Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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February 7, 2024

One Amazing Perspective Shift to Make Scene Writing Easier

by Sandy Vaile

a winding road disappearing into the distance

Have you ever wondered why pulling all the pieces of a novel together feels like such hard work? Me too.

Each author has a different process, but if you love feeling immersed in the lives and emotional dramas of fictional characters, then shifting your focus from external plot to internal state, could be the perfect way to allow your plot to be revealed organically.

While writing my third novel I had a revelation that changed my approach to scene planning forever.

Harnessing motivated characters helped me connect internal and external plot threads.

The Evolution of this Story Revelation

For a long time, I wondered why story structure was so difficult. I felt like I’d learnt the various storytelling techniques, but pulling them all together on the changing landscape of plot and character development was a different matter.

I started to doubt myself.

Was I the only one struggling to overlay their ideas onto beats and turning points? Everything I’d learnt about three acts, hero’s journeys and beats was still relevant, but there was some sort of disconnect when it came to pulling all the threads of a story into a cohesive and compelling plot.

Then it struck me!

If I shifted my approach from what external events needed to happen, to why the main character was there, suddenly all the pieces of the plot clicked together like DNA nucleotides, forming the unique genetic sequence for this story.

A new angle for planning scenes

What Does this Look Like on the Page?

Don’t panic, it’s not as tricky as it sounds and you don’t have to be a geneticist to apply it to your own stories. All you have to do is tie each scene in the book to the character arc of one of the main characters.  

To achieve this perspective shift you need to:

  • Develop complex and motivated main characters.
  • Use situations to trigger information readers need to learn.
  • Wring every last drop of conflict from each situation.

The Significance of Character Motivations

The struggles of characters are what leave a lasting impression on our hearts and souls after reading a book. So, we need to connect readers to them at every opportunity. Make the most of their psychological conflicts and show them struggling between what they want and need, or what they know they should do and what they are driven to do.

I can hear some of you saying, “That’s all well and good if you’re writing a character-driven story, but what about plot-driven stories?”

Even plot -driven stories have driven characters at their core. Take “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien for instance. Although Frodo is one of many main characters and the same world events would play out whether he was there or not, he still goes through personal struggles. We grow to love him and are eager to follow his journey and root for his success.

Benefits of Driven Characters

  • Readers feel like they are more intimately involved in the character’s lives by peeking inside their thought processes and feeling the angst of their emotional drama.
  • Shows character development through the way they overcome personal struggles.
  • Has inbuilt conflict that drives their choices and reactions around external events.
  • Character motivations naturally cause them to take action, which builds story momentum and helps steer authors away from stagnant narration.

When a character is suitably motivated, it makes their desire to reach their goal more desperate, which in turn pushes them right to the edge of their capabilities and principles.

In short, character motivations create story momentum.

Driven characters generate story momentum

How to Leverage Situations to Reveal Information

So, how do you shift your focus from external information to the character’s emotional state?

Go from WHAT to WHY.

When we focus on what happens next (external events) the choices around how that scene plays out are often random. Sure, there might be limiting factors to where the information is located, but it can usually happen in a variety of locations, e.g. a clue could be found in a house, the street or a library, and a fight could happen in a shadowy alley or deserted carpark.

Whereas, when we approach a scene thinking about where the character is on their emotional journey (their emotional state at that point in the story), it conjures specific locations, situations and other characters in our minds. Places, circumstances and people who are going to cause the character to struggle with why they want their goals, e.g.:

  • What decision they are conflicted about;
  • What universal truth they are denying; or
  • To what degree they are ready to face the fears around achieving their goal.

Now, imagine putting your character in a situation that will force them to confront all of these things.

That’s powerful!

information versus situations

Write Compelling Scenes from Emotional States

Scenes are the building blocks of fictional stories and each one needs to pull its weight in raising the reader’s curiosity, sustaining tension, advancing the external plot and character arcs, creating an appropriate atmosphere and leading readers to the next scene.

Lets take a look at an example of how a character’s emotional state can translate to actions and a compelling scene.

Example – Emotional state to a compelling scene

In “Inheriting Fear” by Sandy Vaile, early on in the story I needed to show that the most important person in the main character, Mya’s, life was her mother. My thought process went like this …  

Mya’s whole life has been structured to enable her to provide the best quality of life for her mother. So, I need to show what this close relationship and how it came to be.

But her mother is confined to a nursing home, so that is the natural location for the scene. From there I can picture what her room would look like, the gardens, the types of people who would be there. Now I have a vivid image of the setting in my mind.

