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I'm currently outlining my novel, and I'm having trouble coming up with scenes/situations to put my characters in. I've tried scene prompts but they don't work for me. Sometimes I will think of a random scene, but it ends up not fitting in my story, or I can't figure out how to fit it into my story. I don't know how some authors are so creative with some scenes in their books; I've just never achieved that with my writing yet.

How do you come up with believable, interesting scenes that are relevant to your plot? How do I be more creative? This problem is kind of holding up my outlining process. I oftentimes just stare at my screen not knowing where to go next, even though I know what's going to happen in my plot. I need to figure out what's going to happen in between those important plot points. I'm a heavy plotser, so it wouldn't be very productive for me to come up with scenes/situations on the spot while writing.

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This is the same challenge I am currently trying to work through, and this is what I've worked out so far.

To minimize frustration and screaming at yourself how inept you are, work from low resolution to a higher resolution

Start with a one sentence summary of your story. These are called loglines and are used to pitch stories to agents, publishers, and for screenplays to studios.

By starting with a logline, you have a concrete idea of your story arc. It's important that it be a single sentence, maybe spliced with a semicolon. But it's a sentence and not a paragraph or page or a chapter.

It's okay to fuss with your logline as you develop your story. It is a starting point to building the foundation of your story but not something cast in concrete. So don't worry if it's not right. As you think through your story, you'll become clearer about it.

Next, write down your major characters and define their flaws. The best characters of the best stories always have flaws that drive their decisions that motivate their actions.

Next, write down how your story starts and ends. Again, these are starting points for your imagination and not hard and fast unmovable details. You get to shape them as you work.

Next, write down the crisis moment of your story. It is that midpoint of of tension and action and emotion. And, midpoint isn't meant in terms of word count, but of your story arc with the highest tension and greatest conflict, where all can be lost or the battle won.

Now, you have a start, a middle and an end. You can add scenes -- real time and summary -- working forward from the start and backward from the middle, and forward from the middle and backward from then end. And you add these scenes using your understanding of your characters, so the scenes follow from the character's agency. They are making decisions, according to their nature, and those decisions have consequences, which repeats that cycle over again.

To minimize that getting stuck and feeling stupid feeling, you can iterate over populating your arc, starting with low resolution until you've built a complete arc, then improve the detail at a slightly finer resolution. And, so on, until you've gotten sufficient detail in your story arc for you to start writing your story.

If you deviate from your arc while writing you story, consult your plans, and update the details appropriate to minimize writing yourself into a corner.

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Here's a cool exercise for you to try: When you finish your day, right before bed, take a pencil and a notebook (or your phone or computer if that's easier) and outline your day. You don't need to invent anything. Just outline the day that just passed and break it down into "scenes".

How did you move from one scene to another? Maybe one scene started when you stepped into the office this morning? Maybe another scene started when you went to get a few things at the grocery store?

There must be at least one interesting thing that happened to you today. And it could be as small as a text you got, or as big as an event at work. Outlining your day could help you recognize those moments while also training you in the art of splitting "plot" (i.e. your life) into scenes.

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Figuring out what scenes to have in the story depends mostly on two things:

  • Knowing what you want to say
  • Knowing how to say it

Creativity is of course also important, but there needs to be a mix of creativity and craftsmanship. In fact, I think it's about 10% creativity and 90% craft, or something like that.

What you want to say

What you want to say will tell you what interactions are interesting, what disasters and struggles to have in scenes. What people to follow, what places to write about. What subjects, problems, themes, and what lies and truths to embed in the story.

This part, I think, mostly comes down to who you are and what you want. For me, it's vital to have some kind of important message or political agenda. It's good for motivation, not so good if you're prone to soapboxing... I just personally feel, if I'm going to spend years working on a book, it'd better be something I really need to say...

I'm certain there are as many motivations and messages as there are writers out there, so go with what you have and make it stronger ;)

How to say it

When it comes to knowing how to say what you want to say, it's a bit easier. Here are some sources for scenes from the "craft of writing":

I use the Snowflake Method to get started with stuff like characters and plot points (as you've mentioned), as well as a storyline (one-sentence description of the whole work).

The snowflake is nice in that it asks for each major character's view of the story. This is great for looking at the story and the characters from different angles and usually shake loose things (scenes) I'd love to have and things I must have.

