Scene Planning: Visualize Scenes Like a Master

by | Writing Technique |

When I started writing, I didn’t do scene planning. I would get an idea for a scene in my head and feel compelled to immediately write it, as if it might evaporate if I didn’t get it down on paper. After all, I told myself, I could always dress it up later. So, like a typical tourist returning from vacation, I would end up with a collection of stuff that would bore even my best friends.

El Capitan by Ansel Adams

El Capitan by Ansel Adams

I have always admired Ansel Adams’ photography. I have a large prints of El Capitan and Half Dome in my office. I know from reading about him that he didn’t snap these images while casually hiking through Yosemite.

Each of these stunning photographs resulted from careful planning and expert execution. He made his most important decisions before taking each shot. He chose the camera, filters and lenses best capable of capturing the scene. He selected the season, weather conditions and the time of day that would give the best opportunity of creating the setting he visualized.

Most importantly, he scouted out in advance, the place that would provide the ideal perspective for the shot he had in mind.

Ansel Adams called this process “Previsualization.”

I realized that writing a scene is a lot like photographing one. In both cases, the artist is attempting to record an image and convey it to their audience. Extending that line of thinking, if I truly desired to master the arts of writing and storytelling, I needed invest more time and energy into planning my scenes.

My scene planning inspiration

In my mind, I became Ansel Adams as a creative writer. What steps would he take before committing the first words of his scenes to paper?

I imagined Ansel Adam’s process for scene planning. He would hike the area first, studying his subject from a variety of locations. He would view it from the left, right and straight on, from a ridge high above and the valley below, from up close and far away, in the morning, noon and evening light, under bright skies and storm clouds. I could see him sorting through these options until a clear image formed in his mind.

In this way, I sought to emulate Ansel Adams mastery of visual scene planning in composing the scene in my novels. Over time, I developed the scene planning process described below.

Start with a basic concept

Image of Scene Plan on a Slide

Scene Planning in PowerPoint

Scene Outlined on a Slide

Before you start, you need to have a basic concept of what happens in the scene. If you are a pantser, this might be an idea that came to you while eating breakfast. That’s the way I used to operate.

But now, I plan my plots, sketching out each scene on slides using bullet points. Here’s a sample of a scene where an FBI Agent, Amanda, sees a news report where the target of her investigation, Andrew, reacts to the unveiling of a sculpture that depicts an angel impaling him with a sword

I start with a concept of what happens in the scene, but nothing is cast in concrete. I may choose to create a completely different scene that would serve the same purpose.

The key is that you start with a concept for the scene.

Justify the scene’s existence.

Review the purposes the scene serves. Is it a tool to develop characters? Does it move the story forward? Is the intention to provide some answers or create more questions? Are we foreshadowing some future event? Dropping some gold nuggets for the reader? Cranking up the level of suspense?

If you can’t articulate the purpose the scene serves, then stop. You either don’t need it — or you need to revise the concept.

Review the scene from multiple POVs

Consider writing the scene from different points of view (POVs). In my plot plan, I usually have a POV in mind, but before writing, I imagine creating the scene from the perspective of as many characters as possible.

For the scene in the slide above, I ultimately decided to write the scene from Andrew’s perspective because it created more drama and it allowed me to share his thoughts with the reader, through which I could further develop his character.

Consider including or excluding different characters

The process of exploring the scene from the perspective of different characters allows me to consider which characters should take part in this scene.Often I will include characters I hadn’t originally sketched into the scene because it created something interesting.

Or I may choose to remove characters, like I did in the scene above. By shifting the POV to Andrew, Amanda is gone from this scene. However, I placed two other characters at the scene that were not in my original plans.

Explore actions and reactions of various characters

The other benefit of looking at the scene from each character’s POV is, by viewing the scene through their eyes, I picture their inner thoughts and their reactions as the scene unfolds. As the scene begins to form in my mind as I consider different actions that characters could take and the reactions that they would cause.

I love it when, in my mind, a character does something I hadn’t expected that results in a completely different concept for the scene.

Decide where the scene takes place

Once I have a good idea of what the characters are thinking and doing, I explore the setting. My concept contained an idea of where the scene takes place. But are there other places that would be better? Should the action start in one place and move to others as the scene unfolds?

For example, even if the scene takes place over dinner at someone’s home, a side conversation could take place on the patio, down a hall, in a bathroom, or a bedroom. Each of these creates a different dynamic.

Develop a detailed picture of the setting

Once I’ve selected the location, there are details that need to be visualized. Specificity brings scenes to life. If I am inside, how are the rooms decorated? What unique objects can I describe that will paint the scene? If I am outside, there are a wider array of things to observe and weather conditions to consider.

When I think I have a solid grasp on the setting, I visualize it through the eyes of the character whose POV I have chosen. With their unique character, would they see things differently? What background sounds would they notice? What do they smell? Do they reach out and touch things? If so, I imagine the texture and temperature. If there are other people present, how does my character perceive them?

Perhaps most important, I picture how all of this makes my character feel.

Find a creative way to open the scene

When I think I’ve got the scene fleshed out in my mind, I consider how to open the scene.

Where is the camera? Do I start close up? Perhaps focusing on the tear in the corner of someone’s eye and slowily pull the camera back? Would the scene work best if I had the camera way back and then zoom in on my characters? Or something in between?

In the scene I described above, I decided to open with Andrew, a business tycoon, riding in his limousine on his way to his office after a series of soured business deals forced him to sell his building, arriving to see his archenemy’s name in place of his own on the roof line of the building, and a sculpture being unveiled in the lobby . Quite a change from my original plans…

Decide where to the scene will end

My final step is to decide where to end the scene. I almost always find a way to leave the reader hanging so they will feel compelled to turn the page.

Summary

While this sounds like a huge undertaking, it usually takes about fifteen minutes using these steps to create a vivid image of the scene in my mind. The results are scenes rich in detail and first drafts that need little revision. This is what works for me.

Do you have a different process or some additional ideas to offer? If so, share them below. If you feel this is over the top and prefer writing from the seat of your pants, feel free to tell me that too.

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