3 Crucial Aspects of Writing Scenes for NaNoWriMo

We’re talking about tackling first drafts this month, for the sake of all you NaNoWriMoers scampering around out there. We’ve looked at Running into the Jaws of NaNoWriMo (doing what into the what?), 3 Essential Guidelines for starting a novel in general (doing it how?), and 3 Vital Steps to creating your protagonist (doing it why?).

And today we’re going to look at writing individual scenes. Because that’s really the nuts and bolts of what’s going on in your squirrely little head right now.

Or anyway it had better be!

  1. What you need to accomplish

    We’ve been talking over on Jami Gold’s blog about the Story Climax, which is—it turns out—the Whole Point.

    And this is true of every single scene you write, as well.

    What’s the whole point of this scene? Why are you writing it? Why can your story simply not exist without it? Not because it’s:

    • characterization

      That has to happen as texturing in other scenes, the ones that move the story inevitably forward toward its Climax.

    • atmosphere

      See above.

    • info dump

      See above.

    The only thing that’s fair game for a scene is a simply inescapable step in the progress of your characters’ trajectory from the first moment they jump out of the pan until the instant the land in the fire.

    Whatever that step is—that’s this scene’s climax.

  2. How you need to accomplish it

    This part is fun! This is the part about pitting your characters against themselves and each other and watching the fur fly.

    Since all fiction is about cause-&-effect, it’s a given that your characters’ movement through a scene is all about their desperate grappling with their fates. This grappling is what causes whatever you’ve already decided needs to happen in this scene’s climax. And this grappling is enormously entertaining to readers.

    This is why you’ll hear that every scene must have an aim. That simply means that every scene must have something that makes your characters fight. Nobody wants to see them lying around picking lint out of their navels. We want them to do something! And in order for that something to matter, they must have deep, fundamental motivation to do it, motivation rooted—you saw this coming—in their conflicting internal needs.

    So they spend the grand bulk of this scene wrestling with something with everything they’ve got (sometimes in solitude, sometimes in dialog, sometimes in action, even, um, wrestling).

    I have to have it!

    But you can’t!


    That’s this scene’s development. It’s the bulk of the scene. And it’s a blast.

  3. Why you can’t avoid accomplishing it

    Because, naturally, if your characters could avoid going through all this hell they certainly would.

    But they can’t. Because of the climax of the previous scene.

    They did something in that last scene, made a decision and sealed their doom, and whatever it was acted as the effect that caused this scene. How does the opening of this scene show that, the immediate and dastardly consequences of those actions they thought—they thought!—in the last scene were the only actions humanly possible?

    That’s this scene’s hook.

Now, most scenes average 1,000-2,000 words, which is four to eight manuscript pages. Use this information as you write. You can go ahead and write the climax first and park it there at the end where it belongs and then go back and fill in with lots of madhouse antics. I do this a lot. And it’s generally not too hard to figure out what to use as the hook that’s going to demonstrate the soup your characters are in now, because you’ve got the climax to that previous scene sitting there staring you in the face. That’s where they were giving their all trying to avoid this exact situation.

Just be aware as you write this first draft of how many pages you’re looking to fill.