The inciting incident is the event that forces the character to action. It is the one event that sets him on his path. Make sure yours is up to the task
Create better scenes with a scene planning worksheet
Thinking about winging it for NaNoWriMo? You could end up staring at a blank screen with nothing to show for it. Don’t sit down to a blank page; have a plan. Scene planning worksheets will give you a simple framework to brainstorm your ideas so you will know what to do with those precious minutes when you actually have time to write.
Every writer has a different process, but sitting down in front of a blinking cursor with no idea what you’re going to write is a fast-track to frustration. Unless you have practiced free-writing and are comfortable typing whatever comes into your head, trying to write without a plan will lead you to long hours and little productivity. For many people, there is nothing more paralyzing than a tiny blinking line.
What is a scene planning worksheet?
Scene planning worksheets are outlines where writers can identify the key elements they want in their scenes. This will help ensure that scene have a purpose and are accomplishing story goals. Some of these elements include:
- Characters in the scene
- POV character’s conflict/actions
- Antagonist’s actions/reactions
- Character arc significance
Writing without specific goals can lead to scenes that do not serve the story and will eventually need to be edited out.
How to use the worksheet
The First Page
The first element is deciding if you are writing a scene or a sequel
This is based on the book by Dwight Swain (affiliate link, but I highly recommend this book)
- Scene- Conflict oriented: shows the character’s goal, the conflict/antagonistic force preventing him from achieving that goal, and ends with a disaster/failure
- Sequel-Transition oriented: shows character’s reaction to the disaster, the character processing the implications of his dilemma, and finally making a decision on how to proceed
After you have made the first decision, fill in the motivation, conflict, and stakes.
The next section is for the character’s actions. This will give you a place to summarize your sequence. The worksheet has four steps, but you may need more or less. There is no wrong answer.
The last box is the results of the scene. Did the POV character reach her goal? Decide what changes as a result of the scene.
The second page
If the conflict is resolved, follow the left column to increase the tension.
If the conflict is unresolved, follow the right column to raise the stakes.
This step is critical to keep the forward momentum going in your story. If the stakes remain unchanged, then essentially nothing has happened in your scene. A static story is a boring story. Consider the ticking clock analogy. Even if the stakes are “or he will die,” you must show that eventual consequence drawing near. Everytime you main character succeeds or fails, her problems need to only get worse. Keep this pattern up until the final battle.
Dark moment: this the hook that will get the reader to move on to the next chapter. This could be a sudden revelation or a last-minute bombshell. This will also set up the next scene or sequel in the sequence.
Tip: Make sure the previous scene/sequel leads logically into the next. A character who just found out her little sister was kidnapped isn’t going to go shoe shopping. The “disaster” is a scene sets up the “reaction” in the sequel and the “decision” in the sequel sets up the “goal” in the next scene. If you break this chain, your plot will feel disjointed.
Scene planning is another tool for writing
There are dozens of scene planning worksheets available online. If mine doesn’t work for you find one that does or create your own. The desire to write may be innate, but the ability must be learned. Finding your process will take time.
Try scene planning to make your writing process easier. You will write faster with better results, which means less editing later. Something every writer can appreciate.
The best ways to ruin your first chapter
Most writers know that a novel needs a great first line, but what happens after that? So many beginnings fall into the same problems. While identifying clichés is simple enough, that isn’t going to guarantee a successful opening. Many opening chapters suffer from structural problems that prompt a complete rewrite or even tossing the pages in the bin. Don’t ruin your first chapter with these mistakes.
Most issues fall into two main categories: unnecessary scenes (scenes that don’t move the story ahead) and info dumping.
In a recent submission, the two main characters spent four of the first ten pages engaging in chit chat.
“Hi, I’m Julie” was immediately followed by paragraphs about jobs and seen any good movies lately. I don’t enjoy this when I’m at parties. In an opening to a book, when I have nothing invested in the characters, this was a kiss of death. Small talk is not interesting. Every day I take my daughter to the bus stop and for five minutes I talk to the other parents about riveting topics like the weather, how adorable the last school project was, or whether the “sports team” will win the game. See, you are already bored. There’s no story here. Small talk has no place in your opening pages.
