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.

5 thoughts on “How I Write Scenes Without Outlines

    1. I was surprised at how much it made a difference in writing the scenes. Before, I’d go, “Okay, I have to have an scene ending” and come up with one and end up with a 3K scene that wandered all over the place. In many respects, the scene length reminds me of short stories where you have to stay within a certain number of words to meet with a guideline, so I just have it in the back of my head not to run past that number.


      1. Interesting! I’m writing a short story these days. Adventure/Horror genre I may want to call it, for now. 1500 words was what I’d thought the story’s length would be, but it has crossed 3000 words and I just lost the theme altogether. From the spooky thriller it was, it has become a how-to-go guide of how one could reach heaven from the nether world. I love my story but I hate it as much. But the whole experience is interesting and exhausting 🙂


      2. Finish it. Send it. Seriously. It’s very easy to start second guessing the story and think it’s not working. I had one like that and left brain kept whining that it wasn’t working, but it wouldn’t tell me what. I finished it but was so unhappy with it I almost didn’t send it out. I sent it anyway. Within three hours, I had an email from a different magazine than I’d sent it to — they shared the box — and the editor loved it so much he wanted it. Never, never trust that voice that says, “There’s something wrong with it. It’s broken.” That’ll keep you from getting anything out.


Comments are closed.