Putting the Scene to Work

by Chris McMahon

Working away on the plot for the third book in the Jakirian Cycle, Sorcerer, I have been coming to grips with a  familiar phenomenon. There are so many elements to the plot, and I have been having so much fun exploring them, that the number of potential characters and storylines has exploded.

Now – did I ever tell you about my shed? Thankfully, my current house does not have one. But when I had to move from my last house, I had to take an insane amount of material to the dump. Things that could variously be described as ‘junk’ but that I could not bear to throw away. You never know when that piece of wood, that metal offcut might come in handy. I’m not sure if it’s just me – or having grown up with parents who grew up in the Depression (yes that one – I’m the youngest of a big family), but I hate wasting anything. My Dad used to straighten old nails, and screws were liquid gold. Thankfully I have forced myself out of the habit.

Anyway – back to plots. Now that I have been brainstorming for a few months and getting my head back into the Yos universe, I have a whole swag of ideas. And I love them all. What to do? I could probably fill four books.

I plan to handle this two ways.

One: Be ruthless. Cut the storyline down to its essential arcs. That is going to take some work and some good old-fashioned storyboarding. I am the total reverse of Kate – the story has to be finished down to details in my mind before I start. In fact I can’t start until I reach this point.

Two: Put the scenes to work. This is good storytelling technique in any case, but for me this has become essential. To have a snowball’s chance in Hell of squeezing in the good portion of my ideas, I am going to have to design each scene to achieve two or three things at the same time – to advance at least two separate arcs and provide crucial setting ideas as well as ‘seeding’ for mystery all at once. This is one of the reasons that I have to plot – there is no way I can achieve this off the cuff (well unless I am really lucky).

How do you plot? Do you storyboard – i.e. lay out all the scenes in a physical format where you can move them around and see how they relate to each other?

How do you put your scenes to work?


  1. My first published works were kind of a write-as-you-go kind of thing. Each morning I would arise with the next chapter pretty much complete in my head and then I would write it down. I often did not know where my character was going. Since it was an exploratory tale (girl gets transported back in time and just had to go with it until she gets home), this method of writing worked well for me. The third book is a different story, having to weave a fictional character into a past that has already been written and interacting with real characters from that time. I need that time line first and foremost before I can write many of the scenes.

    I have also tried writing a few mysteries. Those, I think, definitely need some kind of plot line planned out in advance. Unfortunately, I have the first few chapters done, but I’m having trouble plotting out the sequence of events and figuring out where to put the clues, how many clues to give, and what misinformation I should seed along the way. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to write mysteries!

    1. Many of my shorts, particularly the early ones, were pretty much off the cuff. It’s the longer work where I derail badly without a plot.

      I work the plot for quite a while electronically, then I go old school and write it out on a series of A3 sheets in pencil – one little box per scene. It really helps me to be able to visualise the whole book that way – really helps with sequencing. The classic method is little squares of carboard for each scene on an actual noticeboard – again so they can all be moved around.

      Good luck with the mysteries!

  2. I’m much more a pantser than a plotter, but at some point in every book (generally about the second or third edit. Eep!) I have to print out the first paragraph of each scene and physically lay them out and think about what order they need to come in, and what’s missing, both in terms of scenes and things within the scenes that are either too subdued or missing altogether. Some times it’s just a matter of “I’ve left this group of characters out there for too long. The reader will have forgotten them.” And some times, with the scenes all laid out there I can see a progression of, for instance character development that I’ve neglected. “If this guy’s realized by the end that he’s on the wrong side, he’d better start off with a snotty attitude and get it gradually knocked out of him.”

    1. Hi, Pam. The one thing I find so interesting about writing is how everyone approaches it from a different angle. Despite this, no matter where we start, we all have to end up in the same place! We all need a good story with a plot that hangs together. As far as I can tell, Pantsers have a lot of fun first drafting – for me it’s agony – like getting teeth pulled hour after hour. No wondeer I want to short it by getting the story sorted first!

      1. Yep. That first draft’s the fun part. It’s interesting though, how we both have to physically shove scenes around to get the plot lined up. I used to think editting was the worst thing ever. But a long frustrating series of sessions with what started out a floppy and disinteresting novella finally jelled in a really nice tight short story. I learned a lot (cursed the readers a lot, too), and started using those new skills on my novel editing. Now it’s like I can see it all as a whole and watch it slip into gear when I’ve got it arranged right.

  3. Hi Chris,

    I’m a an extreme pantser. And I think that’s okay with shorts and with shorter works. It gets harder with longer manuscripts. My fave piece is one where I had absolutely no clue how to end it at all. In fact, I thought at one point I’d have to just ditch it, because there was no clear way to proceed.

    Then, I was sitting one night, all alone watching the Wizard of Oz (I do that kind of thing), and the perfect ending slapped he in the face.

    Now it’s my best story and sold!

    1. Hi, Chris. Sounds like that worked out well. It’s like a said – we all have end up in the same place – one way or another we have to have story that hangs together. Pantsers just happen to write their way through it all.

      Congrats on the sale! My own record with short stories has be woeful over the last few years. I’ve pretty much given up writing them.

      Chris McMahon


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