How to Write a Scene When You Can’t Picture Everything

A shattered vase lies on the floor. Once beautiful pieces are now sharp and dangerous. The barefooted woman dares not move. 

When writing a story, you don’t need to have the whole scene figured out. To begin, start with an image, something that can ground your reader in a physical place: a shattered vase on the floor. Set the tone: Beautiful. Sharp. Dangerous. Finally, ask a question: Is the barefooted woman okay? 

From that point on, you have everything you need to keep going. You have a space to work in, a tone to follow, and a question to answer. 

There are two types of writers: Plotters and Pantsers. 

Plotters are writers who create a plan before starting. They have an outline, a blueprint, a set of characters, and a clear ending to reach. Plotters are architects. They want to know where every nail fits. Being a Plotter is great. They have a clear direction for their stories and tend to be less burdened by writer’s block. 

Pantsers, on the other hand, are those who write by the seat of their pants. Because there is no plan for the Pantsers to follow they can take their characters in any direction and with this flexibility, they encounter creative surprises and unexpected revelations. 

I find that a balance of both can be the most beneficial. These are the Plantsers. Someone who has an outline to get unstuck, while embracing surprises. 

So, while I may have an outline to tell me what to start writing about, how to actually start the scene is open to possibilities. Sometimes, I’ll have a scene that appears clearly in my head. I could close my eyes, do a three-sixty, and see every detail. All I have to do is pick a place — a description of the furniture, a smell in the air, a sound coming from the floor below — the choice is up to me. 

Other times, the scene is unclear. I know I need the characters to interact in this way to get the plot to the point where I need it to go, but the setting, the tone, the atmosphere, the lighting, the fragrance of the season, all that is unclear. If none of those details are coming to the surface, don’t worry. Focus on the one thing you see, because all you need is one thing to start. It could be the clenching of a character’s fist. Or it could be the words “I hate you!” coming from a character’s mouth. Whatever’s the first image you have, go with it. 

Once you have that first image that’s where the writing fun begins. Like a seed, your story will grow roots below, sprout upward, and blossom out. Your first image will put you on course to creating the tone. Fist clenched. “I Hate You!” This story is starting in an angry place and the question sparks: Who’s fighting? 

No matter how much you prepare, there will always come a scene where the details may be a bit blurry or the character’s motivations aren’t completely clear. What you do then is find that image. This image can be as small as a crack on the floor or as big as a collapsing star. Once you focus on a singular point, your imagination can expand out from there.

It’s hard to translate what seems so picture-perfect in our brain onto paper. But hey — we might not need to. To do so may hurt our story. Even if a Plotter has every detail figured out, putting it all in words can lead to a story being unnecessarily weighed down. That’s why I like to blur the focus of my imagination as I start writing. I know enough to know where I need to take the story, but how I get there, what details of the scene I choose to focus on, that’ll only become clear as I write. 

The image, the tone, and a question to be answered, everything else will surprise you. 

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