Friday, April 6, 2018

Drafting a Book One Scene at a Time

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

Last Friday, I took a step back from our Grow An Author series to share a bit about my experience at Mount Hermon. Thank you for allowing me that freedom, but today we get back on track.

If you've been following my Friday blogs, you'll know that once I've got some idea of where I'm going with my story, I sit down and pen a working synopsis. This synopsis is used as a loose outline as I move through the drafting process.

Once the synopsis is written, I start to work my way through it. One paragraph at a time, I pick it apart and begin to come up with a list of scenes that will move me chronologically through the story. I keep this part of the process very bite-sized. I just want to be thinking four or five scenes ahead at any given time. Once I have those four or five scenes roughly sketched out, I settle in and I write.

And when I say "sketched out," it's a very rough idea I'm coming up with. Something like: Sarah steals Lenny's cell phone. 

Oftentimes, I use word sprints to turn these rough one-sentence ideas into a scene, but not always. Some scenes require a slower, more methodical pace of drafting, and some days I'm just not in the mood to hurry my way through. But the reality is there are many, many days that are only successful because I set a timer and force myself to write until it goes off. That's just how I'm wired.

Focusing on one scene at a time helps me ensure several things about my story.

Each scene:

1. Must move the plot forward.

2. Must increase either the stakes (what's at risk) or the tension (conflict, obstacles).

3. Should begin with a hook--something to grab the reader's attention.

4. Should end with a revelation, reversal, or turning point--something to keep readers flipping pages.

Focusing on one scene at a time as I draft has helped me more often than not, but it can also be a two-edged sword. The risk is that sometimes we try to cram all the THINGS into each scene and it's very easy to become an episodic writer.

Have you heard that phrase before? It means you're taking your characters through problem after problem, but not really showing much forward movement, in either the character or the plot. It is especially easy to fall into this trap if you're a character-driven novelist. You have a character you love, so you play with them, torture them, solve their problem and then start all over again. That might make a great sitcom, but it's not going to cut it as a full-length feature film.

To avoid episodic writing, you must quench the desire to solve your character's problem in every scene. In situational comedies like The Big Bang Theory or Everybody Loves Raymond, a problem is presented, squabbled over, and solved in thirty minutes, but when the next episode airs, very little has changed. God bless Raymond Barone, but the dude is the same slacker in the finale that he is in the pilot. Life has not transformed him.

Readers need to see change. It's real. We're either growing or regressing in life and you have to show that in your story. Good movies handle this well. When you're writing a novel its good to think movies, not sitcoms. It's not the first time I've said that, but it applies very specifically to drafting scene by scene. And it's a good motto to keep in the back of that very full head of yours.

When you think about the story you're working on, are you able to see it in scenes? Do you have a tendency to drift into episodic writing? And what advice would you give to a writer attempting to draft his or her novel one scene at a time?


  1. Thanks for this post! Very helpful as I will soon be redrafting the last two books in my current series. This will be a big help!

    1. I'm so glad, Ryana! I wish you the best as you draft.

  2. So true, Mrs. Dittemore! My first novel was very episodic. There was essentially no plot at all, actually...
    I think my biggest problem now with trying to solve a character's problem too early is that I have a hard time keeping character arcs going through the middle of the story. I have certain epiphanies associated with specific scenes, but I keep trying to jump the gun and have the character learn too soon, it seems like. So, my "arc" ends up feeling more like a roller coaster as I write it.

    1. I do this too. I really have to watch for it. Part of it, I think, is that we are too kindhearted. We don't like to leave our characters in trouble and we bail them out instead of making things worse for them. Try using try/fail cycles. They are FANTASTIC for this.

  3. Using the links from Stephanie's last blog, I've been learning a lot about writing structure. Now I'm thinking of my story in acts. I know what needs to happen in each act, but I don't really have specific scenes. This is making my writing difficult--I know where to go, but not how to get there. Any suggestions for how to turn your basic structure into specific scenes?

    1. We all have different ways of doing things, Christine, so don't feel like you have to use every bit of advice you read here or elsewhere. That said, when you consider the Three Act Structure, a common plot structure, those three acts must be broken up and written in scenes. In most cases, in novel-length works, an act is much longer than one scene. My suggestion would be to take each of your acts and break them down into scenes and go from there. I prefer to work chronologically, so I would start with the scenes that make up the first act.

    2. I understand all that. I meant that I'm having a hard time breaking each act into scenes. I guess that was unclear.

    3. It takes practice. It takes a lot of thought. It takes perseverance because you don't always get it right the first time. Consider what it will take within each act to move the story forward. For instance, if I know that Act One needs to end with two friends hating one another, I have to build up to that. I have to show the relationship in its happy state and then I have to show the deterioration. Maybe that's a fast deterioration or maybe it's a slow one--either way, scenes are the way to show what happens. Be good to yourself as you work to develop possible scenes, but understanding what the end of an act needs to look like should help you plan a way to get there.

    4. Thanks! Especially for the encouragement that it takes practice and might not work right away... I'm having difficulties doing that right now, so it's reassuring to know I'll get better over time.

  4. "Episodic writing" makes sense. Thanks for the tips!