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.

1+

If it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

It was a dark and stormy night.

If you were the first writer to have used that as an opening line, then it was brilliant. What a vivid way to create an immediate setting and mood. Congratulations on a fresh, original beginning. For everyone else, that line is a cliché. A language cliché to be exact. In addition to language clichés, there are character and plotting clichés. We all know not to use them, but sometimes they slip through when we’re not looking. So how do we avoid clichés like the plague and fix them in the blink of an eye?

First, let’s define the three types. As mentioned, language clichés are bits of speech that have been used so often they lose their original luster or charm. You’d have to be blind as a bat to not understand my crystal clear definition. It should hit you like a ton of bricks.

Character clichés are those we’ve seen too many times such as the prostitute with a heart of gold (includes a language cliché) or the disgraced, wrongly accused cop who winds up catching the killer.

Plotting clichés are well-worn storylines such as the farmer boy who turns out to be a king or the self-taught musician who eventually performs with the philharmonic. Two common plotting cliché examples that I’ve seen dozens of times are books and movies based on the “Bad News Bears” and “Death Wish” themes. The Bad News Bears theme usually deals with a group of outcasts or “losers” who reach the lowest point in their collective lives only to be pulled together by a strong, charismatic leader and wind up coming out winners. This theme does not have to deal with sports. Watch the movie THE HOUSE BUNNY as a good example.

The Death Wish theme is usually the story of a common “every man” who experiences a tragic event in his or her life. Seeking justice but not getting help from the police or government (or any authority group), he/she steps out of a normal existence, takes matters into his/her own hands and finds justice and revenge by becoming judge, jury and executioner. THE BRAVE ONE is a great example of the Death Wish theme. It’s only through unique characters or settings that these clichéd themes keep working. Try to avoid them at all costs.

Language clichés are fairly easy to spot and fix like the one in the previous sentence. They often appear in your first or second draft when you’re writing fast in order to get the story onto the page, and you don’t want to stop your momentum to think of an original description of a character or setting. There’s nothing wrong with that because you have every intention of going back and cleaning them up.

My first tip is to do your cliché hunting with a printed copy of your work, not on the computer screen. As you read along, use a color highlighter and mark everything that’s a cliché or even questionable. Then go back to the computer and take the time to consider each one and how you can improve them. In some cases, just substituting the real meaning in place of the cliché is enough. For instance, he’s as crazy as a loon could become he’s insane. Isn’t that what you really meant? How about, that kind of book is not my cup of tea could become I don’t enjoy that kind of book. Again, that’s the meaning you intended, so simply stating it could fix the problem better than relying on a cliché. Taken out of context, these might sound boring, but chances are that simplifying the meaning won’t stop the reader like a worn out phrase might. One caution though: it’s important to maintain and be true to your “voice” when using this simplifying technique.

One place where you can sometimes get away with clichés is in dialog. But that doesn’t mean you should. If a character uses a cliché, make sure it’s part of his or her “character” and not just an excuse for lazy writing.

Character clichés are a little harder to fix, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be, and the more original your story becomes. Here’s an example: the disgraced cop is an anti-hero. He’s got deep dark issues but we still pull for him because he’s fighting for what’s right. Maybe he’s an alcoholic because he can’t get over the murder of his family. Try removing one of the main elements that drive the character; the disgraced career, the alcohol addiction or the dead family. Does his character change in your mind? Does he become more interesting? Can you still tell his story? If taking away or substituting an element suddenly creates a fresher character, you’ve probably avoided a character cliché. Another tip: If your character’s action shows a serious lack of common sense, treat it as a cliché. You should always be considering what you would do in the same situation as your character. Would you react the same as what you just made your character do? If not, it’s probably a cliché.

Plot clichés need to be fixed from the start. The further you are into the story, the more work it takes to backtrack and change major elements. So before you begin, try this. Write out a short description of your story. Approach it as if you were writing the story blurb to go on the back cover of your book. Once you’re done, ask yourself if sounds familiar. Let someone else read it and ask the same question. If you can remember the same situation occurring in numerous movies, TV shows or books, it’s probably a cliché.

There’s nothing wrong with a cliché as long as you’re the first person to use it. After that, it loses its luster fast. Not only that, it’s a sign of lazy writing. As a good friend of mine once said, a cliché is the sign of a mind at rest.

