Plot and Structure: Scenes and Outlines

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Ask the Author: James Earls via Facebook: What do you do when you want to write, but your mind is so cluttered w/life’s junk. (Most of it petty) like dumb arguments, anger–things that seem to get in the way of your writing. Not necessarily talking writer’s block here. The words are there but other things seem to get in the way.

Aaron: Interesting question here. I read this as, “what to do when you’re too irritated to write.” I think we’ve all been there at some point. We sit down to write, but we’re so distracted with the goings on of the day that we have trouble focusing. I would recommend taking care of life first. A life that’s in order will allow you to focus better on your writing. Short of that, I’d be very cautious to protect your writing time, and not to go over. If your family has given you an hour a day to write, write for an hour, not an hour and a half. If you go over, they may begin to resent your writing. Also, when you write, I’d play some music, and, where possible, find a quiet place where you can retreat from the world for a few minutes to get some work done.

Al: The problem with life is that, well, it’s life, and that means it has ups and downs. There will always be distractions from work, family, health and life. Some writers think such things make them better writers. Experience in the hands of a creative can be a wonderful thing. [Al gave an illustration from his experience with funerals.] Every writer faces the problem and that’s why so many writers create a space away from everything. We can’t all do that. Jerry Jenkins had a day job as an editor and did freelancing writing in his spare time, except he had a family with small children so spare time was rare. So, he would begin writing after his family went to bed. Late nights, but he wrote over 100 books. As far as emotions go, writers have to learn to separate their creative world from the real world. Often, the real world is more important. People matter more than words and story. Al’s Axiom #5: Never sacrifice people for plot.

You say, “The words are there but other things seem to get in the way.” Write the words anyway. Remember, writing is rewriting. Never confuse the first draft with finish product. You have permission to write badly in the first draft. The goal is in the rewrite.

PLOT AND STRUCTURE: Scenes and Outlines

  • What makes a scene?
    • A scene is a moment of drama. It is a microcosm for your novel. It will have all the same elements, but in a more compact form: Character, Conflict, Resolution.
    • A scene is composed of . . .
      • Actors/Characters
      • Place/Setting
      • Action
      • Transition
    • Scenes will often vary in length, but I try to remain fairly consistent (about 1,000 words for me).
      • Some writers use many short scenes
      • Some use fewer scenes but more chapters
      • Some make every scene a chapter (sometimes called cinematic style)
        • Very visual but also…
          • Composed of many scenes.
          • Creates a “page-turner.”
    • Each scene must do at least one of the following things:
      • Develop your character
      • Move the story forward
      • Resolve an earlier conflict
      • Develop a new conflict
      • Complicate an existing conflict
      • Set up a future action
    • Remember, each significant character in the scene must have a motivation. Ancillary characters (“walk-ons”), like a waiter serving a table where two characters are chatting, need not have motivation (think of the difference between an actor and an extra in a movie.).
    • When these motivations are at odds, we have conflict. Ask yourself, where are the conflicting motivations in this scene? Or how does this scene add to the overall conflict.
    • Scenes are generally told in a single POV. If you’re changing POV within a scene there must be an indication (line break, three asterisks, etc.) Usually, these breaks indicate a new scene.
      • These are sometimes called “hiatus breaks.” Hiatus refers to a break in time or place. Use such a break when…
        • Change point of view character
        • Change location (usually a change in location is set in a new chapter).
        • Skip forward or backward in time.
    • How many scenes per chapter? Your call.
      • Aaron: In some books I use one scene per chapter (Implausibles). In others, I use a collection of scenes per chapter (Hand of Adonai).
      • Al: Scenes serve the story. There is no right or wrong number of scenes per chapter. Some chapters have one scene; others may have a series of short scenes.
        • One way to do this is think of your book in terms of scenes, not chapters. A typical action-adventure, thriller, suspense book of 350 pages might have 60 to 70 scenes. Some books run well over 100 scenes; some much less.
        • If I outline, I start with about 70 scenes. Some won’t be used, they get absorbed into other scenes.
        • Genre plays a role too. Study novels is your genre. I used to make a chart of book structure from published books.
  • What is an outline?
    • An outline is a comprehensive list of the scenes in your novel. It will contain the following information for each scene:
      • POV from which the scene is told.
      • What the scene does for the novel (furthers plot, introduces a character, heightens the tension/conflict, introduces a new mystery, etc. OR resolves a conflict, answers a question, reveals the solution to a mystery).
      • A rough estimation of word count/pages
      • Actual word count/pages
      • A short summary (one or two sentences) of the action of the scene.
        • EXAMPLE:
          • POV: Sam
          • Action: Sam calls Sally. He has her on speakerphone while he shaves.
          • Conflict: Sam and Sally are breaking up. She wants her freedom, he’s ready to settle down.
          • Goal: Develop the conflict of the broken relationship. Also, introduces the mystery of “the other man.”
          • Estimated word count: 800
          • Actual word count: 950.
    • Outlines are living documents. You don’t need a complete outline before you begin work. Conversely, if you do have a comprehensive outline, you’ll find yourself going over (or under) your expected page/word count. If so, you can adjust by combining scenes, adding new scenes, and/or cutting scenes as you go.
    • Being able to look at the layout (especially if you color coordinate) will allow you to get a sense of whether you’re spending too much time in one character’s POV, or not enough time in another’s.
    • AARON: This strategy is the only way I was able to finish writing my first novel (unpublished). It kept me on track and I finished in an impressive time. Now, I discovery write. I will outline a few scenes this way (about five to ten scenes ahead of where I currently am writing).

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