What do you do when you have a scene all planned out in your head, but you just can’t seem to get it down on paper?
It’s a toughy. Some of you out there may be pantsers, and just dream up your story as you go. When I write, I’m a plotter, through and through. I know the purpose of every chapter, every scene, every setting. It’s in a color-coded spreadsheet. (If you want to set up your own smokin’ outline, check out my free guide to Your Ultimate Novel Database.) But despite all my planning, there are times when the words don’t come easy.
Writer, it’s frustrating.
But here’s the deal. No matter how awesome your vision is, it’s doing no good just stuck in your head. Sometimes you just need to get something down that you can perfect later when you revise. When you’re having trouble getting through a tricky scene, here are 3 tricks you can use to make the process easier.
#1: Outline the Scene by Paragraph Synopses
Create a pirate’s map to the treasure: a completed scene! If you write a short sentence for each paragraph, you can navigate your way through writer’s block as you discover what needs to be included. This method strips your scene of the clever dialogue, stunning prose, sneaky transitions—and just focuses on the flow of narration.
If you were to write a scene about, say, your hero fighting a wax monster (it was a dream I had once, okay?), your outline might look something like this:
- Hero stumbles upon monster on the stairs
- Describe monster
- Hero retreats up the stairs, monster trips him
- The torch is flung up the stairs; extinguishes
- The wax monster begins to absorb hero’s leg in the dark
- Hero internal thought
- Torch is relit; sidekick is holding it
- Sidekick overcomes his fear and approaches
- The torch’s heat begins to melt the monster
- Hero scrambles free
- Use torch to finish melting monster
- Characters retreat to top of steps, sidekick helps hero melt the bit of monster off his leg
- Witty banter about situation
- Crackling sound below; the monster is reforming
- Characters flee
In approximately fifteen paragraphs, you have a scene! You can go back and flesh it out better once you get through it. A paragraph-by-paragraph outline is a great way to give yourself short goals to accomplish as you tackle a difficult scene.
#2: Use Brackets for Action and Blocking; Focus on Dialogue
If you find yourself hung up on certain elements of your scene (internal thought, what body language would be the most revealing of motive, snippets of dialogue), put down brackets as a placeholder for you to return to when you’ve finished the rough draft.
So, you’re telling me that to write the scene I need to skip parts of it?
Sure! All writing is done is layers. Get the big picture stuff down first, then go back and fill in those details. Descriptions and blocking are things that can be easily tweaked and added later on, but what’s the one driving force in your scene?
When all else fails, use brackets to skip over everything but the dialogue, and focus on making your characters’ conversation as natural and fluid as possible. Here’s an example:
I went back later to add in the sensory details, and came up with this:
Doubtful this can work? Try it out on your next scene!
#3: Write the First and Last Scene of Your Chapter, Then Fill in the Middle
Sometimes you know you need to cover a lot of ground in your chapter, and no matter how it wanders it must end up at a certain plot point. But it’s so far. Writing the first and last scene of a chapter can help you in two ways:
- It sets up the beginning and final tone of the chapter, so as you work on the middle bits you can keep these bookends in mind.
- As a kid, did you ever have a large block of color to fill in for a drawing and so you drew grids to break up the big ol’ sky into manageable chunks? It’s kind of like that. You’ve already got two scenes down, now all you have to do is connect them!
For chapters that are only one or two scenes long to begin with, use this method instead to write your opening and closing image. They can be anywhere from a sentence to a few paragraphs long; anything that helps break up the chapter for you in a way that gets it done.
Have any of you tried these tricks before? What works for you? Are there any other methods you use to get through difficult scenes? Talk about it in the comments!