How do you perform a “seek and destroy” on clichés? And how do you feel when you come across one in a book. If the story is really great, do you overlook clichés or do they cause you to think less of the writer?

——————————-

shield-cover-smallDownload now: THE SHIELD by Sholes & Moore

“THE SHIELD rocks on all cylinders.” – James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of THE EYE OF GOD.

Coming soon in print and audio.

0

What Can Go Wrong?

by Joe Moore

A huge Happy New Year to all my TKZ friends and blogmates. May 2014 be the best year ever for all of you.

Back in June of 2012, I posted a TKZ blog called Magic Words and how using them can be one of the best methods for kick starting your story ideas. The words are: “What If”. I’m sure that almost every story written probably started with those two words. What better way to get the juices flowing than to start with what if? I consider this a “story level” technique.

Today I want to suggest a “chapter level” exercise. Four words that can help create tension, suspense, conflict, and character-building. They are: “What Can Go Wrong?”

As you’re about to start a new chapter, even if you know what needs to happen, pause for a moment and ask yourself what can go wrong in this scene. Chances are, whatever answer you come up with will give you the opportunity to ratchet up the suspense and thereby keep the reader’s interest. Here’s a recent example of how I used this technique.

In my latest thriller THE SHIELD (co-written with Lynn Sholes) I was to draft a chapter in which my protagonist, her ex-husband, and a Russian colonel who had taken them prisoner, were flying in a 2-engine prop plane from Port Sudan inland across the Nubian Desert to a secret military facility. The outline which Lynn and I constructed about a year ago called for this journey from point A to point B. The only purpose of the chapter was to get to point B, the secret military facility. If I had drafted the chapter sticking strictly to the outline with the flight comprising of light banter between the three and the mention of a few landmarks passing below, it would have been short and dull, almost surely unneeded. The reader would have skipped through it to get to the “good stuff”.

So before I began, I asked myself what can go wrong in this scene that would lift the suspense and conflict, and even give me an opportunity to build character. My answer: what is the worst thing that can happen to an airplane? It crashes. Why would it crash? Well, that area of North Africa is known to be a dangerous place with anti-government rebel and al-Qaeda training camps. So what causes the crash? It’s shot down by shoulder-fired rockets from a rebel encampment.

Keep in mind that the outline calls for the three to get from point A to point B. This is the beauty of outlining: you can still reach your goal but taking an interesting detour can improve the story.

To increase the tension—although the three manage to survive the crash—the rebels are now coming after them. And how about the character-building aspect. My protagonist manages to save the life of her Russian captor when she could have easily left him behind to burn up in the wreckage.

In asking what can go wrong, I managed to turn one chapter into three, prolong the conflict, build character, and still fulfill the plot outline by getting all three to their destination.

As writers, whether we write by the seat of our pants or create a solid outline first, we must never pass up an opportunity to improve our stories. Asking what can go wrong often helps.

How about my friends at TKZ—ever use this or similar techniques in story building? After all, what can go wrong?

0

Phrasing for Immediacy and Power

Jodie blogs (563x640)I’m excited to announce that editor and award-winning author, Jodie Renner, is joining TKZ. Jodie has made numerous guest appearances here, sharing her wealth of knowledge and experience with everyone. She will be a terrific addition to our team. We look forward to seeing Jodie’s posts as she alternates with Clare on Mondays. Welcome to the Zone, Jodie. – Joe Moore

Thanks so much, Joe! I’m honored to join such a talented, articulate group of writers here on The Kill Zone! – Jodie Renner

BTW, for any of you authors interested in techniques for adding tension, suspense and intrigue to your novels, I have two articles on this topic in the latest two issues of Suspense Magazine.

* * *

State Cause Before Effect, Stimulus before Response

by Jodie Renner

Have you ever been engrossed in a novel, reading along, when you hit a blip that made you go “huh?” or “why?” for a nanosecond? Then you had to reread the sentence to figure out what’s going on?

Often, it’s because actions are written in a jumbled-up or reversed order, rather than the order they occurred. Do this too often, and your readers will start getting annoyed.

For example:
John pulled the Mercedes up and Karen got her brand-new shoes soaking wet when she quickly opened the door and stepped right into a puddle.

