Six impossible things

Choreographing scenes

Scene choreography or planning is a thing that some writers do up front, some do as a routine part of their process, and some hardly ever bother with even though they’re not pantsers, strictly speaking.

What I’m talking about here is a whole class of preparation variously described as scene choreography, scene-by-scene planning, scene blocking, sketch draft, zero draft, or just detailed scene/chapter notes. The function of scene planning is to lay out what happens in a scene in more detail than an outline or summary, so that the writer can turn it into an actual scene without getting off track, worrying that they’ve left out a key element, or having the characters do impossible things like opening the window when they’re supposed to be hiding behind the couch on the far side of the room.

A scene plan can consolidate the characters’ movements, action, dialog (both internal and spoken), key plot elements, etc. in a condensed form that lets the writer move bits around easily until everything is in satisfactory order. It’s more than a plot summary, but less than a scene.

Like everything else about writing, how detailed a scene plan needs to be (and which things absolutely must be in it, and which are optional) depends on what the writer needs to know or work out or be reminded of. Some writers have a hard time writing dialog, but can fill in action, emotions, and setting fairly easily; others have no trouble at all with conversation, but have serious difficulty getting the action/setting/etc. in. Scene choreography can help either writer see where there are holes in whatever they’re having trouble with.

Sketch drafts/scene plans are more than a summary outline but less than a fully fleshed-out scene. For instance:


Kayla and her family arrive at the State Fair and decide what to do first.

Sketch draft:

Kayla, Del, and Riki get to front of line. Hot; much cement. Del plays cool; Kayla reconsiders wearing hat. Riki hands over Fair tickets. Kayla is nervous about the backpack check; she doesn’t want Riki to realize she’s brought her tablet computer.

As soon as they are through the gates Del says Let’s go to the midway! I want to do the frog toss.

Kayla sees Riki’s expression change. The Midway is expensive. They can’t afford for Del to spend the day on rides and games, but he’ll just whine more if she says so. And Riki will feel guilty. K. feels angry that Del doesn’t get this. He will ruin day before it even starts. She looks around desperately. Sees Skyride to opposite end of fairgrounds; like enclosed ski lift. Hey, how about the skyride? Do we have a coupon? (Pointed glare at Del while Riki digs for coupon book.)

Del looks mutinous, kicks at grass, then says in grumpy tone, Well I suppose if we have a coupon… Has obviously gotten Kayla’s hint.

Looking at the sketch draft, I realize that the first bit is in the wrong order; Kayla should be worrying about backpack check and heat while they’re still in line, not after they have handed over tickets. Changing the sketch draft to reflect this takes a couple of seconds, moving two sentences to the end of the first paragraph; if I had written it out fully, I probably would have had to rephrase the whole paragraph so things happened in the right order.

Obviously, in a short example like this it wouldn’t take a lot more time to rephrase that one paragraph. The value in a scene plan or zero draft, for many writers, isn’t time saved in rephrasing; it’s that this is so clearly not a final draft. It is often much easier to write down character feelings, setting, movement, description, dialog snatches, etc. when one does not have to worry about exactly how Riki’s expression changes, how to phrase Kayla’s internal emotions, or how to show that Del has gotten Kayla’s hint.

In a sketch draft, you can start every line or paragraph with a character’s name, followed by what they’re doing, thinking, and saying…over and over, without having to worry about repetitive structure, using the same word four times in three paragraphs, getting each character’s voice right; without even using complete sentences and correct punctuation. You can make your zero draft all talking heads or nothing but action with an occasional “They argue re next move” to mark a whole block of conversation. These are your notes and plans; lay them out in whatever way is most helpful for you.

I do scene blocking mainly when I have a lot of something (characters, subplots, clues, foreshadowing) to keep track of in a particular scene; the rest of the time, I just wing it based on my current outline. I know writers, though, who routinely choreograph each scene right before writing it, and some who work through their whole novel, blocking one scene after another, before they ever start the first draft of Scene One.

If you have a ferocious Internal Editor that you have trouble getting past, or if your stuff sets up like concrete once you have a true first draft, or if revising/rewriting is easier for you than coming up with a first draft, you might try choreographing your next couple of scenes and see how it works. If, however, you are the sort of writer who is completely done once the story is told, or the sort who gets bored if you are too clear on what happens next, you may want to be cautious about trying this out. Test it first on something small/short/easy, or an exercise, or something you don’t care about finishing, just in case.

  1. …or the sort who gets bored if you are too clear on what happens next…

    Ah! Interesting. I need to know what happens next, but I need to not know how it happens until I actually write the scene. (If I know how, I lose interest rapidly and it all goes stale.) This probably explains why I’ve never even been tempted to block out a scene as you have shown.

