How to write scenes (NaNoWriMo Week 1)

Last week I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Yesterday I talked about the five building blocks of a story. Today I’m giving you three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

Every scene needs a goal (the beginning), conflict (the middle), and sequel (the end).


Your character needs to have overarching goals to push the story forward (download my free goal and backstory worksheet). At the midpoint, he or she will adapt, change, or redirect the Big Goal.

But each scene needs to have a minor goal, a step-stone goal.

These goals need to be external and active to drive the story forward and keep the reader reading.

Introspection is neither external nor active; it’s internal and passive. It belongs at the end of each scene.

Running away from something requires movement and action. However, it’s still passive. Pair it with another, active goal. The character needs to run away from a threat while also running toward something else, or while needing to protect someone else.

The longer your story is, the more of these stepping-stone goals you’ll need.


Conflict is the reason your character has to keep making all of these smaller goals.

Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort (external goal) and to have a family of his own (ultimate goal and motivation). So he needs to learn Defense of the Dark Arts. Unfortunately, the Defense of the Dark Arts professors…(this changes per book.)

Ways to come up with new conflicts for each scene

  • Use a template like the above. Main character wants _____, so MC must [scene goal]. Unfortunately, [conflict].
  • Ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it really suck right now if _______?”
  • Someone or something needs to get in the way of your MC’s goal. Pick from the following list.

Types of antagonists

  1. Self—the character’s own fears, problems, or past
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Love interest
  5. Forces of nature
  6. Creatures—e.g. real or fantastical
  7. Society/Circles—e.g. your MC’s neighbors, co-workers, boss, fellow citizens
  8. Establishment—e.g. religion, government, political party, school
  9. Technology
  10. Objects or obstacles
  11. Supernatural or paranormal forces—e.g. fate, gods, or ghosts
  12. Nemeses, villains or bullies

Each move your MC and antagonists make drive the scene.


Sequel is the MC’s reaction to an antagonist’s move.

This is where your character gets introspective, faces a dilemma, makes a decision, or learns something new. This is where you can include that passivity.

Knowing your genre will tell you how much time to spend in the sequel. Beta readers and editors will tell you how much is too much.

Think of conflict, goals, and action as pedaling a bike. Sequel is coasting. If your story is going downhill, you’ll coast more than pedaling. Tragedy will include more sequel. The gloom period of your novel (in Act Two, after the Midpoint) will also include more sequel than the Preparation and Problems section.

Ending your scenes

Summary isn’t scene. You can summarize actions of the character over time or location in a paragraph or sentence—in fact, you’ll do that with your entire book when crafting a synopsis—but that doesn’t constitute a scene break.

An example of summary, from the first chapter of The Hunger Games:

We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day when easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have a dozen fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of strawberries. I found the patch a few weeks ago, but Gale had the idea to string up mesh nets around it to keep out the animals.

On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space.

The first twenty pages of The Hunger Games spans places and hours, but Collins doesn’t include a scene break* until the end of the chapter. She finally ends the chapter with a reversal.

A reversal is whenever the direction of your scene changes. If the projection of your book is positive, the overall movement of scene progression will be positive, and reversals will be negative. If you’re writing a tragedy, reversals are positive.

In Chapter One, we have a foreboding sense that The Reaping is going to be an unfortunate event, but Katniss’s progress through the scene is fairly positive.

Then Prim, her sister, is picked to be tribute.

End of chapter.

Include a scene break* whenever your character is going to chase a new stepping-stone goal in a new place or after time has passed.

*an extra line break at the end of the final paragraph, denoted with a # in manuscript format

End your chapter after a new problem or antagonist move, but before the sequel. The reader will start the next chapter to find out the character’s reaction. That’s what a cliffhanger is—an ending that begs for sequel.

The Hunger Games’ first chapter ends with the inciting incident. When Prim gets picked, the chapter ends. Chapter Two starts with Katniss’ reaction. Then her sequel ends, and she acts:

But the scene doesn’t stop there. Peeta is picked. Then Katniss reacts to that. Chapter Two ends referring to a Capital-imposed dilemma that won’t be solved until the end: Would she kill Peeta to save herself? We keep reading until Collins will answer, will sequel, that question.