How can we fix this?
Assuming you can’t simply cut the pages, find a way to add conflict to the story.
Two people having a polite conversation over coffee with nothing at stake isn’t interesting. We need to add some conflict. Let’s try this scene again in a different setting. What if Julie is now speed-dating and she’s had her eye on one guy who is nearly at the end of the line. For twenty minutes she’s had time to stew and get nervous.
He sits down and smiles at me in that apologetic, this is so awkward way. It is probably the most awkward thing I’ve ever done. Waiting for a little buzzer to let us know it’s time to talk. Who came up with this idea? It’s ridiculous, and what kind of idiot am I for agreeing to do this? I try to swallow down the bubble of tension forming in my chest. The buzzer rings.
“HiI’mJulie!” busts out of my mouth in a monosyllabic blur.
A mocking little twinkle appears in his smoky gray eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Please, just let me die right here.
In the new example, we have a conflict. Julie wants something: to impress this guy. But something stands in her way: her inability to conquer her nerves and speak coherently. Bonus: the conflict is relatable. Who hasn’t gotten tongue tied when meeting someone new?
Without conflict, there is no story. You cannot simply list events in a person’s day and call it a plot. Conflict is the essence of plot. I don’t care how witty the banter is, if there’s no conflict, it isn’t interesting. Fix it, or dump it. You don’t need dead weight pages drowning your story.
A simple mistake to find and fix is Character Soup.
Do not introduce your entire cast in the first chapter. Remember, we are meeting these characters for the first time. The first chapter needs to be reserved for introducing your main character, (or if is dual POV, two) and one other important character. (antagonist, love interest, best friend etc.) But NO MORE. I once read an opening chapter that introduced 9 characters, by name. I had no idea who was who, or who was important. It was a disaster.
What to do instead.
Eliminate any unnecessary characters from the scene.
The beginning of the book is not the time to take roll at school or crowd surf at a party. If you can’t eliminate these extra people, keep their influence to a minimum, and keep the focus on your main character and that character’s current conflict.
Don’t name people who aren’t in the scene:
If the MC is eating grandma’s cookies, just call them grandma’s cookies. Don’t give grandma a name, and please, don’t launch into a paragraph and a half describing grandma and the time you spent at her house and…
Don’t name or describe extras
Just like in movies, these people are just part of the setting. While in real life you should definitely treat the girl making your mocha latte as an actual person, in your book, she is part of the scenery. She doesn’t need a name or more than a sentence of description. Bonus: use that description to really tell us something about your MC.
The barista had a wicked row of hoops running up her left ear. I’m so doing that when I get paid on Friday.
The barista had an appalling amount of scrap metal attached to her face. Good Lord!
Which one of these women had to dye her hair silver?
Let your reader get familiar with a character before introducing more people. I don’t want to have to make index cards to keep the cast straight.
People who will be important later
If you can’t move them, give them a name and a quick title or a meaningful trademark (like a peculiar habit) that will help readers identify this character later. But nothing more. i.e my friends, mom, my boss. No backstory or long speeches. Keep your focus on the main characters and the main action. You can save mom’s judgy comments for a later scene.
Character description dump
Avoid the temptation to describe secondary characters in multiple paragraph form. A quick, meaningful description is best. Readers don’t want to know the sister’s eye color, hair color, nose shape, etc. Focus on something distinctive, like how annoyed your main character is when her sister chews her nails.
The backstory dump.
Go back to your scene’s conflict. If I don’t need to know the backstory to understand the conflict/stakes then leave it out. I don’t care about your character’s childhood trauma. Even if it’s relevant to why she freezes up socially, I don’t need to know that in the first scene. Save this for later.
What to do instead:
Cut any backstory, yes, all of it, then reread your scene. Better yet, have someone else read the scene. If it still makes sense, the backstory is unnecessary. The missing information can become a question that propels the reader forward. Why does this character freeze up socially? If you’ve hooked your reader, she will want to read more to find out the answer. Only add back what is necessary for the scene to make sense.
