August 18, 2022 by Sarra Cannon
Welcome to the fifth and final episode in our series on Writing Great Scenes. So far, we’ve learned about the main elements of a scene, how to write a character’s goal or desire, how to write conflict, and how to structure your scenes and create scene cards from your notes.
If you missed the first four parts, I’ll link them below so you can catch up!
Today, we’re going to talk about how all these scenes come together to create a novel.
First things first, I want to stress the fact that you don’t have to or need to plot your story out in advance. Plotting and planning scene cards works for some writers and not for others. For you, this might be a more intuitive process, and if that’s the case, I hope some of the information in this series will help you to develop your scenes faster or edit your novels more effectively.
If you’re a planner like me, then I hope this video series will help you to plot out your story in a more cohesive way before you even start writing.
That being said, whether you’re looking at this before you write, during the editing process, or somewhere in between, I think it can be helpful to take an eagle-eye view of what’s happening in your story plot-wise. There are many different plotting methods you can use, but I tend to use the three-act structure. In fact, I have an entire video series on the three-act structure, complete with a workbook you can use to plot your novels. You can find that here.
In most instances, your plotting method will be the best way to get this eagle-eye view of your story. What are the big, story-changing beats? This can be things like the opening hook, the argument against transformation, the first doorway of no return, the midpoint, the climax, and so on. If you’re using Save The Cat, you might be looking for things like the theme stated, the break into two, the bad guys close in, and the final image.
Now, if you’ve already got a stack of scene cards after last week’s video, one of the most powerful things to do at this point is to pair each scene with one of the big, overarching story beats in your plot. It can be helpful to ask yourself questions like:
These types of questions can help you pair the beats of your plot with the scenes you’ve imagined in your head, which is, in turn, often going to help you identify the holes or weaknesses in your story.
But what if you haven’t figured out any scenes yet? Where do you start?
What I like to do in this case is a bit of back and forth with my plotting notes. I’ll start by closing my eyes and taking a deep breath. I allow myself to conjure up an image of my main character and the situations they will find themselves in throughout the course of this novel.
This part, for me, is often like meditation. I try to quiet my mind and put myself into the story world until I can start to see pieces of it playing across my mind’s eye like a movie. If you can get yourself into this state, make sure you’ve got a pen and paper near you so you can write down anything you see. Any piece of a scene or snippet of dialogue is important when you’re doing your plot daydreaming in this way, so capture it, even if it seems insignificant or you aren’t sure where it fits.
When I have written down all the things that came into my mind, sometimes I’ll just give myself some space for a few days and come back to this meditation, seeing what comes up intuitively or naturally. Again, this is just my process, so I’m mentioning it in case it helps someone here, but it’s not a requirement for writing great fiction.
Once I have a few scenes in place, I’ll sometimes revisit my notes and ask myself probing questions about the overall plot like:
For me, this will usually get the gears turning enough to start sketching out some scenes on my scene cards. Once you have them, you can follow the previous step and start pairing the scenes up with the beats of your plot.
By now, you hopefully have at least a handful of scene cards that are paired up with the major, overarching beats of your story. There may also be some holes in there, and that’s okay.
Comparing the scenes with the bigger picture can help you to identify those holes in the action. Once you’ve figured out where you still need more scenes, you can start brainstorming possibilities until something seems to fit your character, the growth they need, and the other parts of the story you want to have set up for later.
So, let’s go back to my example of The Witch’s Key from Episode 4. Let’s say I have the following scene cards:
First, I put these into chronological order and try to pair them up with my plot points. The book should begin with an opening question or hook, so does this first notecard feel like my best opening hook?
Now, when I think about it, I know I don’t want to start with her at school, because I first need to set up her past wound and introduce the magical world in a fun and mysterious way. So, I would then pull out another note card and brainstorm a scene that could come before she heads to school that would fulfill this need in the story. A good, interesting hook that introduces Lenny’s past pain (the loss of her parents) and the magic of the world.
I decide to try a scene where her Uncle Martin wakes her up for school and gives her back her witch’s key, the way to unlock her magic. This key was taken by the magical Council after the death of her parents until they completed their investigation.
After that, I can move on to this first day of school scene where we’re first introduced to the mystery of the book, the missing girls.
The next scene card I know has Kai, the guy who was staring at her in the hallway, confronting her about something. Maybe when I made the card, I wasn’t sure what, I just knew I wanted them to make a connection, right? So, this is where I’d start brainstorming possible reasons he’s upset or confronting her about her magic. I know I need to bridge the gap between her first seeing him and this, so I’ll put a hold on that and keep moving forward to see what else might come to mind as I go through the next steps.
