Posted by: Kathleen Mix | August 22, 2012

Surprise Scenes

Every writer’s process falls somewhere along a continuum, with plotters (those of us who prepare a detailed outline before starting to write) at one end, and pansers (those who plow directly into the story and plot by the seat of their pants) at the opposite end.
I like to know who my characters are and how they will change and grow in the course of the story before I sit down and write page one. I plan my turning points, conflicts, black moments, and ending. In my outline, I include notes on each scene’s timeframe and setting, select a character for point of view, state the character’s scene goal, jot down conflicts, and determine why and how the character will be frustrated in his or her scene task. I select character names that are dissimilar to avoid confusion. I create timelines, and I’ve even drawn maps and floor plans. My complete outline may run thirty-five to forty pages, and I sometimes think of it as a narrative first draft.
Pansers shudder when they hear this description. They claim they would lose interest once they knew the ending or had told the story. They claim they need freedom to follow any road their characters decide to take.
If my outline was cast in stone, that might be a valid argument. But as I write, I embellish and often encounter surprise scenes. Here’s an example from my work-in-progress.
Romantic suspense manuscripts need a lot of conflict. In scene four, I added a micro-conflict concerning the fit – or in this case, lack of fit – of my heroine’s borrowed clothing. It wasn’t in my outline, but a quick, one-sentence mention was appropriate. In scene five, I revisited the conflict, giving it a full paragraph because it added to my character’s tension. Scene six expanded the conflict to an inter-relational level in the course of four paragraphs. When the time came to write scene seven, I knew I had to detour from my outline and take the conflict I’d built to its rational next step before moving on. So, I added a new scene in which my heroine sneaks into a boutique and buys some better-fitting clothes.
My new scene was written seat-of-my-pants. I had fun adding depth to my characters and making them sweat. Because I knew my story parameters, I could drop in a couple plants that will pop up later.
Adding this scene was far from an isolated event. Most of my books include a few surprise scenes. They’re often some of my favorites, because they’re the unexpected ingredient that becomes a perfect complement to my unfolding plot. They allow my imagination to run wild without falling off a cliff or getting boxed into a dead end. They allow me to show new facets of my characters’ personalities while reinforcing their established values and beliefs.
Remember, the writing process is a continuum. Plotters sometimes take detours and slip toward the methods of pansers, pansers sometimes get a clear vision of where they’re going and dabble in the world of plotters.
Every writer needs to do what works for them. For me, outlining is the key that unlocks my creativity. Knowing my destination keeps me on the right road while allowing me to take scenic detours that sprinkle extra joy on the journey.


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