Getting a Scene from Brain to Paper

Different writers have difficulty with different parts of the writing process. Some hate fiddling with background information. Others despise revising. Others can’t stand outlining. Me? I have the most trouble with drafting.

By “drafting,” what I mean is this whole “get the story down on paper” part of writing. It’s not that I have trouble coming up with new material (I can write little happy excerpts and scenes all day long), or that I don’t know where the story is going (generally, I do, and I have a vague idea of how it’s going to get there, too), it’s just that I have trouble getting what’s in my head down onto paper.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I have a scene that I need to write. In my head, the scene will be a combination of things like this:

As you can see, it’s rather a mess.

Rather than try to do anything with that mess, sometimes I’ll just sit and stare angrily at the screen, which ultimately turns into checking my email, or tweeting, or watching random videos on youtube. None of which really help get that mess get down onto the paper—or up onto the screen, if one’s being picky.

So I’ve come up with a way of coaxing scenes out bit by bit, which is actually a little similar to how someone might approach a painting. First, the rough sketch. For the very beginning of the scene depicted by the jumble of images and words above, this sketch might look a bit like this:

We entered the small store, and he went straight up to the counter. The girl in front of him in line gave him a weird look, which he brushed off with a shrug. The tubs of brightly-colored ice creams called to me only a little less strongly than they seemed to call to him. I joined him at the end of the line.

“What are you going to get?” I said.

“Vanilla,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow. “That’s boring, isn’t it?”

“To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas,” he said.

So, with that, I’ve got a basic set-up. Guy and girl enter ice cream shop. They talk about ice cream. Nothing great, but it’s better than that blank page I was staring at a moment ago. Usually, if I’m really having trouble with a scene, or if I’m just not super interested in writing a particular scene, but I need to get it down in order to get to future stuff, I’ll write it kind of like this.

But that’s just step number one! After I get the rough sketch down, it’s time to go back and add a little color to it (some sensory detail, a little more “voice”)…and maybe straighten some of those lines:

He rushed ahead of me into the ice cream shop, but held the door open with the very tips of his fingers just long enough for me to get through, as well. The bell hanging the in doorway dinged; his sneakers squeaked against the scuffed white tiles. I glanced away from him just long enough to take in the small, round tables, the delicate-looking chairs.

When I turned again, he was no longer there. Automatically, my eyes sought the end of the line. Sure enough, there he was, one hand pressed against the glass display case, grinning like Christmas had come in July. The girl ahead of him drew away a little. I didn’t blame her. If I didn’t know better, I’d be a little scared of that crazy ass smile, too.

“What are you going to get?” I said, slipping into line after him before someone else could take the spot. The display case was cold, raising goose bumps on my skin.

He didn’t bother looking up, his eyes roaming the tubs of brightly-colored ice creams.“Vanilla,” he said.

All this fuss, and he picked vanilla.

“That’s boring, isn’t it?” I said.

He huffed. “To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

It’s hard to say what a third revision—or layering—of this scene piece would look like without knowing my plans for the story as a whole (which, honestly, don’t exist since I’m making this up on the spot). But my “notes” in the scene’s jumbled image do say “reveal old relationship” and “Character 1 (which I’m going to say is Girl) opens up a bit,” so let’s assume that the “old relationship” was the fact that she dated Guy’s best friend a year back and it ended really, really badly, and she’s somewhat suspicious he’s been sent to spy on her by his friend or something, thus her reticence.

(In this scene, Guy needs a proper name, so let’s go with Liam)

Liam rushed ahead of me into the ice cream shop, but held the door open with the very tips of his fingers just long enough for me to get through, as well. The bell hanging the in doorway dinged; his sneakers squeaked against the scuffed white tiles.

I tried to remember if he’d ever held doors for me back when Bobby and I were dating, but it was hard to recall. Most likely, he never would have needed to. Bobby had always been there to open doors, pull out chairs, hold my books, fetch me a drink. He’d been the world’s most considerate boyfriend—until one day, he hadn’t.

I glanced away from Liam just long enough to take in the ice cream shop—the small, round tables, the delicate-looking chairs. Whatever Liam had said, this was not a “Hey, let’s go grab a cone!” kind of place. This was a eat-ice-cream-in-non-disposable-silver-bowls kind of place. This was a Date kind of place.

…or a place to lull your best friend’s ex into compliance.

When I turned around again, Liam was no longer there. I blinked, searching the store, and found him already standing at the end of the line, one hand pressed against the glass display case, grinning like Christmas had come in July. The girl ahead of him drew away a little. I didn’t blame her. If I didn’t know better, I’d be a little scared of that crazy ass smile, too.

“What are you going to get?” I said, slipping into line after him before someone else could take the spot. The display case was cold, raising goose bumps on my skin.

