Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Scene Deck – a story-building technique

E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel marks the difference between Story – what happens, and Plot – why it happens. This is a useful distinction for writers. The amount of invention necessary to facilitate a novel can be overwhelming – characters, characterisation, plot, arc(s), settings, back-story – not to mention all the collateral invention of details and elements that breathe life into the story-world – but worse than all that, you have to tie it together with a compelling narrative.

You could just pants your way through and hope you come out with something meaningful at the end, or you could divide and conquer and produce what's necessary one bit at a time – either way this technique should prove useful – and it relies on Forster's distinction.

I've previously outlined how classifying ideas can be a great aid in capturing them quickly in a way that can be of use later – but this technique is all about Scenes. Here's what you need.

The Tools

If you're old-school then you need a packet of record cards, or a post-it block, or both. If you prefer to work entirely on your PC you could use this great piece of free software, or if you're a Mac obsessive, you've probably already got it covered. I use both the analogue and digital options – the last thing I need is excuses and sometimes a change of tools can freshen things up.

The Idea

Story is what happens, not why it happens, and freed from the obligation of justifying a scene to the plot or characters it's a hell of a lot easier to come up with them – everything counts – past experiences and memories, dreams, things you've heard talked about at work, things you've heard on the bus, things you'd like to happen to you or you hope to make happen, things you completely invent – everything should be considered a candidate and everything should be captured on a card. This should be a fun and liberating process and can kick start a novel, and the great thing about it is, you don't need to worry if the ideas are appalling – you can always burn the cards later – but you need to get everything down.

The Story

Without plot, you can now create a whole multitude of stories by arranging the cards in any order – you can leave scenes out, have multiple story threads, you may even think of more scenes as you play (and you must write them down on a card before anything else). Like the scenes themselves, give these emerging stories time – so the MC has sex with Elvis before flying to the moon - ridiculous, right? Or is it? Think about it.

The Plot

If there's anything you like you can start working out the 'why', knowing you've already nailed the 'what'. Some sequences of scenes may suggest a natural consequence e.g. MC has affair -> MC marriage falls apart - and as you start weaving plots round the sequences some scenes that originally seemed lame may take on a new significance.

So what's in it for the pantsers? Well, if you get to the end of the draft and it's atrocious, break down all your scenes into a story deck and re-shuffle.

A new-born idea is delicate and in danger of being lost for a number of reasons. A lot of things can get in the way – don't let it be your process.


  1. I love using tools like index cards, pieces of paper thrown into hatboxes, breakdown sheets and so on. Like you say, James, they help isolate the particular aspect of the novel I'm working on and help me create a tighter story. Useful post.

  2. Card plotters might also want to try the demo of our Writers Café software ( The central tool, Storylines, was created to deal with my desire as a novelist to get information down on my postcards really, really quickly, and also have a way of arranging them so that they don't fall of the bed, get disarranged by the cat, etc. Lots of other writers say we have really nailed the process, and find it a big help in plotting/story development.

  3. I like your distinction between story and plot. And sometimes starting with story can help with the process - and figure out the why later. I like it.

  4. @Roz - thanks for your comment and your continued support of this blog, Roz. I'm fairly convinced there's little you can learn from me about writing. Most of my ideas I've nicked from you anyway ;)

    @fictionwitch - I have tried Writers' Cafe in the past, I quite liked it but didn't stick with it. Perhaps I should try it again.

    @Laura - thanks for dropping by and commenting again. Hope the writing is going well - keep blogging despite the nay-sayers.