Friday, July 21, 2017

My Pattern for Building scenes

I came up with my system of building scenes by trial and error. I was working on my first mystery novel without a written-out outline.

I had my setting: the (real) village of Bishop Hill. I had the plot point of a (real) Swedish-born folk artist, who documented the 19th century colony period, have his last portrait lost for decades.

From there, I built my cast of characters by using bits and pieces of real people I knew and photo clippings I’d been saving. I got to know the ins and outs of my characters’ background by using several worksheets I picked up from workshops I’ve attended.

When it came time to construct the SCENES that my characters would inhabit and would use get the action going I fell into a pattern that worked for me.

First came DIALOG. I decided on the principle speakers, usually two characters. I gave them a mission: what they needed to talk about, how much info to reveal, clues to drop, etc. I imagined their voices, but didn’t worry excessively about speech patterns at first. Then I set them in motion. I had them talk. Usually, they were well behaved and advanced the plot as I wanted. However, sometimes the new and unexpected happened. That was a bonus.

SETTING came after I had my framework of dialog. I went back to add in the details. Where were they: In a kitchen? In a cafĂ©? In a barn? On a street?

When the setting was in place, I added ACTION: I made them fidget with a napkin for instance, or hold a cup of coffee for its soothing warmth, the same for baking some muffins, or walk the streets looking and listening.

Next came the most difficult element for me to get in and to get right—EMOTION.

I went so far as to buy The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Ackerman & Puglisi. (Okay, I didn’t buy it. I guilted a son into gifting it as a Christmas present.)

The last step was to add some little BITS OF BUSINESS that made things fun. Giving the characters the drawl, twang, or melodic accent to set them apart. Replaying an inside joke from high school. Using a very common last name to excess.

What I’ve described is a process of adding layer upon layer to build a complex scene that moves the action forward and adds information about my people, where they live, and what their motives might be. Everything and anything can become a clue.

It takes time at first. But it gets faster. And I envy the authors who can do it well enough to make it look easy.

There are, of course, other ways to come up with a solid scene. The following list is from a recent workshop with Kali VanBaale at the David R. Collins Writers’ Conference:

Distinct time & place & POV
Dramatic tension, actions to further story


  1. Mary, it's fun to see your process.

    1. I didn't know how to properly comment. This is from me. I think my name will now show up :)

    2. Anne, I see your comment and know it is from you so that much is working out. Thank you for reading this post. I wrote it in preparation for being on a panel at the upcoming Killer Nashville Writer's Conference. It'll be my first time there. Thanks again.