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?


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).


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.


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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17 Lies I Used to Believe About Writing

17 Lies I Used to Believe About Writing

1.The Lie: All writers wake up at 4 a.m. and write for at least three hours in the early morning darkness

The Reality: A lot of people say they are doing this. Very few people actually do—and these people are not my friends because HOW?


2.The Lie: If I’m not an alcoholic/addict I will never make great art

The Reality:

Elizabeth Gilbert said it best:

I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist – while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums – is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work. Because in the end, it’s all about the work, isn’t it? Or shouldn’t it be?

3.The Lie: If I don’t write every day I am a failure

The Reality: Writing consistently is more important that writing daily.

4.The Lie: I should read more. Writers read!

The Reality: Reading is often an excuse to escape into another writer’s world instead of doing the work of building my own

5.The Lie: Revising as I write is a GREAT idea

The Reality: Revising as I write is really an excuse to keep from finishing. And finishing a draft is more important than perfecting a chapter.


6.The Lie: I can’t move on to the second chapter until I’ve perfected the first

The Reality: See above. Also, there’s a hundred percent chance the first chapter is going to get cut so why bother?

Also, this quote from Julia Cameron:

“Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right.  It has nothing to do with fixing things.  It has nothing to do with standards.  Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move forward.  It is a loop—an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole.”

7.The Lie: People who have sold books are rich

The Reality: LOL JOKES NO


8.The Lie: The first book I write will be trash and I should throw it away immediately

The Reality: The first book I write (and anything I write for that matter) might be trash. Or not. The only way to find out is to show people.

9.The Lie: Good friends make for GREAT critique partners

The Reality: Good friends are terrible critique partners. Because they’re good friends. Never show them anything

10.The Lie: Don’t show anything to your CPs until the whole thing is finished

The Reality: If I’m brave enough to show my CPs a work in progress, the finished product will be stronger

11.The Lie: I need at least a year to outline and brainstorm my book

The Reality: Thinking is less important than writing. I’m going to throw the outline away eventually so I might as well just write now

12.The Lie: You definitely need to print out your first draft. Otherwise how will you revise it?

The Reality: Printing is expensive and I will never read that thing anyway. Just give in to the robot overlords and keep everything on the computer.

13.The Lie: Grammar makes sense and I should learn it


The Reality: I am an Editor and I’m still terrible at commas and I should just move on with my life

14.The Lie: Writing 50,000 words in a month is a reasonable goal and if I can’t do that I’m a failure and should give up on life

The Reality: No. Just. No.


15.The Lie: Agents will appreciate my sense of humor and I should use as many puns as possible in my query letters

The Reality: Nobody cares

16.The Lie: Writing a book is super fun and not painful AT ALL

The Reality: *crying in corner*

17.The Lie: There is a better time to write than right now

The Reality: The best time to start writing is now. Like, right now.

There is no future, imaginary world where I will have more time and energy to write. If I don’t make the time to write today, than it is not a priority. Jobs, busy schedules, exhaustion—these are excuses. If I don’t’ prioritize writing now, than I never will.

PS: If you like this, you’ll probably like my weekly newsletter. It’s short, it’s sharp, and it’s full of the puns I cut from my query letter. Subscribe here.

How Not to Write a Novel (In 22 Super Easy Steps)

Hi, friends. I don’t know if you heard, but I wrote, like, one whole book. So yeah. I’m basically an expert and thought it was high time I broke down how to do it for you peasant, unwriterly folk. See below for a foolproof writing process. Patent pending.

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How Not to Write a Novel

  1. Decide you want to make a million dollars and realize the easiest way to get there is becoming an author. Because duh writing books is super profitable (ever heard of a little fellow named Harry Potter?


2. Go with the first story idea you ever had. Who cares if there’s no logline, hook, or plot? How hard can it be to string together 70,000ish words?

3. Dream about book signings and brunches with your imaginary editor. Write nothing.


4. Do some research and learn you need an author “platform.” Begin tweeting in earnest. Stalk agents on Twitter. Decide to write about writing on your blog even though you’ve never finished a book because HEY EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT. Avoid writing book at all costs.


5. Decide outlining is for people who aren’t TRUE artists (aka: not you). Besides, you know the beginning and the end, how difficult could the middle be?


6. Very, very difficult as it turns out.

7. Despair


8. Repeat step 7

9. Repeat step 7

10. Repeat step 7

11. Delete second half of book with one stroke of the key.

12. Repeat step 7

13. Give up all dreams of being a TRUE artist and outline the dang thing

14. Rewrite second half of book (sprinkle in a healthy dose of step 7 along the way)

15. Re-read draft immediately after typing THE END. Decide it’s brilliant. Query immediately.


16. Repeat step 7. Add red wine and obsessive email refreshing, waiting for the inevitable multiple agent offers because obviously every agent in the biz should be able to see that your novel will change literary history as we know it.


17. Stop. Collaborate. Listen.

18. Start over. Write an actual book with an actual plot and believable characters.

19. Revise aforementioned book until you hate it more than the Grinch hates Christmas.


20. Let it sit for a while and then revise some more.

21. Query in a healthy, realistic manner.


22. HA! Jokes. That’s not a thing. Repeat step 7 for all time and eternity.

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How I Wrote 50,000 Words In Two Months (While Working Full Time)

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In January I set a short term writing goal for myself: write 50,000 words of my manuscript by March 1. Last Wednesday, February 28, I typed my 50,092 word.

