How I Plan a Book, Part 3: Scene-Level Planning
Note: If you need information on WHAT a scene is, I will direct you to these resources: my own very basic breakdown of scenes, this post by my fave author who talks about writing, and this post by another amazingly helpful writing teacher.
Okay! Onwards to today’s post! In case you missed the previous parts of this series, they are:
Now, as all writers must, there eventually comes a point at which I need to actually start WRITING MY DARN BOOK. This is the point at which the “headlights outlining” comes into play. (Remember: headlights outlining is simply ahead for just as far as your headlights can see.)
My headlights go just far enough to cover the next scene that needs writing, and for that scene, I craft detailed plan for what needs to happen.
Now, I’ll admit I don’t ALWAYS know what needs to happen in a scene. And when I don’t know is when scenes tend to become Very Short Indeed or else stray into Longwinded Boredom Land. I find that when I actually plan a scene in advance, it usually hits a nice sweet-spot between 6 and 10 pages.
Also, I should point out that I totally learned this from Rachel Aaron’s amazingly helpful book 2K to 10K (you’ll notice I loved it so much, I even blurbed it). She has some great, great ideas that literally TRANSFORMED the way I draft. I had always planned a scene roughly before writing (usually by talking it out to my dogs–not even joking), but after reading her book, I planned each scene out by hand.
And I learned from 2K to 10K just how important the “magical cookies” really are.
The magical cookies or cookie scenes are what I call those sparks in a story that makes you WANT to write. It’s the romantic tension you love and just can’t wait to reach. It’s the high-action fight you’re itching to write or the awesome sneakiness of your villain. It is basically the reason you wanted to write THIS book at THIS moment.
But I’m going to let you in on a secret–and this is the KEY to happy drafting (because you’ve GOT to stay happy or you’ll burn out before your career even begins). It’s also the KEY to good writing because when you love what you write, that passion transcends the page.
Every scene in your story must be a magical cookie scene.
But Susan, you say, there will always be certain scenes that you just have to have.They get my characters from Point A and Point B or else reveal Very Important Information. It’s just the nature of the beast that they won’t be as fun to write, Sooz.
Well, to you I say, Wrong! There CAN be a magical cookie in every scene, and I will get into that on Monday.
For now, let’s assume you have your cookie for the scene you’re about to write, and let’s circle back to what I do next.
As mentioned in the previous post, I’m all about writing in long-hand. I revise by hand, I outline by hand, and I sometimes draft entire scenes by hand. I just find it easier to get my ideas onto the page when I’m writing with a pen, but I realize YOU may not be that way. So there’s no right or wrong way to do this next step (assuming you even want to do it at all).
So what does my headlights outline look like? It’s the bones of the scene, which includes the
- Broad actions.
- And maybe a note or two on setting.
And that’s it. But the key is that the bones are there and organized into the order in which they will arrive in the scene. (More on this below.)
True Story: I did a panel with Anne Greenwood Brown (author of the popular Lies Beneath), and I heard her call her first drafts screenplays. At the time I thought she was craaaazy (sorry, Anne!), but now I totally get what she was doing. She was outlining exactly as I do, but she just called it her first draft (remember, first drafts can be a form outlining/planning too!). Well, I love that word so much, that I started using it (thanks, Anne!) to describe my pre-drafting outlines.
Writing a quick and dirty “screenplay” of your scene before you draft can save SO MUCH TIME.
(Like, so much time, guys.)
Now here’s an example of a rough scene screenplay (this is from my epic fantasy work-in-progress, Truthwitch):
Notice the mention of the magical cookie at the top of the page? If I don’t automatically feel the cookie when I start to outline, I make sure I write it somewhere so I can remember it. I want to constantly feel that spark when I draft!
Once I had that screenplay finished, I sat at the computer, kicked off a #BAMFWordBattle on Twitter, and “filled in the blanks.” I typed out all the setting details and emotional beats in addition to the screenplay dialogue snippers/actions I’d already planned.
I was able to draft the entire scene in ~1 hour. Huzzah!
