How I plan my scenes

I thought about putting this in a series called ‘Frankly plans’, but there’s only so cutesy I can make my own name before my eyes roll all the way back in my head.

As this post goes live, I’ll be seven days into writing my novel, currently titled The Empyrean, which means I’ll have finished planning all the scenes I need to get me through to the end. The plan is to have 120,000 words by June, but I estimate I’ll be finished mid-April. Having every scene ready for me to start tapping away helps keep me on the warpath, but this is the first time I’ve ever consciously decided to plan before, excluding a list of scenes with brief descriptions. I reckon that’s why this time, I’ll be happy with the resultant first draft.

I thought it would be a good idea to document my process here. Bear in mind that it’s a process very much in flux, iterating every time I find a new idea that works for me. This is the state of my scene planning at the moment, and I imagine it won’t change much when I come to planning the sequel.

Choosing my weapons

A few years ago, when I was planning a fantasy novel set in the world I’d created for a D&D campaign, my go-to resource was K.M. Weiland’s blog and books. Her advice is great, especially when she applies it to other works of fiction to demonstrate the principles. I have a few of her workbooks, too, and they provide a really useful structure to work through. For me, though, the planning process was a bit too in-depth for my tastes. I made a watered-down version, then university kicked in again and I had to put the project on hold. I would still heartily recommend her resources to anyone with a firm Planner stance on the Planner-versus-Pantser spectrum.

Cut to just before November 2019 and I’ve just remembered that NaNoWriMo exists. The helpful folks over on their website put together a pretty helpful resource with a few different planning techniques to try depending on your level of planning lust. Since I only had two weeks until I needed to be writing, I opted for one of the lighter experiences. I filled in some basic details on the dot plot, and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Coming up to NaNoWriMo, I read more about what needed to be in a scene and decided that the best way to get my head in gear each day of NaNoWriMo would be to flesh out what I wanted to go in the current scene during my lunch break.

This worked pretty well. It helped me keep focussed on what I wanted and led to a generic template, which I mention more about below.

Following NaNoWriMo, I made the surprisingly easy decision to replot my book. I wasn’t happy with the first act. It sagged, and I thought I could do a better job tying some of the themes together. This is when I came across beat sheets. There are, it seems, some people who think that beat sheets and similarly formulaic tools are the devil incarnate. But I’m not one to turn down any lens I can use to look at my writing in a new light, and really, when you think about it…

The point is to bung your important scenes in, compare the numbers, and see if anything’s majorly out of whack. If it is, great. If it’s not, go for a critical look-see and check for yourself. Personally, I used the beat sheet to note my plot points and work out if I had roughly enough content to go between each one for the projected word count. I’ll leave the detailed numbers game for editing, and unless anything jumps out at me when I check any dodgy sections, I’ll probably ignore it. The one I settled on using is one of the sheets listed here.

If you prefer getting touchy feely with your plans, you might want to go for a card-based approach. I tried writing out scene titles on flash cards and sticking them to a big piece of card in the right order, but making use of it after that had me feeling a little lost. It was great for initial planning, though, and even better when I added prompt cards to the mix. The deck I got was Fabula, which lets you lay out some typical plot points and fill in the gaps. Again, though, I used this as a starting point as not a continuous point of reference.

It’s all well and good getting the hows, whys and whens down in a timeline, but it’s important to note down character development along with the rest of the plot (and if the character development is the plot, it’s pretty essential). To help me get to grips with the characters I’d already created, I turned to Orson Scott Card. Specifically, I read his book Characters and Viewpoint, which helped me construct a checklist of things I wanted to keep my eye on with my characters. When I was replotting, I made sure I fleshed out my characters more, too. So the basic structure for a character mindmap hinged around:

  • Actions
  • Motive
  • History
  • Abilities
  • Reputation
  • Likes/dislikes
  • Stereotypes (which served as a jumping point for how to break them, if they didn’t already), and
  • Routines (which I’ve come to view as more important to a person after reading The Power of Habit)

Making a template

As I worked with everything mentioned above and read around the topic, I came up with a list of what I wanted in each scene plan. The aim was to not be too constrictive with detail, but give myself all the points needed to get writing straight away. I came up with the following:

  • Short scene description serving as a title
  • Narrative point (what does it show the reader that is important to the plot, theme or characters?)
  • Character goals (what each character wants to achieve in the scene)
  • Action (short sentences covering the main events in the scene)
  • Effect (the characters’ physical and emotional reactions to the scene’s events)
  • Realisation (anything new the characters discover about themselves or the plot)
  • Scene location
  • Poignant imagery (any thematic imagery I want to keep in mind when writing the scene), and
  • Soundtrack (optional, and I usually can’t be bothered with finding the right piece of music)

I plugged all of this information into Campfire Pro, which has become my planning software of choice. I tried out others, including yWriter, but the user interface on Campfire feels simpler to use and I prefer the timeline layout. With other software, I often felt pressured to fill in all the details there were fields for. With Campfire, the fields are optional – I can structure it as I like.

I’ll admit, my timeline is nowhere near as neat as this.

If you want the template for my Campfire scenes, I’ll be uploading one as soon as I work out how. Keep an eye on the blog, too, as I’ll be running a how-to article on Campfire in the near future.

Keeping track of the details

The scene template isn’t perfect. There are a lot of little bits and pieces I want to keep track of over the course of the story that don’t necessarily fit in the confines of those bullet points. One thing my scene plans fail at so far is keeping track of characters’ progress in overcoming or falling for the lies they believe.

I could hope that just by being aware of them and making a note that they’re important, I’ll remember them well enough. Really, the best way to do it would be to add another panel to the template above ‘poignant imagery’ called ‘character development’, but then it wouldn’t all fit on one screen and… well, I’d forget it existed. For now, I’ve been putting the most important development notes in ‘Narrative point’ and ‘Effect’, so here’s hoping that plays out okay, otherwise I’ll have to fix it up in editing.

(I’m aware I could go back through and add the notes now, but I’ve committed to full writing mode and want to keep going while I’m ahead.)

Flaws in the process

At the time of writing, I’m two scenes down out of thirty (having had a bit of a delayed start). Unfortunately, those two scenes only add together to around four-thousand words, which is a bit of a problem if you multiply it upwards. Assuming every scene ends up the same length, that’s heading for a total word count of sixty thousand. That’s not a novel. (Edit: Well, by definition it is, but it’s not the recommended length, and not the length I’m aiming for.)

This stems from a good deal of vaguery in the way I plan my scenes. A lot of the time, particularly when it comes to action-focussed scenes, I skimp on the details of how they get from A to B and have to fill it in later. Scenes like that may actually expand into two or three, depending on what you count as scenes. Obviously, this throws off anything plugged into beat sheets, which is partly why I intend to only use those as an editing tool.

Still, it’s possible the 120,000 words that seemed almost imminent when I was writing the original plot is a lot further away with the new version. A shame, really – I still think it would have been far easier to cut scenes out than sandwich them in.

Bringing it all together

So, scene notes in hand (or on screen, anyway), I’m ready to start writing. Preferably, I go over the scene plans on my lunch break at work so it’s clear in my head for when I write later. That was often the case when my plans were all handwritten during NaNoWriMo and I was writing them on the fly. I can only access Campfire on my home computer, though, so lately I’ve been diving in just before I start writing, after a brief re-read of the previous scene.

The benefit to going over the plan a few hours before I sit down to write is that I can dream the scene in my spare moments. Since that’s where the book originated, it’s where I can get the clearest picture of what’s going to go down.

After that, there’s only one thing left to do: write. That’s what I’m heading off to do now.

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