How to Get a Scene from Brain to Paper

Different writers have difficulty with different parts of the writing process. Some hate fiddling with background information. Others despise revising. Others can’t stand outlining. Me? I have the most trouble with drafting.

By “drafting,” what I mean is this whole “get the story down on paper” part of writing. It’s not that I have trouble coming up with new material, or that I don’t know where the story is going, it’s just that I have trouble getting what’s in my head down onto paper.

GIVEAWAY: Kat is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: justsaymoo won.)

 

whats-left-of-me-novel         kat-zhang-author-writer

Guest column by Kat Zhang. Kat is an avid traveler, and after
a childhood spent living in one book after another, she now builds
stories for other people to visit. An English major at Vanderbilt
University, she spends her free time performing Spoken Word
poetry, raiding local bookstores, and plotting where to travel next.
WHAT’S LEFT OF ME–about a girl with two souls–is her first novel
and was released by HarperCollins on 9/18/2012. The sequel,
Once We Were, comes out 9/17/2013. She is represented by
Emmanuelle Morgen of Stonesong. Find her on Twitter.

 

 

 

Let’s say I have a scene that I need to write. In my head, the scene will be a combination of things like this:

Screen shot 2013-03-01 at 9.38.03 PM

As you can see, it’s rather a mess.

Rather than try to do anything with that mess, sometimes I’ll just sit and stare angrily at the screen, which ultimately turns into checking my email, or tweeting, or watching random videos on youtube. None of which really help get that mess get down onto the paper—or up onto the screen, if one’s being picky.

So I’ve come up with a way of coaxing scenes out bit by bit, which is actually a little similar to how someone might approach a painting. First, the rough sketch. For the very beginning of the scene depicted by the jumble of images and words above, this sketch might look a bit like this:

We entered the store, and he went straight to the ice cream counter. The girl in front of him in line gave him a weird look, which he brushed off with a shrug. I joined him at the end of the line.

“What are you going to get?” I said.

“Vanilla,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s boring, isn’t it?”

“To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

So, I’ve got a basic set-up. Guy and girl enter ice cream shop. They talk about ice cream. Nothing great, but it’s better than that blank page I was staring at a moment ago. Usually, if I’m really having trouble with a scene, or if I’m just not super interested in writing it, but I need to get it down in order to get to future stuff, I’ll write it kind of like this.

(See a list of writers conferences — most of which have agents present taking pitches.)

But after I get the sketch down, it’s time to go back and add a little color to it (some sensory detail, a little more “voice”)…and maybe straighten some of those lines:

He rushed ahead of me into the ice cream shop, but held the door open with the very tips of his fingers just long enough for me to get through, as well. The bell hanging the in doorway dinged. I took in the small, round tables, the delicate-looking chairs.

When I turned again, he was no longer there. Automatically, my eyes sought the end of the line. Sure enough, there he was, one hand pressed against the glass display case, grinning like Christmas had come in July. The girl ahead of him drew away a little. I didn’t blame her. If I didn’t know better, I’d be a little scared of that crazy ass smile, too.

“What are you going to get?” I slipped into line after him before someone else could take the spot. The display case was cold, raising goose bumps on my skin.

His eyes roamed the tubs of brightly-colored ice creams.“Vanilla,” he said.

All this fuss, and he picked vanilla.

“That’s boring, isn’t it?”

He huffed. “To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

(What are overused openings in fantasy, sci-fi, romance and crime novels?)

It’s hard to say what a third revision—or layering—of this scene piece would look like without knowing my plans for the story as a whole (which, honestly, don’t exist since I’m making this up on the spot). But my “notes” in the scene’s jumbled image do say “reveal old relationship” and “Character 1 (which I’m going to say is Girl) opens up a bit,” so let’s assume that the “old relationship” was the fact that she dated Guy’s best friend a year back and it ended really badly, and she’s suspicious he’s been sent to spy on her by his friend or something.

(In this scene, Guy needs a proper name, so let’s go with Liam)

Liam rushed ahead of me into the ice cream shop, but held the door open with the very tips of his fingers just long enough for me to get through, as well. The bell hanging the in doorway dinged; his sneakers squeaked against the scuffed white tiles.

I tried to remember if he’d ever held doors for me back when Bobby and I were dating, but it was hard to recall. Most likely, he never would have needed to. Bobby had always been there to open doors, pull out chairs, hold my books, fetch me a drink. He’d been the world’s most considerate boyfriend—until one day, he hadn’t been.

I glanced away from Liam just long enough to take in the ice cream shop—the small, round tables, the delicate-looking chairs. Whatever Liam had said, this was not a “Hey, let’s go grab a cone!” kind of place. This was a eat-ice-cream-in-non-disposable-silver-bowls kind of place. This was a Date kind of place.

…or a place to lull your best friend’s ex into compliance.

When I turned around again, Liam was no longer there. I blinked, searching the store, and found him already standing at the end of the line, one hand pressed against the glass display case, grinning like Christmas had come in July. The girl ahead of him drew away a little. I didn’t blame her. If I didn’t know better, I’d be a little scared of that crazy ass smile, too.

