Making Your Scenes Work for You

Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 22: Making Your Scenes Work for You


Goal setting

  1. Continue writing the scenes or chapters of your novel.
  2. Ordering the scenes you’ve already written.
  3. A different technique for creating a scene.
  4. Deciding what scenes can be eliminated.

Breaking it down

Hanging your scenes out to dry

In an interview, Nora Roberts once said that she often writes the three key scenes of a novel and then writes towards those scenes to fill in the gaps.

I like to call this the washing line method. When you’re hanging out washing to dry on a long single wash line, you usually join up one wet t-shirt next to another with a peg clasped to the right sleeve of one and the left sleeve of the next t-shirt – this way they join up on the line.

Imagine the scenes you’ve written so far as items of clothing you’re hanging on a wash line.  If one fits next to another in the most natural order, you know that one peg will keep them connected. However, if there’s a gap – that’s your prompt that a scene is missing and you need to draft it until it fits next to another and can be ‘pegged’ to another.

Remember you can do this on a large piece of cardboard or you can create a ‘wash line’ on a pin board or on a wall using sticky tape. I love this method. This was great way to see if my novel was ‘coming together’ – it showed me where some scenes need to reordered, scrapped, or even re-written. (No one likes rewriting – but sometimes it can’t be avoided, can it?)

A different way of writing a scene – the salad method

To ensure that your scenes are well balanced and as rich as possible, you could try the salad method.

Just as you’d cut and slice your tomatoes and cucumbers before you toss them in bowl, create the separate ‘ingredients’ of each scene before you throw them in the ‘bowl’ of your scene.

For example, first do a free write on just the dialogue you could use in a scene. Then write out all the characters’ body movements and gestures, then their internal thoughts. Next, you could free write on the setting detail – the clothes, décor, and so forth.

When you’ve created these, choose the best elements from those free writes to put your scene together. I tried this approach in a scene in my own novel, and I was surprised at how well it worked – it just made writing the scene that much easier.

What scenes can you leave out?

On the weekend, I watched the 2003 TV remake of Tennessee Williams’s The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone, an update of the 1956 movie version of this writer’s only novel.

Except for a subplot that was dropped and replaced in the newer version, the director kept pretty much to the storyline and dialogue of the original.  That’s because those scenes are vital to the story and can’t be left out. If you can drop a subplot without it affecting your main story line, that’s perhaps something to consider.

The director also focused on those moments in the story that are the quintessential hallmark of Tennessee Williams – there are moments where Karen Stone is recalling the genteel, troubled ghost of the author’s most memorable heroine, Blanche Dubois.  Both Karen and Blanche are moved to desperate actions in their final scenes. Both stories also have open-ended conclusions.

All writers have a signature – whether a type of character or a way with dialogue – that becomes their own distinctive brand.  Have you noticed this pattern in your own writing? In my own novel, I haven’t really picked up this – but I do know it can make your scenes more powerful if you’re aware of it.

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Write for a half-hour or full-hour every week day.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Watch a movie and, afterwards, just down from memory the three scenes that stood out for you the most. Why did these scenes make such an impression on you?
  2. Read a one-act play. If you were a director, how would you move characters around on the stage? How would you dress the set? What would the characters be wearing and why?
  3. Now take a scene from your novel and imagine how you would put this on the stage.
  4. Take the longest scene in your book and set yourself a challenge to edit it down to half its length. Is it a stronger scene? Or a weaker scene?
  5. Watch your favourite soap opera. Make notes on just one scene – then write it as if it’s a scene in a novel.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘My only job is to tell the story. If writers focused on that, they’d be better off and probably more successful.’ — Nora Roberts

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg or sign up for our online course.