Breaking Down a Scene

14 Oct

The National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts’ YoungArts Program ( is currently accepting applications from American high school seniors for next year’s program, but the deadline is October 15. Check it out if you’re eligible!


I’m a visual learner and lately, I’ve been thinking about how that affects how I plan out and write projects. We’ve talked about outlining a couple times on the blog so far: who uses it, how they do it, and what works for each of us. One thing I do, which might seem a bit odd, is think of difficult scenes in terms of comic panels.

I’ve always read comics (I’m currently reading at least ten web comics and have a decent graphic novel collection). That’s super nerdy, I know, but it helps me when it comes to figuring out how to write scenes where I have a lot going on. You might think a webcomic is such a different form of media that there isn’t much a novelist can learn from them, but you can always learn something new from different forms of storytelling. Thinking of your narrative in terms of comic panels can help you visualize the setting and blocking for the characters in a scene. It forces you to think of where everything is in relation to everything else, and what’s important. You can’t include everything so you have to find the major actions to focus on. It’s like mental storyboarding.

This page from The Meek is a great example:

It starts with a noise on the other side of the room, focuses in on the source, gives us the character’s reaction, and then throws in a surprise (the other character who’s been out of sight for a while). Thinking of the scene in snippets like this makes you think about how the characters move through space and helps keep track of them. You don’t want them running all over the place, tripping over each other and occasionally pulling some kind of unintentional quantum trick and appearing in two places at once. That would be okay if you were writing about The Flash, not Clumsy Sidekick A.

In order to help me figure out the set up of action scenes (where I do this the most), I ask myself things like: Where’s everyone who is important? What are they doing? Is there any way they might interfere with the main action? Do I want them out of sight and out of mind? Since I’ve been doing this I’ve stopped loosing my secondary characters.

The other major area where this has helped, has been in deciding what parts of the setting to describe. Pictures can accomplish this much faster than descriptions, but most artists don’t want to sit and draw every single minute detail of the background. They choose what to draw, and everything serves a purpose. You don’t want to bog the reader down with pages of dense description so, like the artist, you have to decide what is most salient to the mood and the plot and what can convey the most information about the setting.

I’m not saying this will work for everyone, but give it a shot. Trying breaking a tough scene down into panels, understanding what is most important to get across to the reader, and then putting it all back together with prose. I’d love to know if anyone else writes this way, or if you all just think I’m crazy!


Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently querying. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blogย here or follow her onย Twitter.

19 Responses to “Breaking Down a Scene”

  1. authorguy October 14, 2010 at 5:41 AM #

    While I do appreciate a good comic, I tend to think of my books in movie terms. I guess I need the characters to be in motion.

    Definitely not crazy. Unless we all are.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 4:14 PM #

      most of the time I do think of books in terms of movies, sometimes though I just need everything to pause.

  2. rozmorris October 14, 2010 at 5:58 AM #

    I dont think you’re crazy at all! I’ve often wondered about doing this – particularly as my husband has been writing a graphic novel and the house is littered with notes as he works out scenes. As you say, it helps the writer focus on the dramatic points of a scene – the hoise, the character whirling around and saying ‘what the-‘, the action, the reaction. I love it!

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 4:58 PM #

      it’s so cool that your husband it writing a graphic novel! and i’m glad you know what i’m talking about ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Savannah J. Foley October 14, 2010 at 8:30 AM #

    What a great unique angle, Jenn! I’m very much a visual learner as well… all my novels that have prematurely died have been because I couldn’t envision the world properly.

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 4:59 PM #

      Thanks, Sav. I have the same problem, if I get to a point where I can’t visualize what happens next I get stuck

  4. Jess October 14, 2010 at 9:22 AM #

    I’m *not* a visual person, which is why I’ll probably try this when I have an action scene to write next. I *can’t* imagine/see where everyone is, so putting it down will definitely help me keep everything straight – and plausible! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 5:01 PM #

      I hope it works for you, Jess, ๐Ÿ™‚ It gets annoying trying to keep track of everyone

  5. Kat Zhang October 14, 2010 at 10:00 AM #

    Really cool idea, Jenn! As a kid, I went through a stint of wanting to draw a webcomic…before realizing that a) It would be WAY too much work b) I wasn’t good enough of an artist anyway

    Lol. But you’re right–comics really help you envision the “quiet moments” of a scene. When I write, I sometimes see my scenes play out like movies, but more often, I see them as a series of snapshots.

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 5:07 PM #

      Thanks, Kat! I wanted to draw a comic too and had the same realizations. Snapshots is another good way to describe it ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Ella October 14, 2010 at 10:52 AM #

    Hey! Someone else who reads the Meek. You have good taste, Jenn. ๐Ÿ˜›

    And comics are a form of storytelling, as well, so this is a pretty interesting way to think of outlining.

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 5:08 PM #

      Thanks, Ella, I love that comic!

  7. McQuinn October 14, 2010 at 2:30 PM #

    I’ve actually done this! Back in undergrad, our Intro to Creative Writing prof. made us write a comic, and then convert the comic to a short story. Awesome results. Everyone should definitely give this a try.

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 5:10 PM #

      That’s so cool!! And I’m glad it worked out for you ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. โ€ข October 14, 2010 at 4:28 PM #

    “Iโ€™ve always read comics (Iโ€™m currently reading at least ten web comics and have a decent graphic novel collection). Thatโ€™s super nerdy, I know…”

    You sound almost defensive. Please don’t! We’re all here because we love reading and writing. I’m tired of defending genres I love to read and write because others mock stereotypes from their high horses, and I hope you don’t feel compelled to do the same.

    • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 5:06 PM #

      aw I didn’t mean to sound defensive, joking can be hard to get across, I was trying to keep the tone light. But I know what you mean about being tired of defending genres other people sneer at, I have had to do that plenty

      • โ€ข October 14, 2010 at 5:09 PM #

        I was just about to write that I sounded waaaaay too overwrought there! Classic “it’s not you, it’s me” moment. That one line just kinda jumped out at me.

        On the rest of the post – I love it. It’s especially interesting given that I hear more and more about comic book adaptations of novels these days. Might just be that I’m listening more than that there’s an increase, though.

        • jenn fitzgerald October 14, 2010 at 5:13 PM #

          lol! and, i think there are a ton more comic book adaptations of novels now, because the whole graphics novel market has been expanding so people are jumping on the chance to dip into both

  9. Corina October 15, 2010 at 11:18 AM #

    I have to say that’s a really interesting way of looking at it. I tend to find that, because I’m a media student, whenever I write action scenes, or even just really emotional ones, I see it in my head like it would appear on screen. I can’t exactly see the character’s faces clearly, but I can see where they all are, what they’re doing, who’s saying what and stuff like that. That’s why I find I tend to get bogged down in dialogue and movement, and I leave out stuff about the setting, or even about the character’s thoughts and feelings, because I’m too focused on what’s happening, rather than what’s there, if that makes sense. But then, at the same time, I always find that when I think about it in terms of a film, it generally turns out so much more exciting or emotive than it does otherwise, even if it is missing some stuff that I have to put in later.

    That’s my contribution for today! Haha.
    That was a really good post though. I’ve never really thought about how I go about mapping out scenes and stuff until you posted that (y)

    Corina ๐Ÿ™‚

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