The next card is that Lenny’s new friend is kidnapped. This scene lines up with the first doorway key event that locks Lenny into the story. This is where she decides that she has to investigate the missing girls to save her new friend. That’s a big leap forward to a major plot point, so what I would do next is think back to the Act I scenes I have so far and ask myself, “Is there anything else that needs to be set up before Peyton disappears in order for the story to work?”
In this way, I’m plotting backwards to fill in the gaps. Once we hit this moment in the story, what relationships, mysteries, characters, magic system, conversations need to be set up or have taken place?
I will often jot down any ideas that come to mind here in a list, like:
This type of list will usually spawn some new scene ideas, so at this point, it becomes a back and forth between the overarching plot and the individual scenes to try to come up with a solid, believably flow to the story that will be seamless to the reader and also fulfill all the plot points and character arc setup that I need at this point.
Another part of my work at this stage of my planning is to step through the story scene by scene to make sure everything flows smoothly and transitions smoothly from one scene to the next.
Again, this is a process of identifying and filling in the gaps in my story, so that it can have a logical flow. Let’s say I now have the following scenes planned:
And so on.
As I step through this, I am paying attention to whether it seems to flow or if I am missing any story beats or important conflict or setup that’s needed. I immediately think of two more things: First, that Lenny needs to ask around to find out who this mysterious guy is so that she can also find out that he moved to town right before the first girl went missing. Second, I want to add a scene where Lenny asks Uncle Martin if she can go to the coffee shop using her mirror magic at school.
So, in this way, it becomes a back and forth process. I write out potential new scene ideas, step through the action like it was a movie in my head, and fill in any gaps.
Remember, too, that as I’m creating each of these scene cards, I’m also asking myself what my character’s goal is in the scene, what’s standing in their way, and how does it turn out for them in a way that creates a new dilemma or changes the character or their plan in some way?
If I can’t answer these questions, sometimes I’ll just leave it until I start writing to see how it comes out on the page, or I’ll tweak my ideas to make them stronger, or if I can’t think of any real reason why this scene is important to the story or moving it forward in some way, I’ll delete it and move on.
This process ensures that every scene is vital and the story flows in a way that seems logical and feels natural to the reader.
For me, I try to have the first act fully plotted with scene cards before I start writing. I will also usually have at least the midpoint and climax figured out, as well, though that often changes later in my writing process.
When it’s time to sit down and write, I come armed with my detailed scene cards and any notes I’ve made so far about my character’s inner journey or arc. As I write, I’m always thinking of what my character’s goal is, why they care, what their inner journey or mindset is in relation to this part of the story, and what information or obstacle needs to be revealed in this scene for my plot to move forward.
I make sure my opening of each scene has a hook to draw the reader in, I focus on the obstacle or conflict in the main part of the scene, and then I bring the conflict to some kind of end or resolution that usually poses a new question or dilemma for my character. If it feels right or is a scene that’s really shaken my character, I also make sure to follow up the scene with a sequel to give my character a chance to process what happened, face their new situation and make a new plan or intention.
When I write the next scene, I take care to make sure I’ve acknowledged any passage of time or change in setting in order to ground the reader in the scene, and I follow the previous steps to keep writing.
Sometimes, new and surprising information will come out as I’m writing that I didn’t expect, and that’s really fun for me. I sometimes will need to sit with my scene cards after that and figure out how this new bit of information or this new character fits into the story.
That means the plot for me is a fluid, ever-changing thing. Every writer is different, but the plot on the page is never exactly the same as the scene cards I planned out, and that’s okay. I will follow this process and go back and forth between the plot notes, my scene cards, and my written chapters dozens of times throughout the process of a first draft.
And this is basically how I write my entire novel, scene by scene using the scene structure and elements we’ve discussed in this series.
I hope you’ve found this entire five-part series helpful. Be sure to download the free workbook if you haven’t yet, grab the recommended books on writing, and leave a comment with any of your own suggestions or tips on writing great scenes.
If you enjoyed this full series, comment and let me know what other series on writing you would love to see! I’ve had requests for a series on multiple POV, backstory, sexual tension, subplots, and more. What would you like to hear more about?
I have been self-publishing my books since 2010, and in that time, I've sold well over half a million copies of my books. I'm not a superstar or a huge bestseller, but I have built an amazing career that brings me great joy. Here at Heart Breathings, I hope to help you find that same level of success. Let's do this.