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Writing a Novel Scene By Scene

Cygnet Brown graduated magna cum laude from Argosy University. She is an author of fourteen books and a long-time gardener.


Last night I was at a get together with some people who I had just met when the subject of writing a novel came up. One of the men there was really impressed that I have not one but two novels written. He said that he wouldn't have the patience to write a novel like that. Personally, I don't see it like that. Novel writing is like any other long term project. Its like the old riddle that asks "How do you eat an elephant." Answer: "One bite at a time. In the case of a novel however, the answer is in writing one scene at time.

Three Part Scene Development

Three basic sections make up a scene. The first is the pre-action anticipatory section. The second is the Action section and the final is the reflection section of the scene.

In the pre-action anticipatory section, the participants are anticipating what will happen in the action scene. This part of the scene also includes the setting of the action. It also includes how each character is feeling before the scene.

The action scene is the scene that not only includes movement, but it also is the part of the scene that includes argument.

The reflection section of the scene includes how each of the characters feel about the action of the previous scene and how they feel it fits into the previous scenes. In this part of the scene, as the narrator, I tell how this scene relates to the novel as a whole and how the events of the scene move the novel forward.

Begin with Introduction Scene

This scene isn't necessarily your opening scene, but it should be the one that you should write first. In the first two books of The Locket Saga, I created and used a scene in each of the books that brings all the main characters together as an introduction for the reader. In some stories, this scene might be at the beginning of the book as it were with first books of The Locket Saga, but in others it might be at the end. For instance, in a whodunit, the investigator brings all of the suspects together and evaluates alibis, motives, and clues as it relates to each of the suspects. In other stories, this actual scene might be cut out of the book all together. The primary purpose for this scene is to discover who is who and the character's reasons for being part of the story. This scene is a tool toward character development.

As I am writing this scene, I am also developing each character's sketch, especially the major players.

In the pre-action anticipatory section of this scene, each of the characters has preconceived ideas about each of the other characters. Have each one of your characters think about what they think and feel about each of the other characters before the characters first meet. A lot of this will be the backstory. This may take a day, or it may take more, but it is an important scene to write so that you get an understanding of who your characters are and what their motivations are.

In this section, you will also describe one of the major locations used in the book as it relates to the atmosphere of the entire book. Imagine it is a scene in a movie. Describe what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell when you are in that room. How big is it? How does the room add to the atmosphere of the scene. By atmosphere, I mean does it help create the feel of the situation. A dark old hallway in a Gothic mansion creates the atmosphere of the place being sinister. A formal living space can give the atmosphere of the stuffiness of the occupants. A room with a hearth and family activity produces a warm friendly atmosphere.

The second part of this scene is the action. In this part of this scene, the characters are introduced to one another for the first time. It is where the first initial actions occur between each of the characters. How does each of the characters feel when they first meet? Bring in how each person senses each of the others. This is where the antagonist and protagonist first clash in some way that will act as a catalyst for future events. Make it happen, get how each character reacts in the action moment.

Have them dialog to one another and tell how they feel about one another.

How do each of the characters respond to the atmosphere of the location? Can you develop any conflicts between any of the characters and the atmosphere? Does it bring any memories for this character? Does the atmosphere bring any misgivings to any of the characters about what is about to happen in the story line?

The reflection section of this scene is each character reflecting on the introduction and how this introduction is about to change his or her life.

As stated, this specific scene may or may not be added to the book intact, but it is an important scene to hash out. What you will probably do is take bits and pieces of the scene and use it in other scenes such as flash backs, introducing one character to another, the description of the scene, how each character feels about out characters and other anything else you wish to recycle. Some parts you might disregard all together.

Setting Up The Main Plot Line

Now that you have a little idea concerning your characters and your location from your introduction scene, it is time to set up the main plot scenes for the book.I learned that the easiest way to plot a novel is by dividing it in the same way that a three act play is developed. We will be using key scenes to define the main plot. We will call them the opening scene, the scene at plot point one, the scene at Midpoint, the scene at Plot point two, the Catharsis scene, and finally the Wrap-up scene.

Sketch out your novel first. Sketch your opening scene, then your wrap-up also known as the final scene. Knowing where your story starts, and where it ends gives the foundation of where your novel will start and where it will end. Next sketch out the catharsis or the catalyst that brings about that final scene.