When Mya vists her mother, it would be natural for her to worry about the cost of keeping her mother and how their roles have been reversed, being her mother’s guardian. That thought naturally leads to the tragic events that put her mother into care.  

See how starting with Mya’s emotional state at that point in the story, leads to a specific situation and raises questions that reveal her backstory, motivations and inner fears?

This makes for an emotive scene that tugs at reader’s heart strings, all the while exposing the deeper motivations and desires of the character.

Link Internal and External Plot Threads

Internal and external events are inextricably linked. Our inner desires, beliefs and emotions drive us to take external actions. Even when external events are out of our control — meaning we didn’t choose to do something but it happened to us — our reactions are driven by our emotional state.

How does this look when planning a scene?

Rather than trying to figure out how to get characters from one external crisis to another, use the character arc to drive their reactions and decisions.

Scene planning process

Note: This is just the way I do things; you should do what suits your process.

When planning to write a scene, I will have already:

  • Brainstormed a lit of external events that could potentially happen, e.g. clues to find, information to discover, people to meet, obstacles to get in the way.
  • Know the main character’s emotional journey, i.e. what they need and believe at the beginning of the story and the opposite state at the end of the story.
  • Listed the gradual changes/realizations they need to undergo/face to enable them to transition from one emotional state to the other.

Then I:

  • Determine the emotional state the character is in at that point in the story.
  • Brainstorm situations I could put the character in, which would force them to face their emotional blindspot (inner struggle/false belief).
  • Flesh out that situation with the setting and other characters (if relevant) that naturally evolve from it.
  • Determine what external information/event would logically (the character would realistically choose or find themselves in) need to happen next, e.g. discovering information, finding a clue or meeting a person.

The way they react to that external event is based on their inner desires, beliefs and motivations, determining their reactions and decisions about how to proceed.

Example – Internal reaction leads to the next external action

The emotional turmoil from the above example from “Inheriting Fear” is all happening at the same time as the external plot is progressing. Mya needed to know her mother was okay, which leads her to think about her past and future. She discovers missing jewellery (external event), which triggers an emotional and physical reaction. She’s upset and wants to find who took the jewellery.

In turn, her emotional state informs her decision about how to proceed (the next external actions).  

The Ultimate Scene Planning Mindset

For easier scene planning, try shifting your focus from how to deliver the information readers needed to know, to how to show the emotional drama the character was experiencing. Let the situation they’re in grow organically from their emotional state, connecting their inner desires to external information/events and resulting in compelling reading that draws readers into the story.

They key is to put characters into action and give them good reasons to keep moving by ensuring they have desperate desires, strong motivations and tangible stakes.

You deserve to plan a cohesive novel you’re confident to finish.

How do you handle planning your scenes and does any part of it gives you trouble?

* * * * * *

If you’re ready to develop complex characters, grab a copy of my free Character Profile template, which goes beyond appearance and personality, delving into backstory and questions that help you dig deep and figure out what is driving the character and how they would react in certain situations.

Sandy’s flexible outlining method suits plotters and pantsers.

If you are stuck in a rut of writing novels you never finish or aren’t sure how to fix, then it’s your lucky day. I’m offering the first 5 WITS readers a massive 20% discount on my 3-month Novel Navigation Program (use the code WITS-NOVEL-PLANNING-20 at the checkout).

About Sandy:

Sandy Vaile

Sandy Vaile is a traditionally published author, writing romantic-suspense for Simon & Schuster US, with more than a decade of experience in the industry, who empowers authors to write novels they are proud to share with the world (and which get noticed by agents, publishers and readers), through coaching, courses and developmental editing.

Sandy is also a motorbike-riding daredevil who isn’t content with a story unless there’s a courageous heroine and a dead body. Living in the McLaren Vale wine region means lots of prosseco and cheese platters in her down time.

Connect with Sandy Vaile on her website or social media.

Top image by Tobias Brunner from Pixabay. Other images provided by Sandy Vaile.

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22 comments on “One Amazing Perspective Shift to Make Scene Writing Easier”

  1. Hi Sandy,
    I love your suggestion to "approach a scene thinking about where the character is on their emotional journey." This resonates with me and makes so much sense!
    I appreciate your character profile template.
    Great article, thank you.

    1. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the article and this fresh perspective resonated with you.

      Often we innately do things as we write, but being aware of it can help add deeper layers to our stories.