Now admittedly, it took me about roughly 30 minutes just to make the scene screenplay, BUT–and boy is this a big BUT–1.5 hours for drafting a scene is really fast for me. I used to circle around a single scene for a day and get nowhere. With a 1.5 hour per scene rate, I can knock out 4 or 5 scenes in a day.
Now here’s an example of a messier screenplay where I had to figure out stuff as I wrote. Ideas would pop up and things had to be reorganized…But I made sure I had everything I needed before I actually sat down at the keyboard. Remember: I’m just filling in the blanks when I draft. The bones are all there, and when I type, I add in the muscle and flesh and blood.
Not so organized or clean, huh? Yet the first draft still came out within ~1 hour. The screenplay might have taken me longer to produce, but at least when I sat at my keyboard, I didn’t waste any time.
Now here’s one more screenplay (this one from my horror WIP, The Executioners Three), and you can see that the outlining just sort of morphed into actual drafting. Hey–if the Muse wants to put the whole story on the page, I don’t argue. 🙂
I realize this might all be very confusing. So just remember:
magical cookie + screenplay of scene = easier drafting
The magical cookie makes you feel that need deep in your gut to WRITE! And the screenplay helps you stay focused and organized when you actually do write.
Also, I highly urge you to read Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K or else the blog post version of it here. She does a brilliant job explaining, and as I mentioned, my method really solidified after I read her book. No, I didn’t stark to write 10K in a day (I’ve done that a handful of times…but not regularly), but I did double my daily productivity.
And as always, if you have ANY questions, please ask in the comments!
Read Part 1: Of Plotters and Pantsers
Read Part 2: Before I Start Drafting
Read Part 4: Coaxing Out the Magical Cookies
October 18, 2013 @ 11:24 pm
*hangs on Susan’s every word*
Seriously. This is SO SO helpful so I cannot say thank you enough!
I honestly feel like my WIP so far is ONLY magical cookies hahaha. I’ve only written the scenes that have popped into my head that give me goosebumps. Everything else is just a set of notes so far, to be written later because they don’t quite feel special enough/well-developed enough yet to be put on the page. That’s so awesome to know though! Those really are the times I just write and write and write whereas before — the NaNo fantastic flop of 2012 — I had to force myself to write and nothing was coming to me at all.
That is incredibly important and it’s so wonderful to hear!
Screenplay-ing seems like a wonderful idea too! I’ll have to give that a shot. Probably the best way to get my ideas onto a page so I don’t lose them (honestly. Swiss cheese brain here) and then fill in the magical pieces in between!
These posts are so, so, so wonderful! Thank youuuuuu <33
October 18, 2013 @ 11:31 pm
Aaah! I’m SO SO GLAD that it’s helpful!!! On Monday I’ll talk more about magical cookie scenes and “coaxing out the cookie”, so maybe that will help you too. 😀
October 19, 2013 @ 6:16 am
Thank you for this! And thank you for the rec on the 2K-10K ebook. Already about a third of the way through and it’s making me itch to start NaNo. I did purchase a fresh notebook to compile all my notes so far as per you earlier posts (amazing how much something can help when it costs less than $1!). Looking forward to more of these posts 🙂
Also, really hoping Truthwitch finds a home. It sounds so interesting! (I’m a sucker for all things fantasy.)
October 21, 2013 @ 4:39 pm
Isn’t that book the BEST?! I love her approach. It’s very different from what I do with regards to outlining/planning, but I still find all of her advice invaluable. And YESSSS to new notebooks!!!
Also: thanks for the Truthwitch well-wishes. It’s on submissions now, so fingers crossed. <3
October 19, 2013 @ 5:41 pm
I don’t even know where to begin– I am SO loving these posts and I can always blabber on and on about how AMAZING you are, Susan! Thank you for sharing all of this… I am absolutely in love with the magical cookie thing– it just makes it so clear in my head. It’s like, OF COURSE– why didn’t I realize that?! So brilliantly simple. And I love all the links you share too… I think I’m going to do NaNo this year… I still haven’t committed because I’m terrified, but I’m feeling more and more prepared. THANK YOU!