This is where the “show, don’t tell” axiom can get writers into trouble. Building setting through showing can get tedious for readers. (Especially in opening pages.) There is nothing wrong with using a quick line of telling to ground readers in a setting so the real story can begin.
It was a Sunday morning in the very height of spring -Franz Kafka opening line of The Judgement
Writers can also avoid the setting dump by showing one small part of the setting and letting it imply the entire scene.
It was the smell, that particular blending of human waste and unwashed bodies that named this place an asylum.
Worldbuilding info dump
Long paragraphs of world building will kill your pacing. Don’t let your character stand in the middle of the sidewalk and describe what he sees around him.
The tall buildings are all covered in LED advertising. My grandfather told me that you used to be able to see the actual glass when he was a kid. A ping sounds in my ear from the iChip in my brain. “You are approaching Target, would you like to hear about today’s offers?” Before I can say no, a long list of groceries plays back from a creepy automated voice.
While it’s an interesting world, there’s no story here. Instead, use conflict to build your world.
Tall buildings covered in LED skins assault me with advertisements. Everything shouts: buy me, you want this, I will fix your problem.” Unless it can call me a tow, then no, it isn’t going to fix my problem. I never should have bought that space cruiser. Thing’s been nothing but trouble.
From the sidewalk, a Chinese woman insists that her moisturizing cream took twenty years off her face. I step on it. A ping sounds in my head. “You are approaching Target, would you like to hear…?” The battery dies halfway through. Stupid iChip. I can’t believe I forgot to charge it. What kind of idiot forgets to plug in their brain?
Notice how the second example introduces the setting, the conflict, and we learn the character is a whiny jerk. We get more information by combining them, and it doesn’t slow the pacing by stopping the action to describe the character or the setting.
Avoiding these common problems will help get your opening pages out of the slush pile and help you get that coveted request
Narrow your focus to the main characters and their immediate conflict. Use this to build your world and add only the back story that is essential for the reader to understand the immediate problem. Once you trim the extra information, your pacing will improve and the reader will know what is important. This is what you need in an opening chapter. Don’t make your story carry around extra baggage. The opening chapter has enough to do already.
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Most writing advice is garbage.
I’ve reached the point in my writing where I ignore 70% of the feedback I receive. The other 30% I consider, and I might implement 10. Why? Most writing advice is crap. So why are so many of us addicted to it? Because somewhere in that 10% is the magic piece that fixes the story’s problem. The trick is finding it without letting the other 90 destroy everything.
At the beginning of the month, I hosted the #queryswap event. For those of you who missed it, this was an opportunity for writers to swap queries with other writers and get feedback. The event was free and so was the advice. The intention was for writers to improve their queries. I swapped with six other writers. Most of the advice I received was valid. Much of it conflicted. So how can a writer know what to do?
So how do I evaluate feedback?
The first problem is one of expertise. Unfortunately, much of the advice a beginner will receive will be free (swap-type) events where the CP is also a beginner. The first question you should ask is: does this person know more than I do?
This isn’t being arrogant. There are huge gaps in ability among writers, particularly among unpublished writers. Some novices have incredible instincts. Others must be taught through practice and study. Just because both of you are in your first pitch wars, doesn’t mean that you have equal expertise. Likewise, just because you are a novice, doesn’t mean you should implement every suggestion a more seasoned author makes.
How do I evaluate expertise?
Is the person traditionally published? This is not a knock against self-pubs, but a writer who is traditionally published has been vetted. This means an editor has looked at their work and deemed it sell-able. Since your goal is presumably to create something that can be sold, someone who has accomplished this will have more clout over someone who has not.
(If the person is self-published, it’s not necessarily a negative. Download a sample of their book and read it.)
Does the person read/write in your genre?