      Enjoy the Character Profile template and feel free to drop into my website or Facebook group if you have any questions.

  2. Great post, Sandy. I do something very similar to you. Though I've never tried listing the changes my character need to make (I will try that soon!)

    Why a character wants or needs something is vital to my stories. Sometimes, I get "stuck" and every time I do, it's because I've reverted to focusing on the external plot. Re-focusing on the emotional journey keeps me writing, the story going, and makes for a better read.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your process, Lynette. I find it fascinating to hear how other writers approach different situation.

      We are all different, so we can only try different ways of doing things and see what works for us.

      Hopefully, having a more solid idea of how your character is going to get from their beginning emotional state to the 'the end' will give you something useful to reference when you get stuck.

      Have fun!

  3. "... shifting your focus from how to deliver the information readers needed to know, to how to show the emotional drama the character was experiencing." This is a pivotol understanding for me!! Thank you. As I make the transition from nonfiction and acdemic writer to fiction writer, I struggle with firmly grasping a 'scene' - I think I have it intuitively, but structure and intuition are sometimes at loggerheads with me. Complex characters and latching onto emotional expression secondary to action, or better - supporting action - is something I can sink my teeth into. I do love complexity! Your scene planning process and article as a whole are much appreciated in my current procees. Again, thank oyu.

    1. Thanks for reading, Jennifer.

      It's awesome that you had a revelation with this way of thinking. I sympathise with the difficulty of transitioning from acedemic writing; it's a huge change, but you'll get there.

      For me, scenes may be part of a chapter or go on for several chapters, so I personally need to think of them as a different writing unit to the chapter.

      I would love to hear how your story progresses. Feel free to drop into The Fearless Novelist Facebook group.

  4. I feel like the main character's emotional journey is everything. But I mostly write women's fiction, which is all about the emotional journey, or memoir, which is about MY journey. Basically, I am biased on this topic. 🙂

    I know for fantasy and thriller writers, the world and the plot often matter more, but I find every book more satisfying when the main character is changed.

    Your way of writing speaks to me, and I love how you've broken it into smaller steps so it can speak to EVERYONE.

    1. Hello Jenny,
      I have to admit to being biased about the importance of the emotional journey too; however, even plot-driven stories that resonate, have driven characters at their heart.

      It's just a matter of finding the balance that suits your story. And if this article provides authors with another way to approach a problem spot in their story, then it's a win.

      Happy writing!

  5. Hi Sandy,

    A place where I can get stuck is linking those internal threads to external ones in a scene. Thanks for the tips on how to do that better!

    1. Absolutely, Kris.
      I used to find it difficult to tie them together too, which is why it was such a relief to shift my perspective this way, because it felt more natural.

      Happy writing.

  6. I love this post, Sandy. Working from our character's emotional state brings a story to life! For me, I often have an emotional roadmap of the character's journey and changes before I have the actual plot. I love the way you're working the external events into that emotional state.

    1. You are too kind, Lisa.

      Yes! An emotional roadmap is exactly where I like to start too.
      External events still pop into my mind, but now I have a tangible way to tether the purpose of the story.

      Thanks for reading.

  7. I try to plot out things I need to happen in the character arch, challenges and such, ahead of time so I don't write myself into a corner.

    1. You're spot on, Denise.

      When my clients get stuck at some point (often the saggy middle), I bring them back to the purpose of the character's journey. Their what and why are powerful driving forces.

      Once they get thinking more about the character, ideas for how to tie those external events in, seem to flow. (And it's also easier to see what doesn't belong in the story.)

      What are you writing at the moment, Denise?

  8. Characters do drive the story. I couldn't agree more!

    I will sometimes interview my characters to learn more about what makes them tick and what motivates them. I find the answers just pop into my mind because I know these guys well.

    Thank you for sharing your inside secrets on writing meaningful scenes!

    1. I love that you interview your characters, Laura.

      Do you have a regular list of questions to ask them, does it change for each character, or is it more like a casual chat over coffee? (LOL)

      I hope my tips were helpful. Happy writing.

      1. Thank you for your reply! I would say it is more of a casual "So what do you think about...?" over a nice latte with a touch of honey. I find when I really KNOW the characters the answers come very quickly because they have become friends in a way.

        I loved your article! Very helpful.

        1. Oh, Laura, I love your description of "So what do you think about...?" over a nice latte with a touch of honey, is brilliant!

          It sounds just like catching up with friends.
          So, pleased the article added value for you.

          You can stay in touch through my social media.

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