Home » David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice » Writing Out a Great Scene

Writing Out a Great Scene

31 May 2013

From New York Times bestselling author Dave Farland:

A couple of minutes ago I had an idea for a great scene for the novel I’m currently working on. I’m going to go begin writing it within the hour.

Twenty years ago, I would have taken a different tact. I would have waited for the idea to “ferment,” to age like a fine wine. The idea being that when you have a new idea for a scene, very often it isn’t easily integrated into a novel, and so you would want to think about it, let everything settle, and then begin to compose.

For example, let’s say that you have an idea for a story. It’s about a loving mother who becomes depressed about her life. Her mother passed away when she was a child, and she has often felt so cast adrift that she has wondered if she should have died instead. Now, at age 33, she is a young single mother who has been diagnosed with heart failure, and she realizes that her two children, ages two and four, are most likely going to repeat the cycle. So she decides that she is going to take her children and throw them off a bridge, then jump off and drown with them.

Okay, so you think about that big climactic suicide scene and the things that could possibly happen, and each time that you think about this novel, that one big climax seems to loom in the foreground of your imagination. It’s like an old record that is skipping, replaying the same fragment of song over and over.

Meanwhile, there are dozens of other minor scenes begging for your attention.

. . . .

But as you try to populate your story with various scenes, you realize that each one will affect what happens in your climax.

. . . .

So, I used to wait. I’d try to populate the story with minor scenes, then wrap everything up in one round. But I’ve found that if I wait, I might spend an awful long time trying to develop those few key scenes. Each novel needs between 70 and 100 scenes, but I’d find myself going over half a dozen of the biggest ones, unable to progress. My creative energy got spent rehashing the same scene over and over, often with very minor twists.

So now I recommend that you write out those big scenes early. Once you do, your creative mind is free to focus on those minor scenes.

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David Farland, Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

21 Comments to “Writing Out a Great Scene”

  1. Twenty years ago, I would have taken a different tact.

    Tack. It’s different tack, not tact, unless you’re intending a slang form of “tactic” and not the idiom “take a different tack” (which is a sailing reference).

    More on topic, this can be useful advice, but I find that when I write key scenes early, I often get caught up in making sure the scene will work the way I wrote it, rather than making sure everything connects and worrying about how I’ll have to revise that pre-written scene later.

    A downside to being a details-oriented person, I guess. 🙂

    • re ‘tack’ ….maybe he’s writing on one of those demonic pads or phones that ‘self-corrects’ spelling without one’s permission– often wrongly.

      Or perhaps he’s never sailed or grew up in the desert, and ‘heard’ the word as tact instead of tack

      Or maybe he’s a French scholar who knows the use of the word tact means to make a consideration to deal with an issue with sensitivity. Which would fix the context he’s writing about.

      or maybe like me, he jes caint spel to sav his sole

  2. I find that writing a big scene, even if it is ditched later, brings characters and plot into sharper focus and increases my immersion in the work. I find it’s good to get excited about a big scene. The big scenes then help create/lead in to the scenes necessary to fill in the gaps.

    ‘Each novel needs between 70 and 100 scenes’ – This seems a lot to me but maybe it is about the way he breaks down scenes. I tend to think of chapters as scenes.

  3. Can’t identify with the character. Not sure that’s a good thing.

  4. Patricia Sierra

    I know an international bestseller who writes all her novels in scenes, out of order. She then shuffles them to work out the order and the result is a novel consisting of short chapters (the scenes).

    I can’t write that way. I hear a “voice” telling me the start of a book and I just keep listening to that voice as I work my way through to the end. Outlines are also impossible for me. I’d hate to know where I’m going to end up before I even begin. I leave the ending in the hands of the characters who are dictating the tale.

  5. If you mean the same thing as “big” as I mean by “key,” this is how I write.

    However, my key scenes are not necessarily long, involved, or highly dramatic. They’re the ones that advance the plot. “Hey, wait a minute. *I* didn’t tell her that…I’m gonna sit here and think for a while.” can be a key scene, but not a big scene. What I do *after* I realize that and run of to confront her, that could be a big scene *or* a key scene or both.

    My work consists of visualizing key scenes, writing them, and hooking them together. A story begins, 9 times in 10, when a key scene for it flashes into my head out of nowhere.

  6. I’ve tried writing out the scenes as they come to me and plugging them in. They always require rewriting to fit what’s happened and sometimes I never use them because the story has changed from what I thought it was going to be. Sometimes by writing out scenes, it gives me a feeling of being locked in and that stifles the story. The other problem I encounter when writing out scenes in advance because I really like the idea at the time is that it steals my enthusiasm for the story. So, I’ve gone back to what I always did–writing linearly and not getting ahead of myself.

  7. “…it steals my enthusiasm for the story.”


    I hate knowing too much when I start. I want to know only enough to write and no more. When I hit a particular scene, it’s fresh and I’m energized.

    Plus, I can feel the rhythm of my story building while I write, as well as all the holographic in-story connections growing, which I never plan, but feel so right as they evolve.

    My story changes a lot while I’m writing it – like a river in flood jumping its banks. And I like it that way.

