These are my personal tips for NaNoWriMo. You know the drill. Take only what works. This is a new and streamlined post about Scene Helper, revised from an earlier post.
What is a scene?
A scene is the usual unit of writing for me. I sit down, begin a scene and keep writing until I finish it. If I am interrupted before I finish the scene, say by the requirement to cook dinner for a hungry hoard of munchkins, those munchkins better like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I’m not good for much else until I finish my scene.
Ok, but what is a scene? How do you know where to start it and where to end it, or whether to include it at all?
A scene is a story. Think of everything you’ve heard about writing the first sentence of a book…it should draw in the reader, it should intrigue, excite, show character and conflict… the beginning of every single scene should do the same thing.
Think of everything you’ve heard about a story arc for a character in a novel…the character should have a goal, should grow and change over the course of the novel, should achieve or fail to achieve both an inner and outer goal… the middle every single scene should do the same thing.
The only difference between a scene and a novel is that a scene should always end on a hook, whereas a novel should have resolution. If possible, the hook should be an actual cliffhanger, in which the emotional and/or physical health of a major character is in jeopardy, but if that’s not possible, at least a new threat, riddle or intriguing clue should be introduced to lure the reader on to the next scene.
You can beef up weak scenes in editing, but here’s a Scene Helper formula to add to your Chapter by Chapter Outline, to make sure your scenes will be strong before you ever even write them. If you sit down and find there is no story-arc for this scene, consider deleting it.
Now I'll break it down in more detail:
CHAPTER: Book #, Chapter #, Scene # - Chapter Title
This is important just to remind you where in the book you are. If you are giving your chapters names, it’s a good time to name them… it can be fun.
POV: Character, Person, Tense
If your book follows a character, in the same person and tense—say, First Person, Present Tense, like the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow—you might skip this step because it’s not going to change scene to scene. Although, it can work as a reminder, you don’t accidently slip out of your chosen tense. That happens much too easily when one is caught up in writing, and it’s a pain in the neck to fix.
If you are writing from multiple points of view or using more than one tense, this is where you note what you’ll be using in the scene. Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin is written in multiple Third Person, Past Tense.
LOCATION: Time and place
When and where does the scene take place? Locate this scene on your calendar and your map. Have the characters been here before? Has it been onstage to the readers (and therefore described) before?
HOOK: The first line or paragraph of the scene.
The first line or paragraph of your scene is like the first line of a book or short story. It must draw in the reader by asking a story question. The first or second paragraph must establish who the PoV character is and what he or she is doing, where and with whom. The sooner the logistical information is conveyed to the reader, the clearer it is. If the reader is confused about what’s going on, no amount of mystery is going to help. So: clarity first, then mystery. Make sure your opening establishes the PoV and the action, and then primp up your prose to make it intriguing.
CHANGE: How the character/s change over the scene.
Each scene exists for a reason, and that reason is to show the characters striving for some goal, conflicting with one another, and growing or changing in some way because they either fail or achieve their goal. You could call this section, “Goal” if you prefer. Either way, remind yourself that your character needs a goal, a struggle and a change over the course of the scene.
HANGER: The Cliffhanger
Every scene should end on a new cliffhanger. No problem should ever be solved without a new problem being introduced.
EXTRAS: The Cast Onstage
Who besides the main character is onstage during this scene? Note not only the other major characters, but any spear-holders or extras. For instance, if the hero and the villain are enjoying an unpleasant lunch together at an outdoor café, note that there are people at the other tables—is it a lunch crowd, families with noisy kids? Or a dinner crowd, sophisticated couples and clinicians from the Pharmacists’ Convention at the hotel? How about the server, a chirpy waitress with curly red hair or a gay man with strong opinions on the pasta?
I used to include descriptions of the locations in my Scene Helper Outline, but it became repetitive, since many scenes took place in the same location, which didn’t need to be described over and over. I did need a few sensory reminders each time, however. I found a better approach was to create, in advance…now, at the outlining stage, if possible… a few set pieces.
Now I look through my Scene Helper Outline and identify all the locations (and sometimes characters, including bit characters). I write set pieces for these. A set piece is a bit of description that doesn’t really move the story forward except to ground the reader in the location, or to give a physical appraisal of a newly introduced character. Set pieces can also be used, more rarely (and sparingly) for thematic tangents and rants. (Cough, Atlas Shrugged, cough.)
Look back to your Seed Scenes. If your characters and sets haven’t changed too much since then, you can loot that material for set pieces. Use your Scene Helper to figure out where each piece would work best. Richer description should be more heavily weighted toward the beginning of the novel, when places and people are being introduced, and lighter toward the end, when the pace accelerates.