    I usually have a list of three to six happenings and/or bits of information or elements that I’ve worked out must go into the scene. Without a list I would be likely to forget one or two, and it is much harder to go back and insert them afterward. I can do that, if I have to, and I have done it, but I hate it every time. Better to get that right on the first daft.

    I also have lists of the sensory details present in the scene, because I tend to be so interested in how my characters are feeling, what they are thinking, and what they are saying that it s very easy for me to fall into the empty-white-room-syndrome. Whereas, when I’ve used the sensory lists (scents, sounds, touch, taste, plus the easiest one of sight) to get the physical setting firmly into my head, then I don’t forget it in my enthusiasm for the internal elements and the conversation, and the characters’ interactions with the physical environment ebb and flow naturally along with the dialogue and internal things.

    Huh. I’d never rally analyzed why I do what I do and why it works. I like knowing! Thank you!

  2. I’m making a note of this post. I don’t need it at the moment, but I’m sure I will very badly need to reread it sometime later on.

    It seems to me that outlining or choreographing scenes has three different levels:

    1. Deciding whether to include scenes, and in what order. (Should I include the scene where the Protagonist takes a bath? If I do, should it come before or after the Breakfast scene?)

    2. Deciding which events go into which scenes. (Should the spat between the Protagonist and his sister occur in the Breakfast scene, or in the Library scene?)

    3. Deciding the order of events within a scene.

    • Three possible levels, yes. One needs to make all those decisions, but not necessarily in that order. I tend to decide on the order of the Main Plot Events in the outline, which is where I move them around. Whether to make them a whole scene or not tends to happen when I’m writing or scene blocking, as I am ALWAYS wrong when it comes to guessing how long something will take on the page. If “Scene 1: Arrive at State Fair” that I thought would be a proper two-page scene ends up being half a paragraph, it throws the whole plan off. It’s easier on my nerves to start writing or blocking events straight from the outline.

      Other people are more methodical than I am in this regard.

  3. Oooo scene blocking — I didn’t realize “zero draft” was a thing. I thought I invented the name. Not such a clever Cathy after all, am I. Bah!

    And I’m pretty bad at it, too. Your example is textbook-perfect. I understand the reason for using present tense, but find that I’m too annoyed at having to convert it to my preferred past tense when I go back to do the first draft. Also annoyed at having to add quotation marks. I’m one of those dialog people you mentioned… LOVE working on that, and it seems to be the element that needs the least amount of revision later, so maybe it makes sense for me to first-draft that more than zero-draft. If I can tell that I need to get through a conversation to see what happens next, I don’t feel bad about writing it all out; otherwise, it can feel a bit indulgent to work on it when I’m “supposed” to be just laying the framework. Emotions and thoughts come pretty easily, too. Adding the details of actions and location/character descriptions is MUCH harder. I’ll leave a [describe] note for myself for later, and then cringe when I reach that spot in the first draft round.

    It’s nice to be reminded that scene blocking doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all — thank you! And thanks for helping me procrastinate on my yard work… off i go 🙂

    • I tend to focus on the stuff I have trouble with when I’m scene blocking, but it’s just as workable to start with the easy stuff (dialog in your case) and fill in the hard stuff later.

  4. I would be interested in hearing about the choreography you did for the climactic scene in Mairelon the Magician.

    • It has been over 15 years since I wrote that scene, and I don’t keep my notes that long. I could maybe reconstruct it, but it wouldn’t be the actual thing. For that one, it was mostly “A and B enter. C pops out of the woodwork. A, B and C argue. D arrives. A and D talk; E and F arrive, interrupting.” And then I’d realize that B and C hadn’t done anything for a while, so they’d have to say, do, or think something. I didn’t block the actual dialog; I was more worried about keeping track of who was present, where they were and what they were doing, and who was going to arrive next.

  5. C. S. Forester (who, by the way, plotted everything out in his head before setting pen to paper) said he saw his scenes as appearing on a stage, with the characters walking around trying out actions and dialogue on each other; he was the invisible director who could view the action over and over from different angles till he was satisfied with the result.

    Once in a while this failed him, and he found himself ready to write a scene without having the foggiest idea what was going to happen next. His reaction in that case was to panic, rack his brain, and eventually come up with the solution and resume writing.

    Still, he wrote professionally for several decades, even in increasingly poor health, so that worked for him.

    • Yeah, every so often the backbrain decides to keep you on your toes by completely ignoring every way you’ve ever successfully worked and demanding that you do it all backwards, inside out, or upside down. I think panic is a perfectly reasonable reaction.

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