In a recent newsletter, author Alexandra Bracken shared some writing and publishing advice in response to fans’ questions on Instagram. One of her readers asked, “How do you stay on track with writing?”
Bracken’s response is what the rest of this article is about:
“…Think in terms of scenes, rather than chapters or word counts. One thing I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I can’t do a daily word count goal because I will absolutely cheat to hit it! Instead, I think, ‘I’m going to write x scene today, or get to the point in the next chapter when xyz happens.’” ~ Alexandra Bracken
I thought this was interesting, actionable advice. I’ve used this strategy myself, and it works! By setting a “scene goal” rather than a target word count or chapter goal, I’ve added more words to my draft in less time.
I like to outline each scene before I draft, a very rough sketch of the “who, what, when, where, why” (this is something Susan Dennard calls the “scene screenplay”). After I’ve done this, I have a better sense of where I’m going with the scene and how much ground I need to cover.
Let’s dissect why this method works. But first, a brief definition of “scene”:
What is a scene?
“The scene is the basic building block of a Story.” ~ Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid
Similarly to a movie “scene,” a scene in your novel tells just one event in the story. Strung together, your individual scenes make up the plot.
“A scene is generally one action in one time and place. It is the basic unit of what actually happens in the story, right now, as the audience experiences it.” ~ John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
Think of it like this — as readers, we get to “zoom in” on a particular moment in the characters’ lives. Maybe it’s a conversation between two people, or an action scene (a car chase? a duel?). Each scene has a mini story arc of its own, a source of conflict and eventual resolution.
Don’t be confused — “scenes” and “chapters” are not synonymous. There may be several scenes in just one chapter. In that case, a chapter may be a scene (a particularly long scene!), but a scene is not a chapter.
1. Beat procrastination with small, quick “wins.”
Writing with no end in sight feels overwhelming. And you may think that writing with a word count or chapter goal gives you something to shoot for, but it’s just as difficult because you’ve got to slog along in the story until you get there (and there’s no way to tell how long it will take).
When you write in terms of scenes, you’ve got a pretty clear idea of what has to happen, and how much ground you’ll need to cover.
There’s generally only one thing that needs to go down in a scene… Harry learns he’s a wizard. Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. Just one thing. An argument. An accusation. A revelation. You get the idea.
We can easily wrap our heads around a scene; scenes are manageable. When you knock out a scene, it’s a small, quick “win” that gives you the satisfaction of finishing something. You have more motivation and energy to keep writing.
I’ll write 2 solid scenes and realize I’ve reached 2,000 words… without really even trying! (As in, I wasn’t staring at the blank page or the paragraph I’d rewritten 10 times, wishing another 500 written words would magically appear.)
The problem with writing a “chapter” or even meeting a word count goal is that you might have bitten off more than you can chew. And when you run out of time, or energy, you feel unsatisfied because you haven’t “finished.” You may have logged a lot of words for the day, and yet you still feel as though you’ve let yourself down.
Even worse, sometimes we don’t know how much is left of the chapter. That’s because every chapter is made up of scenes — and a particular scene may need more time and energy than you thought. Or you’ll reach the end of the scene but realize there’s another (unanticipated) scene standing between you and the end of the chapter.
“Finishing the chapter” suddenly becomes this insurmountable obstacle. Writing with no end in sight.
Writing scenes will give you a better idea for where you’re at in the story, and how much further you need to go to stay on track and reach particular milestones (end of Act I, or the midpoint, or the climax).
2. Learn to create high tension.
When I’m drafting (especially first drafts), I have a tendency to write boring transitions when I need to move my characters from Point A to Point B. Can you relate?
In Word (I’ve tried Scrivener, but I always seem to return to Word), sometimes I keep writing without “breaking up” the document. And I’ve realized it’s messing with my head. Without natural scene breaks or chapter breaks, I delude myself into thinking I’m not done yet. Hence the explanatory bits about my character walking down a long hallway, or taking a shower before bed, or “thinking” in the car on her way to who-knows-where.
