Picture the Scene

This week’s question is by Pamela Foster:

Explain your process when you sit down to write a scene.  Do you enter into the mind of your character?  Picture the setting?  Fall into a trance? How do you turn pictures, scenes, in your head into words on paper that call forth images in the mind of your reader?

PAM:  I start with a lesson plan.  (That teaching credential pays off after all)  What do I want to happen in the scene?  How am I moving the action forward or developing the character?  Then, when I have a general idea of what I want the scene to accomplish, I move on to specifics.

First, I decide on the place the scene will take place.  Once I’ve figured that out, I move on to asking what would be the smells in this scene.  I’m a great believer in scent as a trigger for emotion.  If I can make a reader smell what the character smells, I’ve got them.  I want to know what time of year it is.  What time of day?  Where is the light coming from?  Light is another trigger for me, a way to place the reader right there in the mind of the character.

Then I move to the mind of the POV character.  Is she happy?  Sad?  Worried?  Confused? What, exactly, is she feeling?  I introduce the secondary character or characters.  A scene with two characters, one male and one female, is the easiest scene to write. The more people you put in a scene, the more movement and the more personalities there are bouncing off each other, the more difficult the scene is to write.  I would advise a new writer to perfect the two person scene, before moving on to the group shot.

All that takes very little time, it becomes natural after a while and I think this is one reason a writer needs to write every day.  Practice really does make you a better writer.  Once I’ve arranged all that in my mind, I get out of the way and let the characters lead the way.  Sometimes the scene leads in a completely different direction than I planned and almost always there are surprises before the scene is completed.  That’s one of the great joys of writing.

RUTH:  Wow, for some crazy reason I had a tough time answering this question.  Thanks a lot, Pam.

I’d like to say that I don’t consciously think about a scene, but that isn’t exactly the truth.  A hint of an idea might be hiding in the shadows of my mind that will eventually take over and consume me body and soul, but I do have to take the human footsteps and actually sit with my fingers on the keyboard before the magic happens.  Does that make sense?

Scenes play like mini-movies in my head. When I put them on paper I “watch” the movie and just type what I see. I suppose I’m in a trance-like state while this is happening, however I’m still conscious of the cats running like striped-ass apes through the house so I’m not totally in a daze.   If I have trouble finding the right words to bring the images forward to the reader, I act the scene out, often talking the dialogue as I type.

I do become the character.  Doesn’t every great writer?

LINDA:  I daydream! Recently a speaker made this statement, “A writer is one who is working even when staring out the window.” How true! I let several scenarios play like a movie in my mind. Then I write it down and continue on with the story. Then after the first draft, I revisit each scene and let it play again. By now, I’m more connected with my characters and I know how the story actually ended (they don’t always end as we writers intended them to, do they?) I add twists, flavor it with more senses, punch up the dialogue and internalization, as well as sprinkle in just enough attitude and emotion.

JANWhen I have a scene in my head and I sit down to write it, I close my eyes and put myself in that scene as my character. What does she see, smell, hear? Move in. Closer. Closer. What is she thinking?

But in writing a scene, I also ask myself, what is the purpose of the scene? Does it move the story forward or is it fluff? I’ll admit, there have been a few scenes that I’ve liked so much, yet the scene had no purpose. But, because I couldn’t let the scene go, I created a reason for it to remain . . . a way to move the story forward.

If the reason for a scene is strong, but the scene itself is weak, just won’t go down on paper, I often “interview” my characters. There’s something about changing methods from trying to get a story down on paper, to literally asking your character questions. It’s amazing how much your character will “tell” you, if you ask the right questions.

CLAIRE:  My process is this: I wake up in the morning with an empty head (some would claim it stays that way.) I get something caffeinated—usually Diet Coke, but sometimes coffee—and sit down in front of the computer. I have no idea what I’m going to write or a goal for the day. I simply review what I’ve written the day before and let the words flow forth. If I get to a scene that is causing my writing to slow, I skip over it and continue to write. Then, I’ll go back to difficult scene and ponder it.

The pondering can last for days. I usually start another project, making a quilt or gardening or cooking, The entire time the scene is floating around in my head. As the day progresses, I’ll get the scene worked out in my mind and I’ll either finish writing that scene in the afternoon or I’ll wait until the morning. If I wait overnight, I have to take some notes so I’ll remember what I’d figured out.

It’s not a very scientific process, but it works for me. It’s amazing where and when the ideas come to me. Last summer while I was picking green beans, I had a conversation in my head between two characters that resulted in one of my favorite scenes in Redneck Ex. The other day, I was trying to figure out why my characters in Loch Lonnie were locked away in a storm cellar during a tornado. While weeding my roses, the answer came to me and boy was it a doozie!  So, out there that I thought I’d experienced sunstroke, but it’s a really good scene.

The most frustrating thing is when I quit writing for the day, but my characters continue their dialogue while I’m trying to do other things. I forgot to put sugar in an apple cobbler once because my characters were having one heck of a donnybrook. The cobbler was awful, but the resulting scene was pretty darn colorful.


15 thoughts on “Picture the Scene

  1. Pingback: Monday Morning Mashup: 4/16/12 | Jan Morrill Writes

  2. Ruth, I do the same in my writing process. I see the movie, sometimes I just hear the audio. Thus, I have a lot of information coming from dialogue. Indeed, my first novel was written entirely in third-person,objective POV (third-person camera, it is sometimes called).

  3. Wow. Ya’ll make me feel like a loser. I just write whatever comes out of my head at any particular moment. lol.

  4. I’ve never thought about how I’m doing it, but I don’t think I see so much as hear/feel it or maybe I see it sort of. I don’t think I can explain it. It’s just there and I write it down.

  5. It’s interesting to break the writing process down. Made me think about just how I write, but I agree that its like leaning in for a kiss. You just do it. Takes a lot of the fun out of it if you get too inside your own head.

  6. I do a blend of several things,but almost always writing for me involves some time spent entranced and rarely does it begin with planning. I’ve written 2 real short stories in my life. (I don’t count the one I wrote in Kindergarten, or the “girl on a bus” story from Freshman year at college.) One was plotted and planned, and I’m still trying to get it to work. The other was the one you mentioned. The way I wrote the second is basically what I do with a scene–get an idea/vision/dream/daydream, write out as much as I can (that whole describing the movie I’m watching in my head thing), then go back and take out the stuff that gets in the way. Of course, endless tweaking and editing usually follows, but that’s how I get the basic scene down. Whether I start with character, setting, or plot just depends on how the story presents itself. If I’m trying to come up with a scene for a larger wip, the process is more involved and less, um, flaky(?).

    At least, I think that’s what I do. I’ve done comparatively little focused and intentional creative writing, so I don’t know that I have developed a well-defined process yet. Still learning.

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