Rough Out a Scene: Goals, DOs, DON’Ts, and the Writing

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Lately, I’ve taken to roughing out a scene before I start writing.

Rough Out a Scene: Goals

I want to be excited to write the scene. I’m looking for the sparks, the exciting bits of this particular scene. Finding this early is helpful because I don’t waste time slogging through extraneous stuff. Instead, I can decide on smart scene cuts so I stay interested, which means the audience will stay interested!

I want the scene setting and action beats to be roughed out. Beats are the small units of action of a story: he stopped, rubbed his nose, sneezed, grabbed a tissue, and then wheezed out an answer. They are intimately tied to the setting because the action moves in, out and through the scenery. In the theater, this would be blocking out a scene and deciding where the actor stands on the stage and how they move across the stage. I may also work on deciding when to zoom, pan or scan.

I want to know the characters’ emotional responses. When an action beat occurs, I want to know the responses of the characters. Why was it important to write this action beat? If it doesn’t evoke an emotional response, maybe it’s not important enough to include in the final draft.

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Rough out a scene: Don’ts

I don’t worry about perfection. I give myself permission to produce what kids call “sloppy copy.” It’s OK. I just want something on the page so that it’s easier to get the scene right later.

Don’t worry about verb tense, present or past. Sometimes, I bounce around like crazy. It’s OK. I’ll fix it when I actually write the scene.

Don’t worry about POV. It’s OK. I’ll often change POV during this rough-in stage. One advantage of this is that I’ll know the character’s emotion response. If it’s the POV character, I may be able to use the info as their thoughts. If it’s not the POV character, I’ll have to change the response into a physical action or perhaps signal it with body language. In the roughing out stage, I just need to know the emotions. I’ll follow conventions later.

Don’t worry about punctuation. It’s OK. I don’t worry about quotation marks around speech, or any other punctuation marks at this stage.

Don’t worry about details (unless you can’t stand not to!). In my current WIP novel, for example, my characters are at the bottom of the North Sea and should be seeing several species of fish. What fish would they see? Sometimes, I can just put in a placeholider, such as XXX. Then, research it before I do the final draft and include details then. But sometimes, I am compelled to stop and figure that out during the rough-in stage. When I do, it’s likely to be a long list and for the final draft, I’ll have to choose the best of the list.

Rough out a scene: DOs

Do worry about finding the heart of the scene. Where is the pivot point, the emotional fulcrum upon which the scene rests. I must find that emotional heart during this stage, or I won’t have the excitement needed to write it well.

Do worry about details. OK, I just said above do NOT worry about details. So, it just depends. Sometimes a scene doesn’t come alive for me with the details and sometimes it does. Scenes with lots of dialogue and not much action need dialogue details, but not scene details. Action-heavy scenes need the action bits in detail, but maybe it’s fine to skimp on the dialogue. You must decide what you need for each scene.

Rough out a scene: When to stop and write.

How much time do I spend on this stage? It varies.
When do I stop roughing it out and write the thing? It varies. Sometimes, I only need a sketchy, minimal rough to write from. But in my current WIP novel, I’m doing a lot of world-building as I go. That means I have to figure out the scenery, name anything important like buildings or landscape features, think of a history of the area, and then put my characters in that setting. For science fiction and fantasy then, it takes longer to rough out a scene. For romance or contemporary novels, this stage of writing may go quicker.

I know that I need to write the actual scene when I’ve roughed it out enough that I’m excited to write it. Instead of holding back any longer, the words just flow. Sometimes, I’ll print out the rough and just glance at it while I write. Sometimes, I’ll work directly in the file and just revise the rough into the finished draft.

In other words, this is one more tool to put in your writer’s toolkit. Rough out your scene until you can approach the actual writing with great enthusiasm and passion!

1 Comment
  • Linda Strobel
    March 25, 2016

    Hi Darcy! I am glad that I am the first person, who leaves a reply to your article here! You know I read your post twice in order to understand all the important details you wanted to present to the readers! I liked your easiness with which you describe all the feature of roughing out a scene and I am sure that all the tips you shared here will help other writers to make the process of writing easier and more pleasant, because roughing out a great scene is one which can engage the readers by triggering emotional response, so the reader will continue to read it.
    Best wishes to you and to your current novel-writing.