What will keep your reader reading? Think about that question while writing and revising your story.


The Storybook Synopsis



Today we talk about using as few words as possible to tell a story. It’s a great exercise for synopses writing, query letters, and elevator speeches.

I’ve been reading more picture books to my son lately, and some of his favorite are the five-page, itty bitty board books by Disney.

my first library

His collection seems to be out-of-print. I’d like to think it’s because those stories were so blatantly sexist. But I digress. I’m supposed to be comparing this to a summary of a story.

Think of a Disney movie. Take, for example, my favorite, The Lion King. We’ve already examined The Lion King using my 8 C’s of plotting, so we know that there’s a full story there.
But Disney merch has shown us a plethora of synopses for the story. There are chapter books, story books, picture books, and yes, a 5-page board book. Each is the same story, condensed in varying degrees of complexity.

Some of the 5-page board books have no plot at all. They have one page per character in the story. And you know what else? They are stupid. When agents/editors/publishers read your query letter or synopsis, they don’t want a page per insignificant character. They want to know what your story is. Yes, that means they want to know the plot, right down to the happy or unhappy ending.

Another digression:

I read in How Not to Write a Novel the chapter “How Not to Sell a Novel.” One mistake new writers sometimes make when trying to sell the book is not giving away the ending . Maybe in children’s merchandise you don’t want to tell little 2-year old Sally about the prince slaying the dragon, but I’m pretty sure 3-year old Sally wants to know that the prince is worth his salt. And Publisher Sally wants to know that the new writer she’s considering is worth his salt and can write a decent ending. Don’t annoy the publisher or agent in an attempt to be mysterious.

The best of the 5-page books are like a good movie trailer. They spell out the plot in a condensed manner, but they don’t give everything away. Still, they at least hint at the ending. My husband and I hate watching TV Spots for movies, because lately they seem to never actually tell you what the movie is about. There’s more fading to black than there is content.

Disney will probably sue me and take my puppy away if I give you an example of one of the stories they published, so let me make up an example. Each page has 1-2 sentences. No page has more than 15 or so words. Here’s my uninspiring “5-page board book” of The Hunger Games:

  1. Katniss is a skilled hunter with trust issues.
  2. Peeta can decorate a cake like nobody’s business.
  3. Katniss and Peeta have to fight in the Hunger Games.
  4. They fight for themselves. Children murder other children.
  5. Katniss and Peeta fight for each other.

There, see? I just wrote a synopsis. You can do it, too. Try this method—it’s less painful than gauging your eyes out with a pipe cleaner.

Optional Part One: Pick a Disney movie. Find all the Disney-sponsored books you can about that movie. Chapter books, novels, story books, picture books, coloring books, story books. Read them.

Optional Part Two: Write your own 5-page board books of your favorite books or movies. Then try it out on your own stories.

Non-negotiable Part One Point Five: Enjoy yourself. If you aren’t having fun, pick a different hobby, like coil-building clay pots or macramé.


The Hunger Games: Analysis to come!

I interrupt my vacation to let you know that this week I’m reading The Hunger Games.

And also to let you know that I’ve decided to use The Hunger Games to illustrate my 8 C’s of  plotting.

So if you don’t want the whole plot of the first book given away to you, I’d advise you pick up the book or watch the movie before April 13th. If you don’t, I’ll try whiting out the spoilers, so you have to highlight them to read them. Still, The Hunger Games seems like the best choice right now, since so many people have read the book or seen the movie. If you can think of another movie that has seen such a big audience, let me know and I can try using those. I think The Lion King is a pretty good choice. If I must, I can refer to Titanic, but I’d rather not.

In other news, never try blogging on from your iPhone, unless you want to be seriously annoyed and unable to italicize reasonably. Yeah, there’s probably an app, but apps take up waaaay too much space on my phone. Space I can use for movies or videos of my child roaring at dinosaurs.

Until next week.

Write now.