Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

How to Determine If a Scene Is Worth Writing?

How do you determine if the scene you’re about to write is necessary to your story?

This question is particularly apt for those scenes we really love writing, like love scenes or car chases, and those we dread or feel less confident about, like love scenes and car chases.  But what can we look for when our mind tells us six contradictory answers and our heart gets so confused it doesn’t know what to say anymore?

We’re familiar with the basics: A scene must accomplish something for character or plot or both, ideally both.  A scene must contain certain elements: an inciting incident or hook (something to pull the reader into the scene and eager for more), conflict, character goals that are in conflict with each other, a hook that both brings some sense of resolution to the scene while leaving an open ending that drives the reader onto the next scene until the conclusion of the book.  In this regard, think of scenes as mini novels; they combine the same elements in microcosm.  If a scene doesn’t have these elements, scrap it or prepare for some major revisions.

But what if you’re like me and don’t work off of hefty plot outlines?  What if your characters have a tendency to defy your plans and argue with you?  You can quickly find yourself in The Dark Forest of Plot, frantically glancing over the sixteen different paths that break off from the point you’re standing.  Worse, your characters whisper in your ears with conflicting suggestions, and some of those characters can’t make up their minds either.  Which path should you take?

Listening to your character is a valuable skill as an author, but you must be careful not to let them run the show.  So when trying to figure out if that next scene is worth writing or if you should come up with an alternate way to accomplish the character or plot goal, what do you do?

1.      Write down a few of those alternates.  Agent and author Lucienne Diver says that you should toss out your first three ideas because those are the ones that are likely cliché.  An idea down the line may sound better. But don’t get so into coming up with ideas that you forget to write your story.

2.      Check for those story elements: inciting incident, conflict, goals, etc.

3.      Figure out what’s making you doubt.  Is it a rational reason not to write the scene?  Maybe the brilliant idea is something the characters aren’t comfortable with; it violates their personalities or current motives.  Maybe you’re afraid your mother or grandmother will read it.  Maybe you’re scared that the uncle you have up in Heaven is looking down at you now, reading over your shoulder, and shaking his wise old head with disapproval. My advice: ignore it.  If that’s what’s stopping you, it’s not a good enough reason.  The story is going to be what it is whether you like that or not.  It’s part of you.  Accept who you are (Yes, I know, far easier said than done.) and accept the type of writing you enjoy creating.  You are not writing for your mother, grandmother, or wise dead uncle.  A story that is restrained for fears of others’ opinions will come out stilted and forced.  Trust me; readers are perceptive.  If your narrative is forced because of your fears, they will catch you in the act.

4.      When you’ve got all that, ask yourself one last question, “What does my gut say about writing this scene?”  If the answer is, “Yes, write it!” start writing and let your muse and subconscious provide you the words.  Never doubt the value of listening to your intuition.

How do you determine whether or not to write a scene? When reading, can you tell when the narrative is stilted and forced? How do you feel about it?

For more information on the elements of a scene, check out Vicki Hinze’s blog.


  1. I do part of my scene planning at the keyboard and part when I'm drifting off to sleep--this is part of why I have insomnia, but I'm at peace with my sleeping disorder because without it I'd have a writing disorder.

    In bed, I usually envision three things about a scene I plan to write the next day: 1. The setting at the opening 2. A line or two of dialogue that I memorize and write first thing when I get to the computer 3. The goals of the scene (what has to happen to move the story forward.

    The rest flows as I write. Sometimes as a raging rapid that my fingers can barely keep up with. Sometimes as a glacier.

    That's how it works for me.

  2. What a great way to look at a sleeping problem as a blessing.

    I also think of scenes while trying to drift off. The technique certainly helps with the writing the next day.