October 21, 2013 @ 4:38 pm
First off, you can SO DO NANO. I know you can. Even just writing a few thousand words and not “winning” is so much better than not trying at all. Be a NaNo rebel and do whatever you can, using the excitement of the month to get you through. 🙂
Second of all, I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series. 🙂 I realize it’s very much MY method and won’t apply to many people, so it’s nice to hear it is helping someone. <3
October 21, 2013 @ 10:32 am
A friend sent me this post and this is really going to help me edit some of those ho-hum scenes and insert some yummy cookies into those parts. 🙂 Thank you for writing these posts, Susan! 🙂
October 21, 2013 @ 4:37 pm
Thank YOU for stopping by, Devin! 😀 And boy do I feel you on the ho-hum scenes…I’m facing one now and trying to sort out what needs to be done to liven it up. 🙂
October 22, 2013 @ 8:50 am
It’s so nice to know I’m not alone!! 🙂 haha… but man, I hope it gets sorted out for you soon! 🙂
November 6, 2013 @ 10:58 am
If I ever manage to complete my WIP, you will definitely be one of the people I will have to thank. Your constant advice, especially in EXTREMELY helpful posts like this one, has been crazy awesome in helping ME write. I love that you wrote a post that I didn’t know I needed until I read it!
I think that writing out things scene by scene will actually be a helpful practice for me. I often get lost in the general themes of what I’m writing, so to have details written down like this and organized so well makes it a really awesome tool. Thanks for sharing!
November 7, 2013 @ 7:55 pm
That’s how I felt when I read Rachel Aaron’s posts last fall. I didn’t know how life-changing they would be until I read them…And since then, I’ve honed and whittled my own method into something concrete that I can now share with you all!! I hope it all helps, Alexa! <3
November 7, 2013 @ 6:42 pm
I think this post just changed my life. THANK YOU for sharing all of this! And thanks for pointing to Rachel’s book and blog – I feel on FIRE 😀 In good way… 😉
November 7, 2013 @ 7:54 pm
You’re SO WELCOME!! <3 <3
December 25, 2013 @ 1:23 am
QleU Lately I would be REALLY lacking in $$ and debts were killing me from all sides! that was UNTIL i found out how to generate money on the INTERNET! I went to surveymoneymaker p net, and started filling in surveys for money, and surely i’ve been far more able to pay my bills! i’m so glad that I did this! With all the financial stress these years, I really hope all of you will give it a chance. sufp
February 1, 2014 @ 9:27 pm
I’ve been rereading this whole series to get me pumped about drafting/planning and I just realised you have a character called Sorsha in some of these pages – and I got geekily excited!!!
Now I’m going to read about magical cookie hunting again. Cookies!
February 4, 2014 @ 9:05 pm
Sweet!! I am so glad to hear that!! WOOHOO! Hunt down those cookies! 😉
April 22, 2014 @ 1:43 am
it’s so interesting to hear you write about the screenplay part of the scene. I wrote my first novel entirely in layers without any idea what that was or the term or anything. To be honest, when I started I wasn’t sure if I had enough story to be a novel so I just started writing out as much as I knew, in order to find out. And then by the time I got to the end I knew more so I went back and wrote on top of what I had – more dialog – more action – more description. Again and again and again. Then I read Patricia Wrede’s blog and she said some of her friends write in layers and I was like – yes! That’s what I do 🙂 But you don’t ever hear authors talk about that sort of process. Writing a screenplay of a scene is a lot like writing the first layer and then going back and writing the rest of the scene on top of it. So, it’s really cool for me to hear you describe that sort of staged process.
April 23, 2014 @ 10:31 pm
That is EXACTLY what I do. Layer after layer after layer. I do my screenplay, then write a first draft, then revise and layer in more…And I know so many other authors who work that way too. 😀 I love that you directed me to Patricia Wrede since I *adore* her. I am so going to look this up now!!
C. A. Mitchell
April 30, 2014 @ 11:48 am
Dude, you are rocking my morning big time. I want to bake you gf cookies and magically transport them across the pond.
