The process of writing a scene can be very much like using a Global Positioning System. By learning the components of your own work’s GPS you will be able to generate scenes faster, and more efficiently.
When creating co-ordinates, the standard GPS relies on one receiver that takes in information from at least four satellites and creates concrete co-ordinates that move through time and space.
When writing a scene, the writer acts like a GPS receiver. The writer taps into the information provided by at least four of her own orbiting “satellites” and combines this data into a concrete scene that moves through time — and sometimes through space.
What are an author’s “satellites”? In this context, your satellites are your “big picture” sources that provide direction and inspiration. You have lots of these and you will draw on them all during the course of your work but you will draw on some more often than others.
Satellite 1: Main Plot
Even for the most dedicated “pantster” will have some idea of what she wants to happen and roughly (or specifically) when it should happen in relation to other events. For “plotters” the information given by the main plot can be even more useful. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what happened before this and how does that affect this scene?” and “what needs to happen later and how can I plant seeds for that happening here?”
Satellite 2: Subplots
Subplots are like side-streets. They give a city more substance, provide shortcuts and detours, and give characters places to live and work. There are many ways to weave subplots into your narrative. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what has been happening behind the scenes and how does that affect this scene?” and “how do the subplots tie into my main story and how can I reinforce those ties?”
Satellite 3: Character Arcs
The scene will happen very differently depending on where a dynamic character is in her character arc. For instance, a naïve (or ignorant) character will react differently than a character in denial or a character who is consciously trying to change. When writing a scene, remember to ask “where are these characters in the course of their development?” and “do the start, middle, and end of this scene accurately match this?”
Satellite 4: Cast of Characters
Keep track of what characters appear in each scene. If the reader hasn’t seen an important character in awhile, you may want to include that character either physically or mention him less directly. Keeping track of what characters are present also means that a character won’t simply “vanish” partway through the scene. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what characters are present here?” and “how do these characters affect the course of the scene?”
Satellite 5: Culture
Cultures influence almost every aspect of your scene: how your characters behave and interact, how the surroundings look, what activity may be happening around the characters, how characters dress… as well as how conflict is handled and what are some potential sources of conflict. When writing a scene, remember to ask “what different cultures and subcultures are in play here?” and “how do these cultures feed the scene’s conflict?”
Satellite 6: Location
Your “big picture” location can also affect the particular scene. The weather must be right, the demographics, and the location of this scene must fit logically with the locations of other scene locations. When repeating a location, you may want to include new details – especially if the mood or POV has changed. When writing a scene, remember to ask “how does this location fit in with the locations used in other scenes?” and “did I choose the best location for this scene and not simply the easiest location?”
Satellite 7: Time
The time period and season(s) are part of your big picture. Time ties closely with the culture and location parts of setting. But time can also refer to the time span of your story and the flow of time inside your story. When writing a scene, remember to ask “how much time has passed, how long does this scene last, and how much remains after this scene?” and “does this scene take the reader outside the regular flow of time and if so, how do get the reader back without confusion?”
Satellite 8: Theme
Any scene can be a playground for your theme. Theme can be used to build on a started scene or to brainstorm new scenes. When you have the start of a scene then you can look to your theme and use that to guide the types of conflict in the scene, the characters’ choices, and the consequences of those choices. When writing a scene, remember to ask “does this scene explore a side of my theme?” and “how can I use my characters to better express my story’s message?”
It could be successfully argued that “Writing Skills” is yet another satellite that is in orbit around you and your story world. I will suggest instead that the skills in your writing toolkit are part of the receiver’s software (the writer’s mindset) that places the results in a form that can be easily understood and enjoyed by the reader.
As you write your scene, keep in mind which satellites are in your line-of-sight. Be sure you include all of those when you formulate your scene. If you include each relevant satellite while first constructing your scene, you will find that you have to go back and add information less often.
One trick to writing detailed scenes lies in recognizing the relevance of the satellites at the edge of your field of vision. Those big picture concepts add nuance and definition to your scene. You may not normally rely on them but in an emergency (or for a change of pace) they can serve leading roles too. So mix it up some and see what scene results.