First the reader reads: “John pulled the Mercedes up and Karen got her brand-new shoes soaking wet” and goes “Huh?”, then reads the rest and is subliminally irritated that he had to reformulate his original thought-image.

Better: John pulled the Mercedes up and Karen quickly opened the door and stepped out — right into a puddle. Her brand new shoes were soaking wet.

In my blog post here last Wed. on bringing your characters to life by showing their reactions and emotions, I discussed showing immediate, visceral reactions before the delayed, reasoned ones. In other words, showing character reactions in the order they occur, starting with the emotional reaction and automatic reflex, which should occur immediately after the stimulus, just like it does in real life, not with a delay to explain anything.

Along the same vein, when showing actions and reactions in your fiction, it’s important to pay attention to the syntax of the sentence.

In general, state the cause before the effect, the action before the reaction, the stimulus before the response.

This way, the ideas flow more naturally and smoothly, and readers don’t have to skip back in the sentence to figure out what’s going on, which confuses them momentarily and jolts them out of the story.

As Ingermanson and Economy say in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Here’s a critical rule: Always get the time sequence correct and always put the cause before the effect.”

Similarly, Dwight V. Swain discusses this same issue when he talks about “motivation-reaction units” in his excellent book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Here are some “before and after” examples, disguised, from my fiction editing. The “after” examples are just one or two of many possibilities.

~ State little actions in the order they occur:

Before: David yelled out in pain when the door slammed on his fingers.

After: The door slammed on David’s fingers and he yelled out in pain.

Or: The door slammed on David’s fingers. He leaped back and yelled out in pain.

Before: She pulled her arm away when the man tried to grab her.

After: The man tried to grab her, but she pulled her arm away.

Or: The man tried to grab her arm, but she pulled away.

~ Describe physically sequential actions in the order they occurred:

Before: Jake walked the five hundred yards over to the police station and left his car in front of the restaurant.

After: Jake left his car in front of the restaurant and walked the five hundred yards over to the police station.

Before: Rushing to escape the flames, he turned towards the fire escape as soon as he’d left the room.

After: Rushing to escape the flames, he ran out of the room towards the fire escape.

Before: Boyd jumped out of the car as he reached the parking lot and ran into the building.

After: Boyd drove into the parking lot, jumped out of the car, and ran into the building.

As I said, if you don’t write the actions in the order they occurred, it causes momentary confusion for the reader. Do that enough and they start getting subliminally annoyed.

~ Watch those “ing” verbs:

Also, avoid using the way-too-common “ing” verbs (gerunds) for actions that occur one after the other. Verbs ending in -ing imply simultaneous action, where often, there is none:

Before: She slammed the car door, running up the sidewalk.

After: She slammed the car door, then ran up the sidewalk.

Before: He took out his keys, starting the car.

After: He took out his keys and started the car.

In the “before” examples above, the –ing verbs imply that the actions occurred at the same time, which is impossible — she can’t run up the sidewalk as she’s slamming the door. He can’t start the car while he’s taking out his keys.

Here are a few more disguised examples from my editing:

Before: He disappeared for fifteen years, coming back better dressed and full of stories.

After: He disappeared for fifteen years, then came back better dressed and full of stories

Before: Sarah stood up and stretched, ambling over to the trash can, tossing her empty coffee cup into it.

After: Sarah stood up and stretched, then ambled over to the trash can and tossed her empty coffee cup into it.

~ But break the “stimulus before response” rule occasionally for effect:

To add more suspense and intrigue, show a character’s reaction to something shocking before describing what she is reacting to. This way, you’ll have a moment of suspense between the horrified reaction and the revelation of what’s being seen. Also, it may take a paragraph or more to describe what she’s seeing, so her reaction would be delayed, which can be a bit anticlimactic.

Example:
“…the beam of her flashlight scanned the floor ahead. She stopped and gasped in horror.
Calvin lay on the concrete, his eyes starting unseeing at the ceiling. Blood spattered the floor around him. His throat had been cut from ear to ear.”

Look through your WIP and see if there are places where you’ve put the cart before the horse. To avoid reader confusion and possible annoyance, it’s almost always best to describe events in the order they happened.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
0