He didn’t bother looking up, his eyes roaming the tubs of brightly-colored ice creams. If Bobby really was looking for revenge, he should have pick a smarter friend. I wasn’t sure if Liam had the intellectual capacity to pull off a—a whatever this might be.

“Vanilla,” he said.

All this fuss, and he picked vanilla.

“That’s boring, isn’t it?” I said.

He huffed. “To those of us with imagination, that’s a canvas.”

So, there’s that! There would be revising after this step, of course, but for a first draft to show to critique partners and such, I’d be pretty happy with a scene written like that 🙂

Hope you enjoyed seeing how a scene might evolve from a jumbled mess in my head to actual words on the paper. And I hope it might help you work through a particularly nasty writer’s block next time it happens! 🙂

21 Responses to Getting a Scene from Brain to Paper

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jan 24 2012 at 7:49 am #

    You make a very good point here. I do much the same, especially when I can’t get the whole scene figured out in my head at once. I often start with just dialog, spun out of the characters, and fill in the activities later. Get the basics down and then revise and add details later, sometimes even during revisions.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 24 2012 at 8:36 am #

      Thanks! Good to see I’m not the only one who works this way 🙂

  2. Linda C. Jan 24 2012 at 9:01 am #

    I really liked this post. A lot of aspiring writers don’t realize that writers should really be called “re-writers,” since there’s so much revision involved in the process! They tend to assume that the finished books always start out so clean. I work at Random House children’s, but having interned at Writers House literary agency, I’ve definitely seen some raw stuff!

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 24 2012 at 9:08 am #

      I’m glad you liked the post, Linda 🙂 And yes! When I first started out, I never dreamed that “writing” a book included SO much re-writing. How cool that you’ve both worked at Random House and Writers House literary agency 🙂

      • Linda C. Jan 24 2012 at 9:17 am #

        They’re awesome places to work–I’m still at Random House, so I definitely can’t complain, lol. Looking forward to your book (I was doing a book swap the other day with a HarperTeen editor and What’s Left of Me came up, actually!).

        • Kat Zhang
          Kat Zhang Jan 24 2012 at 9:20 am #

          Oh, my! That’s very flattering 😉 (unless, of course, the context of the mention was– “DON’T READ!” hehehe :P)

          I’m really excited for WHAT’S LEFT OF ME to be out in the world, too!

          • Linda C. Jan 24 2012 at 9:28 am #

            Haha, no, I’ve definitely heard good things, trust me!

  3. Ghenet Myrthil Jan 24 2012 at 10:57 am #

    Great advice! And I like the scene you came up with. I have trouble with first drafting too but I like how you used layers to get to your final result. I will try this! 🙂

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 24 2012 at 12:26 pm #

      Yay! Glad you liked the scene 🙂 Hope the technique works well for you!

  4. Emy Shin Jan 24 2012 at 11:54 am #

    You already know I love this post, Kat. Such a lightbulb-y post! *bookmarks again, just in case*

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 24 2012 at 12:27 pm #

      Aww, thanks for commenting again <3 I try not to double-post, but this weekend @.@

  5. Nell Jan 24 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    This is a great post! I have this problem, when I write 🙂 x

  6. savannahjfoley Jan 24 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Do you really write like this? Man, it seems so much better than what I do, which is attempt to do the 3rd version of the scene. I only edit stuff in/out when I read it later and it doesn’t feel right or I think of something neat to add.

    I am totally going to try this method.

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 24 2012 at 6:04 pm #

      I trrry to write like version #3, and sometimes it works, but if I feel myself getting super frustrated, I take a deep breath and tell myself it’s perfectly okay to write version #1 stuff since I can just go back and edit it later. I do a lot of tweaking/low-level revising while I draft, though. 🙂

  7. Erin Bowman
    Erin Bowman Jan 25 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Kat, this is such a wonderful look at the process of filling out a scene and adding emotional depth, backstory, etc. I typically end up putting more than necessary into my initial drafts — my editing process is usually me cutting stuff because I say too much, but there have been a few times when I’ve needed to flesh out a scene and my process ends up looking exactly like the one you shared here. Really interesting post!

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 25 2012 at 11:46 am #

      Thanks, Erin! 🙂 I tend to err on the side of saying too little, so my drafts grow throughout the editing process! Though of course, some trimming takes place, as well.

  8. cecilia Jan 27 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    I always love your writing examples/exercises, even though I am not currently WIP like so many of your readers. It is interesting to learn about the process – what works and doesn’t work for a writer – and I love seeing how your “making this up as you go along” piece turns out to be amazing! I am sad that this is all the Liam and vanilla ice cream that we get!

    • Kat Zhang
      Kat Zhang Jan 27 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      Thank you, cecilia! 😀 Who knows…maybe after I finish all these WIPs in my brain, I’ll come back to Liam and vanilla ice cream 😉

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