How to Write a Killer Scene in 5 Easy Steps

Recently, a friend was asking me about process, and how I plan my writing. I am a “lay the tracks as you go” kind of a writer. I’m not a pantser. I’m a failed plotter. I plan just enough ahead so that I can see where I’m going.

One thing I do plan pretty intensely, though, is scenes.

According to my internet search for “what the heck even is a scene?” a scene is:

scene. noun. : a division of an act in a play during which the action takes place in a single place without a break in time.

For me, it’s important to plan my book in scenes not chapters.

When I wrote my first book, I planned my writing in chapters. If I was writing the part of the story where a group of kids breaks into a casino, the entirety of the action in that sequence would happen in one chapter.

This is not helpful. My tendency was to start chapters as soon as the protagonists woke up and end them when the protagonist was safely home in their bed. This doth not a page turner make.

Instead of focusing on chapters, I focus on scenes. My “group of kids break into a casino” scene will probably be a couple of chapters. I think of it as one chunk of action (see definition above about scenes taking place without a break in time) and look for cliffhanger chapter breaks.

Here are five ways I prepare to write killer scenes:

1. Plan ahead

I’ve written before about how crucial planning ahead is to crafting good scenes. I don’t mean plotting or outlining. I mean actually taking the time to think through what you are about to write. Here are the five questions I ask myself before I start writing a scene:

  1. What happens – a one sentence description of the action taking place (Ex: kids break into casino)
  2. Goal – why is this scene necessary to the story? What change does it inspire in the protagonist? I’ve written in more detail about this here, but here’s a sample:

If I’m writing a fun scene, my goal might be to establish a friendship between two characters. If I’m writing a fight scene, my goal might be to make one character angry enough to do something stupid (which I know needs to happen in the next chapter). If I don’t have a good answer to this question (or if the answer is “because casinos are cool and heists are fun!), it probably means I’m writing an unnecessary scene.

3. Conflict – again, I will quote past me on this one:

Every scene needs conflict. Period. Whether it’s between a character and nature, two characters, or a supposedly adult woman fighting the urge to eat Taco Bell 24/7, there needs to be a struggle. In answering this question I try to set my characters in opposition with each other or with something else (an adult, a force of nature).

4. Outcome – how does the action and conflict change the story? How does this scene alter the protagonist’s goal or emotions? What is the next logical course of action she would take?

5. Off page – more from past me:

In each chapter I make note of what the reader is not seeing: what’s the villain doing? Is someone dying and/or being kidnapped? Who’s at the local Taco Bell? Keeping track of what’s happening in the world of my story helps me avoid stupid mistakes like killing someone twice (whoops) or writing a character in two places at once (not that I’ve ever done that

2. Journal out the logic

I started doing this after a few rounds of my critique partners asking very annoying questions like “why would she do this?” and having no good answers. It sounds painfully obvious (and for some writers, I’m sure it is), but the actions I need my characters to take to reach the outcome I’ve plotted for them, often make no sense.

Ex: why would the kids break into a casino to steal information they could probably find on the internet?

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I begin my days with morning pages (if you haven’t done The Artist’s Way I highly recommend it). I always end my morning journaling by describing what I’m going to work on in my novel that day and asking myself questions.

Ex: Today I’m going to work on the casino scene. Why would they break in when the information they need is on the internet? Need to include a moment where they do a quick internet search and find nothing. Or tie the information to a physical object—perhaps a flash drive? Why would the antagonist go with my group of heroes? Maybe it would make more sense for her to already be at the casino and run into them there.

You get the idea. I know what needs to happen (because of my pre-scene checklist), but the journaling is where I solidify the why. Why are these characters doing this thing together? Why does it lead to the particular outcome I know I need for the story?

3. Start late, get out early

Many, many brilliant people have given this advice, but it bears repeating. Scenes should not start at the beginning and finish at the end. They should start in the middle.

So for my casino break in, I’m not going to start when the kids discuss breaking in and then follow along as they drive to the casino. I’ll start in the middle of the action, maybe with something like:

“Geraldine spun the combination lock. An alarm sounded…”

They’re already breaking into a safe. Then I would flashback to Geraldine being all “how the heck did I get myself into this situation” and briefly summarize how they broke in.

In Magazine Land we’re always talking about how to “frame” stories. Most novels are too big to have a frame. The one example I can think of is Twilight which starts with that prologue at the ballet school where Bella’s all “I’m going to die for loving him, but I don’t care he’s sparkly” and then when we get caught up to that point in the story we’re like ohhhh. (I was too lazy to look up any details about this so please fact check me).

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I use frames on the scene level. One of my editors describes it this way: a story should begin at the lowest point before the character undergoes a change.

So if it’s a heist story, a good opening would be the moment the alarm goes off and Geraldine needs to decide how they’re going to survive.

Getting out early means the story ends as the kids are running out of the casino with the loot—not when they’re safe at home tucked into bed. Which leads me to:

4. End in the middle of the scene

The tendency in a first draft is to write complete scenes and call them chapters. That’s fine. Later, I try to break them at natural high points. So one chapter might end in the middle of the casino break in with footsteps outside the door and Geraldine whispering “Someone’s coming.” The next chapter would pick up mid-heist with everyone scrambling to hide. Don’t end a chapter with a natural break–end with the moment that will make the reader want to turn the page.

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5. End with a kicker

Kicker is another term from Magazine Land that I’ve adapted for fiction writing. A kicker is the last sentence of a piece. It’s the line or turn of phrase that ties the piece together. One of my editors described it as ending with a punch (hence, kick). You can read more about how journalist’s use the term here.

I’ve worked with some editors who call this a driver. It drives the reader to know more, to turn the page, to keep reading.

I try to end every chapter on a kicker. It’s so important to me that I include it on my Tracking Spreadsheet. I list the kicker at the end of each chapter. If I don’t have one, I color the box red and my heart is sad until I come up with a kicker ending.

The kicker should:

  • Introduce a new story element (ex: Julie was a double agent. Dun dun dun.)
  • Reveal a change in the protagonist (ex: I was done playing nice. I was going to murder everyone.)
  • Change literally everything (ex: Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time?!?!)

 

And there you have it. Five quick steps, but they make a huge difference in the quality of the scenes I write. Going through these steps before I write also saves me a ton of time in revising.

What about you? What do you do to prepare for writing a scene?

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