During this time period I had 42 writing sessions averaging 30 minutes each. I was working full time and also happened to be revising my first novel for an agent simultaneously (that’s a story for another time). When I hit my wordcount goal no one was more shocked than me.

I’m a perpetual goal setter, but I almost never accomplish the tasks I set out for myself. That’s fine. I still get farther with goals than I would without them. But I wanted to figure out why this time was different. What did I do more effectively? How could I duplicate it for future goals?

First drafts are the hardest part of the writing process for me. I am terrible first drafter. I know everyone says that in a really cute “aw shucks” kind of way, but I really mean it. My first drafts rarely even contain complete sentences. I’m lucky if they contain discernible words.

I’m an Editor by trade and writing doesn’t click for me until I have words to work with. I hate writing every word of first drafts and so I made it my goal with this project to get the first draft over with as soon as possible. Getting these bad words on the page quickly is crucial because the important work of shaping and coloring in the novel will take much longer.

So I launched an investigation to figure out how I wrote 50,000 words in two months while working fulltime. I identified five key factors that set my writing approach aprt:

Five Tools That Helped Me Write 50,000 Words In Two Months

1. Set a goal in the Sweet Spot

The first thing I did that helped me accomplish my goal was setting a reasonable goal in the first place. I found the Sweet Spot.

The Sweet Spot is a target difficult enough to be a challenge, but reasonable enough to keep you motivated. For me, writing 25,000 words would have been too easy, but writing 75,000 would have been so difficult I wouldn’t have bothered to start. Fifty thousand words was the Sweet Spot. A stretch, but within reach.

To find the Sweet Spot first list your Unattainable and Too Easy goals.

So for example:

Unattainable: 75,000

Too Easy: 25,000

Sweet Spot = Unattainable Goal – Too Easy Goal

The Sweet Spot is the difference between these two goals. In my case, 50,000 words.

2. Quantify your goal

If you are a creative, quantifying your goal might seem counterintuitive. After all, how do you quantify art? (Insert smug mustache twirl thing here). But if you want to improve and set measurable goals than you have to choose a way to track what you are doing and how it’s working.

Measuring quantitavely in this sense, is not about measuring quality, it’s about measuring output.

Everything is quantifiable. If you are a painter, you might track how many days it takes you to finish a painting and how many hours per day you spent working on that painting on average. If you are a runner, you might track your time and mileage. If you are an actor, you might track how much time you spent practicing and how many auditions you attended.

By keeping track of my creative output, I was able to see what on earth I was actually doing. Because I kept detailed records of when and how much I wrote, I know that the most I wrote in one day was 3,000 and the least was 560, and that my average was somewhere around 1,200.

It also helped me to identify patterns. I write much faster and sustain energy for longer periods of time, later in the day. Most writing advice says you should write in the morning. I can do that, but it’s not the most efficient way for me to write. Tracking my writing made me realize I need to plan my writing sessions later in the day.

The only way to know what works best for you is to keep track of it. Lots of random internet advice told me I needed to get more sleep, but when I Heatmapped I discovered that I was actually happier with less sleep. Don’t take other people’s advice on what will work for you. Find out for yourself.

PS: If you’re not sure how to start keeping track of your time, I wrote an entire post on Heatmapping—the best tool I’ve found for quantifying personal goals.

3. Outline outline outline

As with many things in life, planning for success makes success more attainable. I’ve always outlined my projects, but normally I ditch the outline 1/3 of the way through. This is fine, but it meant I would start each writing session with, at best, a vague notion of what I needed to write. Over the last two months, I ended my writing sessions by jotting out a detailed outline of what I would write the next day.

This doesn’t just apply to writing. If you are a runner, make a running schedule. If you are a painter, sketch out what you want the finished product to look like. Start each day knowing exactly what you need to do on that particular day to reach your goal.

4. By law you get a lunch break. USE IT.

This one only applies to people who have goals outside of their bill-paying jobs. I have a fulltime job and consider myself very lucky to be employed. But my job means I have to think carefully about when I can write and need to make use of the free time I have.

I work all day, but I do get a lunch break. I outfitted my iPad with a mini keyboard. Now I have a lightweight writing device I can use to write during my lunchbreak. That’s a solid hour of writing every day.

One thing I’ve noticed about my friends who work office jobs is that they rarely take lunch breaks. Your company is legally obligated to give you a break during the workday. Don’t be a martyr. Take it.

5. Do NOT revise as you go. Ever.

The final thing I did that made a huge difference was not reviewing my work. I didn’t read a single word of what I had written. I just kept going.

Why is this important? Because starting a project is fun, but it’s easy for me to get so bogged down in perfecting the beginning that I never reach the ending. Perfectionism prevents completion.

Most dreams die in progress. Lots of people have first chapters of novels that they’ve edited to death. Few people have finished manuscripts. The first chapter, first sketch, first rehearsal, isn’t important. Finishing is important. And to finish you need to look forward, not backward.

For my last project, it wasn’t until the final draft that I started the story in the right place. The first chapter that I slaved over for months didn’t even make the cut. It wasn’t necessary. You will save yourself tons of time and energy if you commit to seeing a project through without trying to fix it as you go.

So there you have it. Five easy things that made it possible for me to write more efficiently and to have more fun while doing it. What about you? How do you reach challenging goals while meeting other life obligations? Comment below so I can steal your ideas!

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