“What are you going to get?” I slipped into line after him before someone else could take the spot. The display case was cold, raising goose bumps on my skin.

He didn’t bother looking up, his eyes roaming the tubs of brightly-colored ice creams. If Bobby really was looking for revenge, he should have pick a smarter friend. I wasn’t sure if Liam had the intellectual capacity to pull off a—a whatever this might be.

“Vanilla,” he said.

All this fuss, and he picked vanilla.

“That’s boring, isn’t it?” I said.

He huffed. “To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

So, there’s that! There would be revising after this step, of course, but for a first draft to show to critique partners and such, I’d be pretty happy with a scene written like this.

Hope you enjoyed seeing how a scene might evolve from a jumbled mess in my head to actual words on the paper. And I hope it might help you work through a particularly nasty writer’s block next time it happens!

GIVEAWAY: Kat is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: justsaymoo won.)

 

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24 thoughts on “How to Get a Scene from Brain to Paper

  1. arawhani11

    This was actually very helpful. It’s nice to have examples for once instead of just a description of what you should be doing and how you should be doing it. Great job!

  2. Annie56789

    Thanks for the example of how you layer a scene. I tend to write the skeleton of a scene, mostly dialogue, a little action, and then add in the details on subsequent drafts. Nice to know I’m not alone!

  3. tiffanybiagas

    I just read your book last week and really enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing your technique for getting the scene from our brains to the paper. I like this idea and I think it will make difficult scenes a lot easier to write. It takes off the pressure to create something really amazing because you know you’re planning to flesh it out later.

  4. ButterflyLady

    This works for me to flesh out the scene — but I also have trouble getting the idea of the scene into sentences. I just recently started doing a bullet of scene details first that looks like the pieces in your picture. That seems to help me get to the point where you started. Thanks for letting so many of us newbies know that this is a problem that we aren’t facing alone.

  5. Gianni Beau

    Kat,

    I really enjoyed reading about your process. It reminded me of when I was writing computer programs. I would struggle to get something started and produce something as insignificant as “Hello World.” It was like a clothes line on which I could hang things and from which I could see weaknesses as I progressed; but it only worked if I put something down to work on. Not something big, but something. I need to apply it to my own writing.

  6. BB

    Thank you for sharing your writing technique. I’m a novice and am always looking for advice from published works. I like your solution to how to fill in the gaps of a story.

  7. M R Kilian

    Hey Kat,

    Thanks for taking the time to give us a look at how the sausage is made. Loved the picture collage illustration. Are you saying that you are going through a three draft process on a scene by scene basis or do you get the whole story down in a first draft and then go through the process?

    I’m curious because one of the things I still struggle with is dwelling on scenes too long with constant revisions instead of getting on with the story arc and finishing the first draft of the novel. What you call your first draft for critique partners would be comparable to my second or third draft, which is where I get my readers involved.

    Would love to get your thoughts on this.

    mk

  8. guyallen

    Excellent advice. I can see this working for me. i have been putting a strong opening sentence or two on paper then let the story write itself. I seldom know where it’s going, but I guess my subconscious is driving it. The idea of rewriting the opening until something starts flowing is a great idea.

  9. Monica

    I also have trouble with the drafting process! I am a visual person and if I can’t picture what I am thinking, the words tend to fall apart. I make a lot of notes and try to stay focused on getting the story down. I worry about editing after the story is written. It causes too many bumps in the road if you edit as you go…I learned the hard way 🙂 Thank you for the tips!!

  10. ewell840

    I would agree, sometimes you just have to write it down as it comes out. You can always worry about correcting inconsistenties and gaps once you’ve got something to look at.

  11. Larry

    Its like you are my mini me. I thought I was the only one with ideas whirling in my head, with no avenue to travel to the page.

    You have been a great help. So I will shut up now and get back to writing.

  12. shari6726

    OMG! I do that all the time! I have a scene so clear in my head, yet it comes out on paper with a whole different content. I get frustrated and wonder where the hell that came from. I thought that was just my being a novice and lacking the structure ability it desperately needed. Thank you Kat, this has given me confidence to continue on my journey of becoming an author someday!

  13. justsaymoo

    This describes exactly the trouble I have when trying to craft intelligible writing out of the jumble in my brain, and this is the first time I’ve seen the issue addressed. Seeing someone succeed who has the same difficulty is reassuring. Thanks for the tips.

  14. Danielle

    Fascinating process and something I think I should try because when I’m thinking about a scene, it does look like the visual you presented. I thought that was something only I did in my head as a new writer! I think going through each step and fleshing it out more and more could help me nail down what I’m seeing in my head vs. what I’v got committed to paper.

    Thanks for sharing an excellent tip!

  15. krisdw76

    Very good writing advice :). I do something similar and it has worked well. I basically write whatever comes to my mind then I add a little more pop to it. I am not good at outlining at all. I am better at just writing and reorganizing my ideas after first draft of a chapter. Thanks for advice!

  16. vrundell

    Wow, Kat! You have described exactly how I struggle. Translating the visual to the auditory/written can be a real challenge, and yet you’ve crystalized it here. Thanks!
    Best of luck. 🙂

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