You wouldn’t go to a podiatrist for your PAP test. Why would you take advice on your “MG feel good adventure” from a paranormal romance writer? Your critique partner needs to be familiar with your genre and the conventions and expectations of that genre. All writers have internal biases. We like certain styles of writing, and therefore, we will read and write in the styles that appeal to us. When we evaluate writing, we will take these biases with us. In other words, a romance writer will be looking for the romance, a thriller author will be looking for the suspense, a women’s fiction author will be looking for the “feels.” When something is missing these elements, even if the genre doesn’t call for them, critique partners will insist their favored element is missing and needs to be included.
While I try to be aware of this issue when doing feedback exchanges, I flat out refuse to take paid editing work in genres that I don’t read. It’s dishonest.
How do I evaluate the quality of advice
Someone recently told me she had hired a professional editor who told her to remove every instance of “is” from her manuscript. I was dumbfounded.
Does the person give advice specific to your story or does she just give blanket stock feedback?
You’ve all heard the same advice: show, don’t tell, don’t use passive, don’t use filter words, don’t use “that,” avoid…the list seems endless. While most of this is valid much of the time, unfortunately, there are plenty of examples where doing these things is exactly what the story needs. One sentence of telling can save a reader from pages of boring secondary character building, or speed the pacing at a critical moment. Passive voice can keep the focus from sliding to unimportant characters. Filter words can be used to create distance during an emotionally intense scene. “That” is a word and does have a function. If a critique partner quotes a rule, she needs to explain why that is the correct choice for the context.
Does the suggestion serve the story or the rule?
The online writers’ club loves its writing rules: beat sheets, character sheets, charts, little zigzagging tension lines, columns, graphs. It goes on and on. But the greatest works of literature were all created without the aid of graph paper. Strict adherence to the rules has produced an entire generation of writing that can be predicted down to the minute. For example, I took my then 5yo daughter to see the Batman Lego movie. About an hour and a half in, my daughter began to get antsy. My husband leaned over and whispered, “The movie is almost over,” and I responded, “No, it isn’t. Batman is only 2/3 of the way through his character arc. He still has to have his new belief structure tested. It will fail the first time, he’ll have his dark moment, and then he will actually learn his lesson.” My husband was not amused. I wasn’t either. It took Batman another 30 minutes to finally “get it,” and my daughter was driving me bananas. Plot structure formulas can be a good planning tool, but they are a guideline. The only “rule’ is to tell a compelling story. Make sure your critique partner isn’t changing your story out of blind adherence to rules.
Is the suggestion really an improvement?
Does it raise the stakes? Clarify an important point? Fix a character inconsistency? Change for the sake of change is a recipe for a story that never gets finished. Make sure a suggestion is actually better than what you already have. This was the issue I had with my feedback from #queryswap. Much of it would have worked, but it wasn’t better than what I already had. It represented a different style or tone, or a writer’s specific preferences. None of it was “wrong” but it wasn’t better, so I kept much of my original.
This is one place where beginning writers struggle. As novices, many writers haven’t learned to trust their own instincts. They haven’t gained the confidence in their own voices. Self-doubt plagues the novice. Trust yourself. As a reader, you have learned to distinguish good writing from bad. You also have the ability to apply those same skill sets to your own work.
Do the suggestions serve the story’s goal?
First off, you need to know what your story’s goals are. This is not the same as your character’s goals. You need to know what type of story you are trying to tell. Is it gritty, or heartwarming? Are you trying to push boundaries? Once you know what kind of story you are trying to tell, you will have a framework for evaluating advice. On the micro scale, you can look at a particular piece of feedback and say this does not fit what I am trying to accomplish. Consider:
There are many monsters in the ocean; I only hate one: dolphins.
My reader was concerned that having my MC say she hated dolphins (something most people love) would make her unlikeable. As we were trying to find ways to improve her likability, this is a valid point. But I chose to keep the line as is. I wanted the reader to wonder what could possibly be so bad about dolphins. Having my MC say she hated them was actually the hook of the opening line. If I had made the suggested change, I would have lost the hook.
Not all change is good. Learn to identify good and bad advice.
Evaluating feedback advice is critical to your growth as a writer. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. By following this guideline, you can be certain the changes you make in your manuscript are actually serving your story.
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