Category: writing

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design Part 2

My last post, “How to Plan Your Novel — Scene Design”, provided a list of things you might want to think about before you start writing. It also focused on one of those things in particular– the importance of establishing goals for the characters in the scene.

Once you have decided on a goal, it is time to give some thought to how to crush any hopes and dreams the character may have of achieving or benefiting from accomplishing the goal. This is called “the disaster”. The basic formula is GOALS –> CONFLICT –> DISASTER. The drama that gets your readers to turn the page is rooted in conflict and disaster. The oft-quoted metaphor that you should get the protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at him applies here. Maybe a better way to think of it is to throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

There are four basic answers to the question–will the character achieve his goal in this scene? They are “yes”, “yes–but”, “no”, and “no–and”. The first answer–“yes” should rarely, if ever, be used before the ending of the book. A few months ago, I read an action thriller with a pretty good premise and plot and some decent characters. It could have been a good novel, but the story’s glaring problem was that the protagonist was successful at everything he did. The answer to every goal he had in the book was yes, and that lack of drama made for a mediocre story.

There are three appropriate answers to the question in the middle of a novel. The first is in the “be careful what you ask for” department. The answer is “yes–but”. In this scenario, the character achieves the goal she is pursuing in the scene, but there are unpleasant consequences to that success. Maybe the gal gets the guy, but she also gets a dose of the clap.

…throw your character in a hole and try to bury him before he can dig his way out.

An example of this is in the book “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. The protagonist, Clarise Starling, an FBI academy trainee, fulfills her goal to get a role in the Buffalo Bill investigation. That success nearly costs her a chance to graduate from the academy and subjects her to an internal affairs complaint that threatens to ruin her career before it even gets started.

“No” is the second answer that creates a disaster. In this case, the character is seeking something and gets the metaphorical door slammed in her face. In “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone meets with mobster Moe Greene to tell him the family wants to buy out his casino share. Greene’s response is, “I’ll buy you out. You don’t buy me out.” His answer is a firm no that throws an obstacle in the way of Michael’s goal to move the family to Vegas. It also provides the impetus for a dramatic scene with lots of great conflict and sharp dialog between characters.

The scene with Moe Greene in The Godfather is notable in that not only does Moe say no, but Michael says no to the no of Moe. (Sorry for the bad poetry.) Michael’s no is an example of the third type of disaster–“no–and”. This disaster is perhaps the most effective. Not only is the goal of the character blocked by a firm no, but there are far-reaching consequences from the character’s desire and attempts to accomplish the goal. In Moe Greene’s case (spoiler alert), the no he receives from Michael costs him both his share of the casino and his life.

So as you plan your scenes, know what the characters in the scene want and use one of the three disasters to dash their hopes. Hit them with the shovel as they try to dig their way out of the hole.

Check out my book, Trail to Peril.

Available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback.

How to Plan Your Novel–Scene Design

In “An Easy Way to Outline Your Novel,” I describe a simple process to start organizing a novel where you layout brief descriptions of the story’s scenes into the beginning, middle, and ending sections. When you finish, it’s time to start writing, right? You can, but some other things would be good to know before you start pounding the keyboard.

Structure a scene like the whole novel. Fictional works have similar structure at different scales, sort of like fractal geometry. The story will have a beginning, middle, and end. Likewise, the beginning, middle, and end of the story all have a beginning, middle, and end. Scale it down further to scenes, and we find the same pattern. You can think of a scene as a sort of micro-novel. It has all of the elements of the larger work of which it is a part.

This means you will need more columns in your spreadsheet because there are some other things to think about before you start writing. Here are some of the items in mine.

What do the characters in the scene want?
What is the disaster that occurs to the characters in the scene?
What is the point-of-view?
Where does the scene take place?
What time of the day?
What is the duration of the scene?
What characters are in the scene?
What characters are off-stage?
What is the emotional condition of the characters?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal.

The plan is to discuss all of these. For now, let’s look at the first one–what do the characters want?