When I write in terms of scenes, I skip these unnecessary and mind-numbing transitions because I simply jump from one scene to the next.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass writes that low tension is one of the most common flaws he sees in the manuscripts of beginning writers. High tension is the key to a story you can’t put down.
“Another way to avoid slack tension is to build a novel in scenes. A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax, or reversal at the end. Jump cutting from the close of one narrative development, one unit of complication, to the next moves a story along at an efficient clip.” ~ Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
It might feel like you’ve skipped something; you itch to write a transition because you’re pretty sure the reader won’t follow. Do yourself a favor and take a quick break. Come back and read it later. Does the jump feel unnatural?
Probably not — because most books, good books, jump from scene to scene to avoid the boring stuff in the middle. We don’t need to know how Harry Potter got to Transfiguration class. Not unless something interesting happened in the hallway, that is (which is actually a common occurrence in the books — I’m looking at you, Draco Malfoy).
I’m sure you’ve never wondered how the character slept, or if they showered before work, or what they ate for lunch. None of these things matter to you. We assume that the characters eat, sleep, and breathe, but we don’t need the blow-by-blow account. We just want to get to the good stuff.
“Certain types of scenes are so reliably low tension that when reading a manuscript, I count them in my notes with hatch marks. They include: mulling things over while driving from one place to another, relaxing in the shower, fixing a cup of tea or coffee… How many coffee breaks does your protagonist take in your current manuscript? Any? Cut them out.” ~ Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
Raise your hand if you’re guilty of one or more of these. (I see you.)How to Get the Most Value Out of Every Novel You RereadWriters, ask yourself these 8 questions when you’re readingwritingcooperative.com
3. Keep track of your story’s subplots.
Your subplot is secondary to your main plot but closely tied to the main conflict of the story. When you’re in the weeds, it may be difficult to keep track of your subplot(s).
Planning and drafting in terms of scenes, however, can help you map out the subplot and its intersection with other strategic moments in the story.
If you’re a visual learner, you should check out J.K. Rowling’s “outline” for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. You’ll want to start here (see the screenshot of her handwritten chart on notebook paper).
If you’re not familiar, Order of the Phoenix is a massive tome — the longest book in the series. It must have been a beast to plot and write. Rowling sketched out a chart to track the various threads (or subplots) running through her novel. For example, Harry’s romantic relationship with Cho, the Order, the prophecy, and Hagrid and Grawp. These are the columns running across the top. There’s also a column for “plot,” which is her brief summary of how multiple threads come together in a particular scene.
The best scenes — the really strong scenes — are those in which multiple threads intersect. The more of your threads and subplots that come into play, the better.
“The individual scenes in [Rowling’s] ‘plot’ column illustrate especially well how her different series come together and play off one another. And that is the definition of a key scene: When several series collide and send the story spinning in new directions.” ~ The Friendly Editor
Whatever term you want to use, it’s a great litmus test for your scenes:
- Does your subplot support the main conflict?
- Is this scene crucial to the story?
And, bonus, if there’s enough interesting stuff happening in the scene — there’s a pretty good chance you’ll feel more excited to write it.
As writers, we’re very familiar with “scenes” and the purpose they serve in our stories. And yet, common writing advice seems to tout word count goals or chapter goals rather than scene goals.
Scenes are much easier to wrap your head around. If you’re struggling to develop a daily writing habit, or struggling to make consistent progress in your novel, I hope you’ll give this strategy a shot.
Plan your individual scenes the same way you’d plan a larger chapter; break things down into bite-sized pieces. The best part is, you can still apply your own method… you can prewrite or outline (or not), use index cards or sticky notes to rearrange scenes, etc. You do you.
I’ve found that looking at my novel as a collection of scenes has helped me make consistent progress. Next time you sit down to write, think in terms of scenes! Best of luck.