We’ve got pretty much everything now, right? While arc, character, theme and setting could all be sorted out in a nebulous fashion, this section’s probably going to be the last of your preparations, especially when it comes to NaNoWriMo. Today, we’re talking about planning scenes.
A THING HAPPENS
It’s as simple as that. A scene is where a thing happens. We establish the scene, something happens and then you get the hell out of there as fast as you can. There’s no point in loitering for ages. Well, there is a point, I guess, but only the one. Just because you’re trying to fill 50,000 words, you don’t have to waste a lot of time.
Back to David Mamet and his glorious rant, a dramatic scene is when someone wants something and can’t have it. There, easy. There are a ton of variations which can be made, simply from that premise. Your character wants to speak to the girl opposite him, but shyness is stopping him, the girl wants to escape the hospital but can’t have the doctors find out. A man wants to kill an orc, but he’s not very good at fighting yet. There, a thing to confront.
As far as this part of planning, all you need is this level of simplicity. Write down on a notepad or a spreadsheet or wherever, “Lena tries to escape from hospital”. There’s your scene planned. String a few together and you’ve got a sequence of actions, string some of them together and you’ve got an act. Repeat this often enough, following your act model from last time and you’ll have your story. You don’t even need to have them all planned out. I often write down as many scenes as I think of and add the rest to order.
A SCENE BUILDS DRAMA, A SCENE BUILDS CHARACTER
There are two reasons for a scene to exist. To build drama. To build character. If your scene doesn’t do that, it can probably go. Look at Robert Jordan and indeed any waffling fantasy author. They make some good books, but go on way too long about things which aren’t pertinent to the book.
If a scene advances the plot then it’s great, because we’re travelling down our story and that’s what the book is supposed to do. If it builds character, then that’s great as it’ll immerse the reader in the world, make them understand the character better and prepare us to rationalise any of their odder actions later on in the book. If you look at the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs where the cast are chatting about Madonna. It doesn’t advance the plot, but it establishes the characters, tells us bits and pieces about these people who only have colours and their faces to identify as separate people. Everything’s a glimpse into the soul of the cast members and when everything goes wrong, we feel invested. If we start with the aftermath of the bank robbery, our first thoughts are that we don’t know the characters and don’t know why we should care that some are dead or injured. So quickly and callously dealing with most of the cast shows us the risk and that no one is safe. To quote Lester Freamon from The Wire, “All the pieces matter”.
THIS ARTICLE’S RELEVANCE TO NANOWRIMO
This is all fine to know for writing a scene and I’m sure there’s a lot more to be said, but I’m sharing this information with one purpose today. It’s best to know what scenes are coming up, even in NaNoWriMo where most people will be writing by the seat of their pants. If you know that X is going to happen, then you can prepare, foreshadow, get your pieces into place. If you know that there’s going to be a moment where the cast decide to fake a school shooting (in the case of this year’s novel) and that the shooting will happen, those are two scenes. The rest will fill itself in. How do they get guns? How do they get the guns into the school? Do they know how to make them work? Who do they get on their side? By deducing what happens in the few scenes I’d decided on, I knew what could go in the middle. I still have a lot of space where scenes will need to be made up, but by that point it should all flow naturally. I have about 30 scenes figured out and a few ‘bridging’ scenes. Some might get abandoned, some might get split into multiple scenes, but they’re all illustrated with a sentence or two, rarely anything more, to say, “a thing happens.”
PRESENTING YOUR SCENES
I like to think out loud and my poor proofreaders & flatmates are often the springboards for my ideas. I also like having physical artefacts to tinker with. Because of this, even though I love Excel, my scene layout is all in hard copy. I have used a few methods to present them and each have had their merits. Here they are as ways you could use before and especially during NaNoWriMo.
It’s a real word. It’s Japanese, from Lean, a whole business thing I really don’t want to get into now. Justin Achilli wrote a two part article (here and here) about how to use it to prep your roleplaying games. It’s a list where you use Red, Amber and Green to show the priority. In the office world, you have a stack of paper and when it’s green that’s fine, when it’s amber you need to order more, then when it’s red, something’s gone wrong and there’s barely anything left. You’re never supposed to get into the red.
Achilli’s version saw each element of an RPG as a chain of events, stretching into the future so that it looked like foreshadowing and you were always prepared for the next stage, able to be plotted endlessly if needs be.
