Written by Sarah Yoon

oIpwxeeSPy1cnwYpqJ1w_Dufer Collateral testDuring November, few writers have time for nuanced prose. You race against time to meet your daily goals, which means simultaneously progressing your plot and racking up words.

Novel writing is a complex balance of macro and micro work. It forces you to plan out the big picture as the story arcs from exposition to resolution, while treating every paragraph with care. Each scene is a distinct unit that pushes the plot forward and brings complex emotions into play. Character arcs rise and fall, requiring intense attention to detail.

For some, NaNoWriMo speed means that your scenes become more and more skeletal as you push through the plot. And for others, it means that your scenes bloat so much that nothing really happens. No matter what side of the spectrum you fall into, you must have clear goals in mind if you want to have a story worth editing when the month is over. To balance your story, focus on 5 scene essentials:

  1. Clear Direction

Before starting the scene, note where your characters are and where they need to end up. With a clear goal in mind, you’ll have a framework to structure your writing and give the scene purpose. If you err toward bloated wordiness, this will help you progress methodically through the story. But if you’re on the skeletal side, guess at a word count for the scene–between 1,000 and 3,000–and push yourself to fill it out. It’s okay to take your time and add detail.

  1. Conflict

Just as conflict drives the plot, scenes thrive on discord. It can be dramatic and confrontational or deep and silent. Consider emotional barriers and lifelong inhibitions. You can opt for the melodramatic and communicate friction through arguments or chases, but a simple description of how the character interacts with a room or a person can communicate fathoms.

  1. Action

When characters deal with conflict, they must interact with each other and their surroundings. Give your character literal forward momentum, as he pushes against the wind and races against time, and you’ll find your words flowing more easily. This also includes body language, which is a good way to show an emotional state without telling your reader, “he felt exuberant.”

  1. Description

Before you lose your readers to the void of action sans context, dress the scene and help them visualize the space. Even if you don’t keep all of the details later, this will help you have a better understanding of your world. Take inventory of your character’s resources and mention objects that might be useful later.

  1. Dialogue

Conversations give your characters the space to hash out difficulty without you worrying about subtleties within your prose. For a good argument, discussion or explanation, first list what each character wants to communicate, what they’re paying attention to (or distracted by!) and what speech patterns they have. Don’t forget to add action and description throughout the dialogue.


When you incorporate each of these elements into your prose, you’ll have full scenes that communicate enough for the plot to progress smoothly. Once you set your goal, the description, dialogue, conflict and action can open venues for further exploration. These threads of thought will help if you get stuck somewhere along the road and direct you to a new path.

 Want to read more? See “Hitting that Word Count” or “Cut Back on Over Commitment for NaNoWriMo Success”!