How I Write: Step 3 – Setting the Scenes

By now, I’ve got the overall story roughly sketched out in outline form. If I was a more skillful writer, I’m sure at this point I’d have all that I needed to start writing. Indeed, it’s common for me to just start writing at this stage, but lately I’ve started doing one more step. I like to take the story I’ve sketched out and start creating individually summarized placeholder scenes. This gives me a good idea of how the story will flow. It helps me to visualize how much actual space an idea is going to take up, too, and lets me rearrange things to better position scene changes.

The Hardware

This is an optional execution which I personally have never done, but as you’ll see in the software screenshot, this there is a physical way to handle this that people have been doing for ages. All you need is a stack of index cards/post-its, and a big ol’ wall. Throw in a roll of tape/box of thumb tacks and a nice pen, and you can do everything down there in the content section in the real world. I’d do this, except for the fact that my handwriting is lousy and my walls are already covered with art.


The Software

If there was a single selling point for Scrivener over a standard word processor like Word or LibreOffice, this would be it. Up at the top of the window when you’re working in Scrivener are three little view buttons. The one in the middle looks like a bulletin board. Click that and you’ll see… a bulletin board. This puts every item in the active outline level on a little index card.  So, it is exactly like the hardware version, but without the need for a big wall and good penmanship. Let’s put this stuff to use.


The Content

The goal here is to try to figure out every scene I’ll need to tell the story I outlined in the previous step. I do not get this right on the first try. Most of the time I underestimate how many scenes it’ll take to get a point across. Sometimes I create a whole scene for something that can easily be handled in a few lines of another scene. None of that matters, you can fix it later. Just start writing.

In Scrivener, every document has a name and a description, both of which are visible in this “index card” layout. What I do is click the “add item” button (a green plus sign in a circle at the top of the screen) to create a new card, give it a straightforward name (Introduction of the cat and John), and then write down a few sentences about that scene. Normally the location and cast of the scene are obvious, but if they bear special mention I’ll write them down. Then I write a few lines about what happens.

At this point, it’s a good idea to start thinking about some other things that Scrivener can do for you. If you right-click the index cards on this screen, you’ll see a “Label” section of the dropdown. This section starts out with some colored squares and stuff like “notes” and other potential classifications for text. I don’t use those, but I do use that little “Edit” option. From there, I make entries for all the different threads I planned back in the outline stage. Broadly speaking, you want to switch between threads often enough to keep the reader up to date on what’s going on. Switching threads is also a good idea when time needs to pass, travel needs to happen, etc., etc., etc. In any case, color coding them will help you see at a glance if too many of the same thread are bunched up, or one thread has been abandoned for a few chapters. If you’re not using threads, or keeping track of threads isn’t a problem for you, this color coding scheme is also useful for classifying action scenes and dramatic scenes, so you can unfocus your eyes and figure out if you’ve got big gaps between action sections. Handy!

The really useful part of this view is the ability to physically move scenes around. I do this a lot. Move this scene back to break up these two. Make this happen before that happens. Make this a flashback at the end. Stuff like that. It’s loads easier to do—and harder to screw up—than cutting a block of text, finding someplace else to put it, and pasting it in. And yes, you can slide these around just as easily once they’re full of story.

If you’re particularly energetic—I am not—you can plan the chapters at this point. In the program, they’re just folders that you drag things into. I’m sure most professional writer-type people make sure that every chapter has a strong, well-established theme and a clear beginning, end, and dividing point. I am not one of those writers. Until my fifth book, I didn’t even bother with chapters at all. These days I understand their value, but they tend to end up pretty arbitrary for me.  Good places to put chapter breaks are major shifts of POV, long periods of time passing, and other things of that nature. Picture scene transitions as commas and chapter transitions as periods. That’s the ideal usage, anyway. For the current story, I just grouped them into sets of three and moved them into numbered chapter folders. I can fix the whole mess later, if it doesn’t work out well in that way. It’s just some dragging and dropping.

It is also possible you’ll notice at this point that certain threads need to be broken up more than they are, and there aren’t enough other threads to break them up. I like to drop in blank “ANOTHER SCENE?” placeholders when one is really needed. During a typical story for me, I end up with four or five of them by the time I’m done. Most show up during the writing, rather than during this step.

But that’s about it for prep work! Next step, you start writing…