I took and changed the idea of the RPG Kanban a little for Point of Departure. I broke the story down into nine main plot elements (for instance, “The Key”, “The Body”, “The Expedition” and so on). I wrote a chain of events for each one and had them all on a bit of paper to confront in a non-linear fashion. Some led into each other. “The Key” showed the events which led to someone finding the key, what they do with it, where they go and then it transitions to, “The Body”. At the same time, the seeds of “The Expedition” are being laid down, the same with “The Instability of Robin” and so on. I didn’t know the exact order for most of the plot elements, but it gave me a tick list to go confront whenever they felt dramatically relevant.
THE PLOT LADDER
In Lightning’s first draft, I had the problem of an omniscient narrator mixing with my own knowledge of the story & attention deficit disorder. I tightened it up a bit for the second draft. My third, which was a NaNoWriMo book only because of the thoroughness of my plotting, had to be closer. I decided to limit each of the nine chapters to three points of view. I created an A, B and C plot, at least one of which would drive forward the narratives of the three lead cast members. The other plots advanced character, expanded the world and would advance the main cast plot, despite the distance they keep. In later Lightning books, the three main perspectives won’t always be the same three people, so establishing plot seeds and making the audience care about people ahead of time.
Each chapter had a core theme like, “Nemesis”, which was about each of the three perspectives making enemies. Bill Parker was attempting to get a job and having it undermined by the second perspective character. Nick, as second perspective, was intentionally acting against Bill without his knowledge until later on. The third perspective, Luke, was trying to solve the love triangle he was in by hunting down and fighting his rival, something neither are competent at doing in this stage of the story.
What I’d do with those chapters is work out their arc (see my previous article) but on a smaller scale. Each one had a beginning, middle and end, so I’d write short scene descriptions and put them on torn up little bits of paper. I used different ink for each perspective, and put them in order within their own story. Then I’d line them up and switch them all over the place, to make one cohesive timeline and allow crossovers between scenes. The scene-by-scene layout would then be stapled together to create a kind of ‘ladder’, colour-coded to character and laying out the structure of the story. Below is an example from Chapter 2 of Lightning. This is from before I used specific pens for different characters, with a letter an initial to show who’s in the scene.
The plot ladder is fun and looks interesting, but this year I’m using cue cards instead. These allow me to rearrange the scenes if anything changes in the timeline, without resorting to a staple remover. I didn’t number them, and there was no need to tie the perspectives. I’m assuming a third person omniscient at the moment, but keeping it tightly focused on Eric & Tyler, with occasional scenes which feature one or more of the other core kids. We’re in all of their heads, so there’s no need to hide a perspective. My original intent was to have each cue card marked, “X Days/Weeks/Months Before the Shooting” but if I do that, it cements things too much at this point. I’ll leave that until the story’s done and add it later if it looks like it fits. I’ve marked the scenes as “before the shooting” or “during the shooting” for the most part, with a couple of scenes “after the shooting”. This way I know which area they fit in chronologically and move the rest about however I please. I’m still making changes and adding scenes now. With 36 established scenes as of this article, there will be more as I write the novel, bridging them or as the ideas come up. As often happens, when I start writing, more moments in the world will pop up.
I hole-punched a corner of the cue cards, with the plan of having a treasury tag to link them together. That way I wouldn’t lose them and could still rearrange scenes. Lacking one, I used a chain for a lanyard from a convention about eight years ago. It’s way longer than I need, but looks cool wrapped around the cards so I’ll keep it. I’ve also added seven different-coloured cards to the stack, one for each core character so that I can keep continuity. If Austin’s allergic to nuts, for instance, then I’ll make a note when I’m done writing that section and know to not have him eating Reese’s Pieces later in the book. Not without bad consequences, at least…
YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO PANTS
These are all ideas you can use, and each writer has their own style to follow. These techniques might not work for you, and to be honest. I’ve been trying a new idea every year according to the book I’m writing instead of making them conform to my style.
Even with all of this planning, you can add or remove scenes as necessary. Never feel like you have to hold yourself to your plot structure. It’s a guideline, not something to hold up to the detriment of your story. Improvise when you need to, randomly throw in events or aspects from the front page of NaNoWriMo, random plot generators or your local NaNoWriMo chapter’s “Idea Jar”, if they have one. It’s often good to throw in random elements simply to keep it fresh and not get too formal with your work.
With this and the ‘arc’ section, hopefully you won’t be too stuck for what comes next in your book and know what the next step of your book is before you take it.
Good luck, and keep an eye on Faked Tales even after NaNoWriMo, as I’ll be giving away more writing advice and anecdotes, as well as fiction and links to my work around the internet.
MY NANOWRIMO PAGE: http://nanowrimo.org/en/participants/charlie-x