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 scenesthis 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

  1. Dialogue.
  2. Broad actions.
  3. 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):

Sorry this is hard to read, but you can click through to see it better. Notice the “magical cookie” is at the top of the page (there are 2 cookies to this scene). Then see how the action is all smushed together with dialogue. I try to conserve space so I don’t kill too many trees with my outlining…

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.

Yes, the magical cookie for this scene DOES say ‘AEDUAN MY LOVE’. I adore his character, so every scene I write from his POV feels like magic. (Also: click through to see the image larger.)

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. 🙂

This started out as just the usual scene skeleton, but I quickly realized I had enough in me to actually write MORE. So I let the details come in as they “appeared” and by the time I was done outlining, I actually had most of a first draft. (Also: click through to see it larger.)

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

Read Part 5: Writing Journals