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As you sketch out this foundation for your story, determine what want the story is fulfilling. This is your book's theme, and make it big like revenge, rebirth, love, revenge, fear.

Frame your story in some way so that the end of the story mirrors the end of the story. For instance, if you open in front of a building before a catastrophic event, finish the story in front of the same building (except perhaps blown to bits) with the surviving characters finally reunited.,

After your foundation is done, complete the framework using the remaining major scenes. Plot point one is an event that begins the sequence of events of the change of the status quo of the opening scene. The mid point scene is often where the protagonist has discovered that somehow perhaps he has won. Plot Point Two is the point at the end of the second act three act plays where everything falls apart. Any accomplishments made by the protagonist up to this point is destroyed.

This plotting structure is what John Gardener in his book The Art of Fiction called the energeic novel based on Aristotle's beginning, middle, and end. This system is known as "Aristotle's incline", and was modified by the German Philosopher Gottlieb Fichte.

The Rest Of The Story

Now that the major scenes of the main plot are roughed in, begin working on the scene development of secondary plots in the story. These are often plots that interrupt the protagonist from reaching the wrap-up. For instance, the prince is on the way to the castle to save the princess from the dragon. On the way, he helps Robin Hood and his Merry Men save Maid Marion, in the process he is captured and he must escape. That is a subplot.

Subplots of some novels may be main plots in others. For instance, a romantic relationship might be the main plot or it might be a subplot. For instance, in When God Turned His Head, the romantic involvement between Kanter and Drusilla was a subplot. In the book Soldiers Don't Cry, however, the romance was the main plot. The main difference is that the subplots are a part of the story whereas the main plot is the story.

Plot out each of the subplots the same way that you did the main plot using the same basic frame work opening scene, first plot point, mid point, second plot point, catharsis, and wrap up. Now that you have the basic framing for the novel, you can begin to fill out each of the scenes with more detail using the scene structuring format of the pre-action anticipatory section, action section, and reflecting section of each of the scenes.

Plotting Each Scene

Basically each scene should be plotted similar to this way:

Pre-Action Anticipatory Section:

Who is the antagonist of this scene? Who is the protagonist of this specific scene? The protagonist and the antagonist of a scene does not have to be the antagonist of the entire novel. In some cases, the antagonist can be one of the protagonists pitted against another of the protagonists.

How does each of the characters feel about the scene that is about to unfold?

Tell about the location. What atmosphere are you trying to evoke? What sensory descriptions fit the scene?

Action Section:

What is the purpose of this scene? How does this scene propel the story forward?

What did each of the characters do? What did each of the characters say?

What does your point of view character notice concerning each of the characters involved?

In as many scenes as possible, figure out what is the worst think that could happen in this situation short of killing off the point of view character?

Reflecting Section:

Does the scene propel the story forward? What problems does this scene create? What problems does this scene cause?

What do the characters feel and think about the scene they just went through? Who has which problem now? What will they do about the problems the scene has now created for them?

As you will notice, the pre-action anticipatory section of one scene leads right into the reflecting section of the next.

Transitions and putting it all together

Once the scenes are created, it is a matter of connecting them together. You will rewrite all the scenes strung together using the POV that best fits this novel. You will include other smaller transitional scenes until you come to the end of what then becomes your first draft.

This does not mean however, that when the first draft is done, you are finished. It is simply the beginning. However, your novel is now out of your head and in draft form and you did it scene by scene.

© 2013 Cygnet Brown


Cygnet Brown (author) from Springfield, Missouri on October 04, 2013:

Actually, the first novel took me 20 years and the second one took me 20! I actually started the second one first. I then wondered about the parents of the second novel and ended up working on that until it was done. I then returned to the second and finished it in about a year and a half after finishing the first.

Melissa Propp from Minnesota on October 04, 2013:

That was a really thorough analysis of how to put a novel together. I'm very impressed! How long did it take you to write your first novel? Did the second one go faster than the first one?

Cygnet Brown (author) from Springfield, Missouri on October 03, 2013:

Thanks Bill,

Next month I will be using this technique for writing the first draft of 50k words in a month during NaNoWriMo.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 03, 2013:

Great tips, suggestions and road map for novel writing. We all have our own unique process, but you hit upon the key ingredients. The analogy of eating an elephant is right on!

Have a great day and best wishes on your next novel.


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