Writing a Scene: Advice for New Writers by Teresa Grabs
There are many challenges new writers face, and each problem is unique to the writer and their background. As an academic writer, I found one major challenge when I switched over to creative was information overload. The questions I had were valid questions, but I never quite found the answers I was looking for, and that’s because they don’t exist. Unlike academic writing, there are no clear-cut, set in stone rules that must be followed. Chapter lengths differ, outliners versus pantsers, word counts within categories vary by genre and even within the genre, and writing styles are as unique as the individual. These differences make being a new writer both exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.
One piece of advice that works for any situation is: write like a reader.
There are many building blocks in writing, but the most basic is the scene. Each scene must have a purpose and help move the story forward. As a new writer, I understood this advice, but the obvious next question was how to write a scene? The process of writing is different for every writer, and that’s a good thing because it promotes a unique voice that helps make literature beautiful.
When you write a scene like a reader, you create an immersive environment that helps your story progress in ways you never imagined. What do I mean to write a scene like a reader? It means to use all your senses. Write a scene in steps and when they are finished, let them simmer in their own juices, then taste the broth to make sure all the ingredients are in there.
Step 1: Determine the purpose of the scene.
Step 2: Where does the scene take place? What is it’s setting? Some writers find making simple sketches helps paint the picture for themselves as they write. Remember to note the season as this may be important to the character or story development.
Step 3: Who and what is in the scene? Is it only the main character, or is the setting filled with people or animals? Don’t forget the details in the environment itself. Indoor diner scenes may have booths with salt and pepper shakers, napkin dispensers, or empty sugar bowls. Even if you end up not using them in the scene, make notes of everything and everyone in the setting.
Step 4: Write the dialogue if there is any. I find writing it like a script beneficial at this stage. A simple list of character name followed by their words will suffice.
Step 5: Put Steps 2, 3, and 4 together in a rough draft of the scene. Paint the setting for the reader, then put the characters in the setting, and include what they said. Now you have a basic scene to build on and improve.
Step 6: Add emotion or action to the dialogue. Put yourself into each character separately and say their lines. What do you do when reading them? If you smile, the character smiles. If you scowl, they scowl, and so on. Reflect on your heart rate, sensations in your body. Attribute all those sensations, feelings, and actions to each character in the scene.
Step 7: Add ambiance to the setting. Is it noisy or quiet? What do you smell or hear? Is there a distraction? How’s the temperature? Anything and everything you can add to the setting that makes it come alive should be added at this step.
Step 8: Let your completed, albeit probably much too long, scene simmer while you write other scenes.
Step 9: After the scene has simmered for a while, the longer, the better, read the scene as a reader. Does it paint the same picture you had in your head when you first envisioned it? If they match, FANTASTIC! If they don’t, what was missing? Revisit step 5, 6, 7, and 8 until they match.
Step 10: Edit the scene. Ask what is important in the scene, and what is not essential to the reader. Anything that distracted you in Step 9 could be cut from the scene.
Does every scene work like this? No, there is, after all, no set formula for writing. Some writers describe clothing, tablecloths, and even pet hair on the sofa cushion, and some writers describe only what is necessary to plot progression. What you include and don’t include is up to you, the writer. One key takeaway from all the research I conducted when I was a new writer is that your story is yours, and yours alone, and only you can decide what is important.