May 1, 2014 @ 6:34 pm
Ha! I WISH that were possible! *dreams of cookies*
July 9, 2014 @ 9:20 pm
This is fantastic! Thank you so, so much! This is so totally brilliant, I’m glad you shared!
July 11, 2014 @ 4:08 pm
Oh yay! I’m so glad you found it helpful! Thanks for reading. 😀
September 17, 2014 @ 12:16 pm
I would like to know how you do this AND write in Scrivener. Do you write it all up in a document or what?
September 17, 2014 @ 3:09 pm
I handwrite my scene screenplay right before I draft the scene–and I draft the scene in Scrivener. I also use Scrivener while revising.
September 18, 2014 @ 10:47 pm
I’m so excited to have found this blog. It makes so much sense for the kind of writer I am. And it is always nice knowing I’m not the only one that needs the magical cookie!
September 18, 2014 @ 11:33 pm
Oh, thanks Dana!! I’m so glad you found it too! 😀 Thanks for stopping by!
March 31, 2015 @ 9:59 pm
I’m sorry to say, but at first, I STILL didn’t understand what the heck this was :/ Maybe because it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t glance at the links, but did just this morning!
I TOTALLY get this now! And damn is it just an amazing way to make scenes! :O
I’m so excited to use this for my second drafts! My first drafts are just Cookies that are numbered and then rearranged as I write; it works 😛
April 13, 2015 @ 1:32 am
I do this ALL THE TIME!
Like, when I’m not “feeling” it, then I switch to manual, or if I’m just not bothered to hop on my computer, haha. I kick out a screenplay, and then I sometimes have two to three, to even four pages of Word doc., staring at me. It took me SO LONG to understand this method xD
April 23, 2015 @ 9:35 am
The magical cookies are like, the most helpful things ever. <3 But I was wondering, how many scenes make your novels, usually? If you could give me a ballpark value? Obviously you'll have a string of scenes to cover the whole story, but I worry that my scenes/chapters are too short ALL THE TIME.
April 30, 2015 @ 9:24 pm
I honestly have NO idea! Every book is different, every scene is a different length. Don’t worry about scenes being too short–as long as your pacing is solid, then you’re fine!! 😀
May 13, 2015 @ 10:15 pm
I’m so happy I found your blog! It’s soo helpful for me, since I’ve recently started to write something seriously and everything is so new and kinda scary haha! Anyways, thank you so much!!
January 10, 2016 @ 11:43 pm
Yes!! This was so helpful! I just sat down and drafted out the script of my chapter one.
It went so smoothly. Thanks for sharing this with us.
I am going to try move on to the next chapters now.
Do you draft out the whole book like this? Or do you only do act one like this before moving on to act two and three?
January 20, 2016 @ 5:42 pm
I draft out almost every scene this way! Before I write the scene, I’ll make my little “screenplay.” Then I’ll write the scene…and proceed to the next screenplay. 🙂 But do whatever works best for you!
February 16, 2016 @ 8:39 pm
Omg! This is how I’ve been doing it! I thought I was weird. (well because people told me they thought it was weird.) But I think it helps me not get stuck on a single word or sentence. This is also inspirational to keep me going and keep pushing me so I can finish this dang 1st draft!
February 1, 2018 @ 3:36 pm
Thanks, Susan, for sharing these very helpful ideas about planning for writing! They’re inspiring and make me want to go back to all the stories I’ve started writing but put aside a long time ago. I have a better idea now about how to get the writing done than I did before.
March 19, 2018 @ 9:37 pm
So, I stumbled upon this page just a few days ago and already i´m putting into practice all the awesome ideas you have here. I´m loving it! Yesterday, I sat down to write up a list of scenes I need to write and I realized two things–I´m lacking scenes I hadn´t realized I was lacking for the story to make sense. 2.- I have a lot more scenes than I was hoping / expecting already. My question is–how many scenes are usually in say 400 pg novel? Any ideas? And how to know what to throw out when all of my scenes are crucial to the story and not fillers. How many sub-plots are enough? Perhaps I´m trying to fit in too many stories into one novel? Any thoughts? ( I write for tweens).