This is especially true if you treat each major character as the hero in their own story. Just beware of too many scenes, threads, POVs, and agendas. Try to keep it focused on the main character or at least on a theme (at least before you start writing, if you can't motivate having all threads you should cut, and that's easier before you've written a lot).

Story structure, as you've mentioned suggests several key scenes and plot points.

One of the more important plot points is the midpoint. So much happens here. The hero goes from reactive to proactive, if he chooses to follow a lie he's a tragic hero, and we can start suspecting how it all will end, even if we don't know all the details. We'll probably get all into the core and theme of the story in the choices made at the midpoint.

Check out James Scott Bells, "Write Your Novel From The Middle" and "The Moral Premise" by Stanley D Williams for input on the midpoint.

Another important source for scenes that should be in the story is the characters.

The plan of the antagonist is very important. My antagonists always have a plan! They're not just there to be irritants. They need something badly and they're not going to just step aside at the first sign of opposition.

I usually try to write the story so up to, and even past the midpoint the antagonist is the one behind the wheel and the protagonist only reacts to the effects of their plans. Only when the protagonist realizes the true nature of the conflict (in the midpoint) does she start to get more organized with her own plans and her opposition to the antagonist's plans.

It's good to have a strong antagonist, meaning that the protagonist will have to run from, evade, and avoid the actions of the antagonist, and likely cannot go straight at them at the first sign of antagonism.

The same goes for the protagonist's opposition. If the antagonist is strong, the protagonist will fail, several times before finally defeating the antagonist at the climactic moment.

You could always fill the second act with more disasters, setbacks, and problems for the protagonist and her helpers. And make sure the antagonist is the one to blame for it all!

Character arcs are also very important when it comes to what scenes should be in the story. If your character follows an arc (and at least one should—usually the main character) there are certain things your story should have.

For instance, you protagonist might want to reach a goal (based on her belief in a lie), but the truth she will believe in at the end of the story shows that there's something else, preferably diametrically opposite to, and utterly incompatible with what she wants that she needs in order to be able to follow that truth.

There also need to be temptations to draw the character back into the world of the lie, and she needs to prove that she does indeed believe in the truth in the end, preferably through some form of sacrifice (of the thing she wants that is blocking her access to the thing she needs).

You may also need to add scenes or add elements to existing scenes when you start finding the theme (which usually happens at the end of the first draft and may sometimes happen again in editing... and maybe even later than that...)

How many scenes the story should have

Finally, if you have a solid story now, but feel you have too few scenes, maybe this is a shorter story?

But sometimes it's hard to tell from the number of scenes how many words the book will have if the word count is an issue.

I don't know how many scenes you've come up with yet, but a scene might be longer than you think.

With my current WIP, I found myself thinking I was writing a shorter story, maybe too short, so I added scenes, an extra subplot, an interaction with the protagonist's mother, a trip...

I was hoping for 100k words. It ended up at 150k words... so my worries that it was too short was rather unfounded...

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Could it be that you have hidden the answer in your question?

I oftentimes just stare at my screen [...]

Maybe you are not finding it because you are looking outwards, while forgetting to look also inwards, into yourself.

To clarify, I mean moments when one may have their eyes open, yet not observing anything particular, because one is so lost in the thoughts racing inside. If you are aware of your screen, that seems to suggest that you have not discovered and jumped into that inner fountain of visions yet.

Furthermore: sitting in front of a screen had just proved itself inefficient: it can actually even keep the ideas away, just because a) nothing is happening to trigger them, b) sitting just there you are not offering your mind an actual chance to shift away from being stuck in a specific infertile dimension.

Incredibly useful ideas spring up during a multitude of trivial activities, most of them totally unrelated to writing (and most of them occupying only part of your mind, leaving free capacity for thoughts to wander in the meanwhile). One example of such activities could be washing the dishes (or loading the dishwasher, or any other chore in the kitchen).

Take a walk to the grocery store and back. Take a bus-ride, but not because you want to get to the specific destination, rather exactly because you don't: let the sole reason be that you never rode that line before. Watch a boring movie. Watch an exciting one. Learn for an exam to the point of not being able to concentrate any more. Put yourself through these, and more such situations; let them be the ones through which those imaginary scenes find their way to you.

One more idea: perhaps read the book The neverending story from Michael Ende. This beyond-amazing piece of work contains a multitude of inspiring metaphors for creative processes.

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