Nearly every novel features the hero or protagonist struggling to accomplish a goal. Think of examples like, Clarice trying to find the serial killer in “Silence of the Lambs”, or Paul Atreides seeking revenge against the Emperor and the Harkonnen in “Dune”. Nearly every scene in your novel should likewise have goals for the characters that appear in it. In “Life of Pi” there is a one-sentence chapter/scene where he sings Happy Birthday to his mother. In one poignant sentence that constitutes the whole scene, the author expresses his goal–to be reunited with his family–and the grief he feels at realizing his hopes are fruitless.

The character’s goals in each scene set up the conflict between characters that make a story exciting and show the protagonist’s struggle to accomplish the overriding goal of the whole novel.

Check out my book, “Trail to Peril”. It’s available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Time To Get Back To Work

The holidays were great. Three kids made it to our house for Christmas, including the oldest, who made it back from a deployment to Europe just in time. The fourth is in South Carolina and could not travel due to Navy Covid restrictions, but stayed connected through the magic of technology. It was a great family time, but now it’s time to get back to work, and here are my six writing goals for 2021.

  1. Write 1,000 words per working day. There are 260 working days per year, so 260,000 words total for the year. Writing that counts for this goal includes new novels, short stories, and blog posts.
  2. Read 75 books I have not read before. I usually read a couple of books a week, but some are re-reads.  
  3. Write a short story every two months–6 total for the year.

Lovingly embrace failure.

  1. Lovingly embrace failure. Collect 20 rejection letters from submissions for publication or from literary agents this year. 
  2. Finish the first draft of a new novel this year. I have two that I started and abandoned. It’s time to dust one of them off, re-think it, re-plan it, re-plot it, populate it with some fascinating characters, and then write the first draft.  
  3. Finish the rewrites of two novels I have languishing in the lonely desk drawer of stalled projects. I made pretty good progress on one of them in November and December but got distracted by the holidays and a sudden interest in Python programming. My hope is to get it in shape for publishing by the end of February. The other one is a bigger, messier project that will have to wait until later in the year.

That is my writing plan for the year. One thing I learned from NaNoWriMo is the importance of tracking my daily progress. For that, I have a little notebook. Thanks to this post, I have added 331 words to my total for the day, and I am off to write the other 669.   

Joe Biden is a Plot Goldmine

Current events can be a rich source of plot material. Last year I read a story about a decapitated murder victim that had been left on a judge’s front porch. It turned out to be a “fake news” story, but for me, it became the basis for a novel about a corrupt county judge and a small-town detective.

The combination of Covid-19, Portland riots, and wildfires has also been a rich vein of ideas. I used these calamities to revive a novel I wrote a few years ago. It is a dystopian tale set in Oregon after an EMP attack. I am rewriting it now and resetting the time frame to post-2020 Oregon. The addition of a pandemic, anarchist, and the travail of burned out rural communities will help make the tale more plausible. Covid-19 also figures in a short story about a man hospitalized for the virus and emerges three weeks later to find out he is the victim of a crime that threatens to ruin his reputation.


If you want an excellent example of current events that would help develop great plots, look no further than Joe and Hunter Biden. They are generating more drama than Cecil B. DeMille ever dreamed was possible. The advantage of the Biden drama is that most major news organizations are reluctant to print anything about it. This means that the material will be fresh for your readers.

Current events can be a rich source of plot material.


Here are three ideas to try out.

The rich, privileged son of a former Vice-President ruins his own life, scuttles his father’s presidential ambitions, and jeopardizes the future of an entire great nation with his dissolute, corrupt actions.

The US Vice President leads a corruption scheme to enrich himself, his family, the sitting President, and the President’s presumed successor by selling his influence to hostile foreign nations. It all goes south when the wrong person is elected President. A massive coverup effort ensues. It becomes more and more complicated when the Vice President is unexpectedly nominated by his party for President in the following election.

A ruthless and power-hungry California Senator is wisely rejected by voters in the party’s primaries, and an elderly, semi-senile, former Vice President gets the nomination. The Senator colludes with worried party officials to get her chosen as the Vice Presidential nominee. After the election, they plan to elevate her to the President by exposing her running mate’s mental incompetence.


Those are just a few obvious ideas. I personally like number 2. It is too bad Tom Clancy is not around to write it.

In any event, this illustrates how useful it is to look to current events for plot ideas that can form the basis for a story or provide elements to enrich your tale.

My book — Trail to Peril is available on Amazon.