How I Write Scenes Without Outlines


Because I don’t outline, I don’t really know what’s going to happen a few scenes down the road.  I just know what might happen in the one I’m working on, and sometimes I don’t even know that.  Yes, I’ve started a scene with setting and character and did not know what I was doing with it, and it came out cool.

My scenes are usually between 700-1500 words.  The 1500 word upper limit is a great framework for me because it tells me where I need to think about stopping, and I can adjust for that as I write.

  1. I start the scene. Somewhere.  Not always in the exact beginning.  Sometimes it’s a little further in.  I never know the ending of the scene at this point.  Getting the setting and the five senses in is still challenging for me, so sometimes I have to think a little more on it.
  2. I move around in the scene. Sometimes it’s straight through, but move often, it’s back and forth.  I’ll get an idea and hop up to the beginning to do something with the setting, then I’ll go back down and continue elsewhere.
  3. I usually have something that’s a placeholder. It might be a name of a character, or a note like “Describe Character” or the name of something.
  4. Stuff comes out as I write. Since I’m tracking all word count, including the stuff that comes out, if I’m on my Surface, I’ll just do a strikethrough.  If I’m in Scrivener, I cut it and plop it into a file called “Extras.”  The reason I do this is because the way I write makes it hard track word count at all.  The number bounces up and down, and all of it counts, even if it is being deleted.  I used to save the extras in case I needed the words, but I found I never use them, so I delete them eventually.
  5. After I’ve mostly got the parts of the scene together, I start hunting down the placeholders. It might be a picture to describe something more, or research on the name of something.  I’ve been surprised at how much this step pulls together the scene because it adds a lot of details.  I’ve actually gotten inspiration for a future scene by simply thinking about what something looks like.
  6. If I see I’m close to the upper work count limit (we’re talking 50 words, not 500), I start looking for words to trim.  Most often, this will be where I might have done a little too much with the description, or a sentence that made sense when I wrote it, but now I keep stumbling over it.  It’s not hard to trim like this.
  7. After a few days or few weeks, I’ll wander back into the scene and add more description, clean up the typos. It’s possible thinking about the description may lead to changes for the scene.  I had one where a later description of the setting made me realize I hadn’t paid enough attention to another description earlier.

And yeah, I know that goes against most of the how-to advice, which all says that you should write straight through and not touch the story.  However, I’ve found that moving around like this is very natural for me.