s been hit by a flu bug. Get well soon, Kris!)

First, what’s a scene?

Although most novels are divided up into chapters, the scene is the fundamental unit of fiction. Each scene is a mini-story, with a main character, a problem or challenge, and a beginning, middle, and end of its own. Every scene needs tension or conflict, and at the end of each scene, at least one of the main characters must have gone through some sort of change. Otherwise, the scene isn’t pulling its weight and needs to be revised or cut. Every scene needs a mission (goal), an obstacle, and an outcome (usually a disaster). For more on scenes, see Jodie’s article “Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change.”

A modern novel normally has several dozen scenes. Each scene can range in length from a few paragraphs to a dozen pages or more. A chapter can contain one scene or several. Some authors like to use jump cuts, where they “cut away” in the middle of a scene to go to a different scene, then perhaps interrupt that one in the middle to go back to the first scene and resume where they left off. In this case, a scene can span several chapters, often with other scenes interspersed.

Using the Scene Outline:

The outline below will help you organize your scenes and decide if any of them need to be moved, revised, amped up, or cut.

This is a great tool for both plotters and pantsers. Plotters/outliners can use it to outline your scenes early on in the process, and those of you who prefer to just let the words flow and write “by the seat of your pants” can use it later, to make sure the timeline makes sense and that the scene has conflict/tension and a change.

Keep each scene description to a minimum. Don’t get carried away with too many details, or the task could become arduous. The most important thing is the POV (point of view) character’s goal for that scene, and what’s preventing him/her from reaching that goal, plus any new conflicts / problems / questions that arise.

And you can use a different font color or highlight color for each main character, for a quick reference on who was the POV character for each scene. Also, you can print it up and cut them out to rearrange the scenes, or use a writing software for that.

If in doubt as to who should be the viewpoint character for that scene, most often it’s your protagonist. The point of view character can also, less often, be your antagonist or another main character. Almost never a minor character. If you can’t decide who should be the POV character for a particular scene, go with the character who has the most invested emotionally or the most to lose.

SCENE OUTLINE FORM:

Scene 1: Chapter:1 Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character for this scene:

Other main characters here:

POV character’s goal here:

Motivation for their goal (why do they want that?):

Main problem / conflict – Who/What is preventing POV character from reaching his/her goal:

Outcome – Usually a setback / new problem:

(And/or new info, revelation, new question, or, rarely, the resolution of the problem):

Scene 2: Chapter: Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):
    

POV character:

Other main characters:

POV character’s goal:

Motivation for their goal:   

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):

Scene 3: Chapter: Place:

Date/Month/Season: Year (approx.):

POV character:

Other main characters:

POV character’s goal:

Motivation:     

Main problem/conflict/question:

Outcome (most often a setback):

Scene 4:

Etc. Continue for as many scenes as you have.


Fiction writers – Do you have any tips to add to this scene outline?

Besides publishing numerous blog posts, her popular Editor’s Guides to Writing Compelling Fiction, the award-winning Fire up Your Fiction and Writing a Killer Thriller and her upcoming Captivate Your Readers, as well as her handy, clickable e-resources, Quick Clicks: Word Usage and Quick Clicks: Spelling List, Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor. Find Jodie on Facebookand Twitter, and sign up for her occasional newsletter here. Author website: JodieRenner.com.

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