Friday, April 6, 2018

Five Ways to Write by Scenes, by Susan Oleksiw

Over the last several months I've had various scenes from a projected novel pop into my head. Some I forget, but a few I've noted on a sheet for later consideration--if I ever write this thing. Right now I have other projects to work on. But my practice of keeping notes reminded me that if I do write this mystery, I'll go at it in a specific way, but my way is only one of several options. 

This is not a post about writing as a plotter or a pantser. This is about writing by scenes. When I begin writing a novel, I work out the first scene. I may come back later to change this, revise or alter or discard, but I want the first scene in place before I feel I can continue. I wrote the first scene for my first Joe Silva/Mellingham mystery three times, and discarded all of them. When I'm satisfied with the opening, I write the next scene, and so I proceed, scene by scene, until I reach the end. Along the way I check off the notes I've made, incorporating ideas as I come to the best spot for them. But this isn't the only way to get an entire novel down on paper. Remember the famous line about driving from the East Coast to California when the headlights can see only a few feet ahead? This is the Lawrence Block school of writing. 

I've heard another writer advise writing scenes as they come to you. If you want a fight scene or a love scene, a hiking or climbing scene, write it and file it until you need it. If you've recorded a conversation overheard in a restaurant or on the subway, write that scene and save it. Write the scenes as they appear, and eventually you'll have an entire book. This was the advice once given by John Updike.

Some writers advise writing the last scene first, so you know what you're aiming for. Focus on every detail that will matter in the unmasking of the villain, the sorting out of various lesser crimes, and the realignment of the remaining characters. When you have all this on paper, you can see clearly what has to be accomplished in the preceding pages. Now you can go back to the beginning and following the vague lines to the end. They'll get sharper as you progress. This was the choice of Margaret Mitchell, and a number of others, including Agatha Christie.

There is still another option. If you're concerned about certain subplots, write the series of scenes concerned with only the character in the subplot, from beginning to end, to ensure that the arc of that person's story is clear and relevant. Or, do the reverse and write the main actions of the protagonist, to create an arc you can follow as the spine of the story. For advice on how to do this, go to

A fifth way to write by scenes in a crime novel is a variation on the one above. If the story is clear in your imagination, write the major scenes, such as the discovery of the body, identifying or interviewing the chief suspect, a confrontation scene, and the ending. This comes close to writing major scenes as a way of writing out an outline. 

I prefer writing scene by scene in order as they occur in the story because of the freedom this process gives me to explore and discover the story. I dislike being tied to a preconceived plot and story line. Though I always have an idea of where I'm going, I want the freedom to change directions and uncover something better.
Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi Susan,

I like your idea of focusing on creating scenes. We are a movie society. Film, TV and theater all create in scenes. If we can visualize our work and then put it into words, readers will relate better. Our descriptions and dialogue become vivid and real.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Great information Susan!
I sometimes write by scenes...I know in The Visionary I did...I'd get different key/climatic scenes and had to figure out (or let the characters lead me) how to get from one to the other.

Thanks for sharing this.
Good luck and God's blessings

Maris said...

I find I need to write the story scene by scene (in order), but occasionally I'll visualize a future scene. Sometimes I'll use the idea when I reach that point, other times things have changed so much, it wouldn't fit. And sometimes I know it sounded like a good scene, but I've forgotten how it went. Therefore, I like your idea of putting it down in note form when I think of it.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Jacquie, we are indeed a visual society/culture. Our written work is becoming more and more cinematic. Thanks for pointing that out.

Pam, it's interesting how we naturally fall into one category or another. Whatever works, works.

Maris, once I start writing I often get a sense of what has to come later, either as a scene or a clue/line of dialogue or something else. I have to take notes because I'll never remember when I get to that point in the story.

jrlindermuth said...

It seems to me, what works best for the individual is the way to go. I'm mostly a pantser, but I also tend to write scenes as they come to me.

Carole Price said...

I too make notes of scenes as they come to me. Right now I have three scenes that I will use at the proper place on the first book in my new series. This works well for me. I don't outline but I use bullets of important events that have to take place.

Susan Oleksiw said...

John, I agree. Most of us wouldn't be able to write a novel according to someone else's rules.

Carole, I keep a running list of the topics, clues, scenes, etc., that I want to include and check them off as I proceed.

I'm very curious about John Updike's idea--write scenes in any order and in the end you'll have a novel. I wonder what it would be like to have a collection of scenes with no particular order, and what story would appear from rearranging them in different ways.