Shortcut to the Scene

The exercise from my book NOVEL SHORTCUTS that I found the most useful was Shortcut to the Scene. Using it I found I could write scenes about three times faster and yet the end result needed less rewriting. So, in case some of you Nanowrimonians would like to try it, here is the exercise.



First you write down what needs to happen in the scene: the action, the goal, the conflict. You don’t need to go into a lot of detail. Put down the essentials. Leave yourself space to be creative. One paragraph is usually fine, even if the scene will be several pages long.


Sketch out your best guess about what your characters need to say to each other in the scene. Don’t bother with “he said” and “she said” – just list the lines.


Set a timer and write as fast as you can about the scene for ten minutes. This is your Heartstorm. Don’t over think it. Don’t think at all. Feel the scene, the emotions, the sensations, the wonder. Don’t judge what comes out of you. Be bold and swift. Think of the colors, tastes, scents, textures, sounds. Think of the strangest details and how they affect the characters. What are the characters thinking or feeling that they aren’t saying? Let your mind go anywhere and everywhere, and write as fast as you can. When you’re done, read it back and bold your favorite words and phrases, your best ideas, so they pop out of the page.


Print out the three steps of this exercise with the “what needs to happen” paragraph in regular type at the top, the “projected dialogue” in the middle in bold, and the “ten-minute Heartstorm” material in italics at the bottom. Having the three sections look different from each other makes them easier to track visually. If possible, you want all three to fit on one page so it’s easy to see when you set it next to your keyboard and write the actual scene.

It will look sort of like this mini “faux” version:

What needs to happen: Margaret shows up and confronts George as he’s playing pool. She notices he’s turning into a werewolf. She pretends not to. He also pretends nothing’s wrong.


M -What’s all this I hear about you firing the butler?

G – Don’t be daft. He quit. I’m sure he left a note.

M – What’s wrong with your face?

G – What’s that, dear?

M – Just a trick of the light. I think I’ll go see if I can find that note.

Heartstorm: It’s all way too civilized. He hums. She paces in the doorway, if that’s possible. Tiny feet in four inch heels. He never misses a shot even when his knuckles begin to darken with coarse hair and his nails yellow and curve. She sniffs, the scent of damp dog slipping into the room. She watches him in profile as he lines up a shot and sees the tip of his ear lift through his curls, his five o’clock shadow thicken into fur along his jaw.

For me, this page acts as a menu. I order something from one of the three parts to open the scene. It might be a simple piece of action from part one, then the first line of dialogue, then some bit of reflection or description touched on in my Heartstorm.

I think this exercise works for me because it ensures that I won’t be all in my left brain—organized but lacking magic/emotion/beauty—and not all in my right brain—waxing poetic but all over the place. When I use this exercise (which is almost always now) I know I already have set down some of both sides of my brain to reference while I compose the scene. And it isn’t someone else’s advice or rules lying there beside my computer, needing to be translated in order to be useful—it’s all me.

And here’s to you and your next scene and your word count for the day!


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