    But…I’m not Dave, and I don’t tend to get obsessed by one big scene. So I don’t need to get it out of my system in order to write the others. In fact, I won’t know the most important elements of my big scene until I travel through the preceding ones to get there.

  8. Marc described how I write to a T.

    I have never written ANYTHING start to finish in “discovery” mode. I don’t get bored if I know what happens; I get anxious and unable to move forward if I don’t. I use at least rough outlines and always write the scenes that come to me out of the blue down. I bat probably 50% in terms of keeping them as written or having to change them when the narrative gets there. I read this piece and thought…”doesnt everybody always do this?”. But no. I read an interview with one of my favorites (Sharon Shinn) who said if a scene that pops into her head is truly key, she will remember when she writes that part, and obviously DWS is a write-to-find-out-what-happens type. As everyone around here likes to say, it takes all kinds.

  9. I do that sometimes. It really depends how well I know the scene when it hits me. If I need to figure some things out first I’ll let it “ferment” but if I’m struck with a sense of excitement about the scene and know how I want it to go I’ll sit down and write it out.

    Totally get what the author is saying about how small decisions during the novel can screw with the bigger/key scenes in a book. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, though.

  10. I’m more like Marc and Lily. I used to write my way into a story, but now doing a complicated trilogy of historical novels in one year under a pen name, I can’t afford to draft a total of 900 pages ‘blind.’
    I’ve become a ‘discover as you layer’ person, using a corkboard, then a spreadsheet as an evolving outline/draft. One fat column at the end is for key dialogue, wonderful moments that are essential to the scene imagines. The spreadsheet, with columns for scene atmosphere, motifs/symbols/themes, positive-negative shift, turnings points, etc. keeps expanding and shifting all the time. I’m exploring the ‘vivid and continuous’ dream of fiction, but allowing it to tell itself in a variety of ways before I finally commit to prose. I change a lot of things at that stage but laying track like that, including notes for favorite scenes, makes the writing go faster.
    That’s why I chuckle a little when some people fear outlines as static or constructing tools, because my discovery period lasts much longer than theirs and goes on and on and on as I circle around the story again and again, letting it grow in all directions rather than linear only.
    People who disparage outlines might be making the mistake of doing only one or two for a story because they’re so anxious to write whole sentences. Of course they get trapped. They didn’t really play with the outline or explore all their possibilities as much as they could have. My spreadsheet version of a book may have morphed five or six times. It’s much easier to dump a bad idea when it’s a few lines than when you’ve spent a day writing the wrong scene.
    Of course, there’s a finally a point, when the spreadsheet is two or three pages long, that I paste it all into a book template, let the table of contents be an auto-updating structural guide and rewatch ‘the movie’ of my book as I draft it into sentences, enjoying language choice and color, checking research details and letting the characters find their voice, but I would say that when I’m doing my first draft of prose, I’m really refining or sculpting the story rather than discovering it, more like a film editor than a person doing initial sketches.
    Far from not getting bored at this stage, I’m well into the narrative and comfortable not only with the decisions I’ve made but the poor ideas I’ve discarded. Of course, even after a month spent planning, lots of things change, and I’d reassure anyone who tries this approach not to fear losing any ‘freshness’ or ‘discovery’ each time they rework their story possibilities. One month planning means six weeks of smooth first draft of prose. A fair trade-off, I’d say and one that didn’t lack for surprises all along the way.

    • I’d say, different ways for different books. I used to use Corkboard and In Control [both canned by their makers or no longer supported by cpu] to lay out central points. Now do it analog. But some books write me, in the sense of nonstop, no eat, no sleep, just fire blazing away. Others are like trying to squish toothpaste back into the tube. Beyond insanity.

    • I don’t disparage outlines — I just know that even talking about my story intentions… kills the words and makes them lifeless and flat. It sucks the joy from writing. You know how the second post — after you do a long one and the browser/comp crashes? — never works as well? Yeah, that. In spades.

      • Oh, yes. So very yes! I can tolerate sketchy outlines that morph as I write, but a detailed outline kills the story dead for me too. I so hear you on the second post/browser crash concept. ::shudders:: (About the dead story, that is.)

  11. I dont know why, but my posts here appear to be ‘replies’ to someone else’s comment, but they arent. They were meant to be stand alones. Just in case anyone was wondering.

    • USAF – Unless there’s a glitch in WordPress, if you go all the way to the bottom of a comment string, you should see an open comment box that will allow you to post a stand-alone comment.

  12. For some things, I’ve had scenes pop up, get written, and then get filed away until I have a story where they fit.

    In contrast, for the novels I just finished, I had a major scene that I needed to write, and then I backtracked to get the characters to that point and to build their world. I had a loose plot outline already, in that I based the story on a historical figure and tried to stay somewhat close to his life, or at least what we know of it.

  13. I always start with a nugget of an idea. Then it turns into an outline. Then I start working on scenes, writing the big ones first, then less important ones. About half way through I stop with the outline, put my scenes together, then fill in the rest.

    So far has worked out well but I’m always exploring new ways to write better. I love seeing how other authors work!

  14. Whatever works. Get it down on paper.

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