November 20, 2012

The Point of a Scene: Thinking in Concepts

Pencil connected to a light bulb with text: How Detailed Do Our Ideas Need to Be?

A couple of months ago, I read a blog post that forever changed how I approached drafting scenes. That probably sounds melodramatic, but it’s true.

We’ve often talked about the differences between plotters and pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants), and how as a die-hard-and-happy-about-it pantser, I don’t want to plot or outline or come up with too many details for my story before I get it on the page. However, my experience with the fast-drafting technique of word sprints proved that I write faster when I have some idea of where a scene is going.

Hmm, is anyone else sensing a conflict between those two goals? My struggle to reconcile the two resulted in my Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story workshop.

I had a vague understanding of how I managed that balancing act, but I didn’t know how to explain it to others for the workshop. Enter the-blog-post-that-changed-my-thought-process: What a Concept! Plotting Your Novel Conceptually by one of my favorite bloggers and people in the world, Janice Hardy:

“Thinking about a story conceptually allows me to brainstorm what I want to have happen without worrying about the details. Things like, I know I want a major reveal and surprise at the mid-point. I know I want X to happen in the climax. Whatever the protagonist does at the climax of act one will come back to bite them in the all-is-lost-moment at the end of act two. I can shape the flow of the story even though I don’t know exactly how it will go. Conceptually, I know how I want it to turn out.”

Thinking in concepts. This is the link between pantsing—>planning—>plotting. This is what helps us think in the big picture of what we want to accomplish with a scene. This allows us to have some idea, some goal, to write toward, even when we’re pantsing.

My NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) project has brought this issue to the forefront. I’d expected a confrontation between the heroine and her family to be one of the “pinch points,” but a complication I hadn’t seen coming at all (and I do mean that literally, I didn’t know it was going to happen until I typed it) ended up in the pinch point slot.

Uh-oh. Just because I’m a pantser doesn’t mean my perfectionist inner editor is silent while I’m drafting, and boy, did I hear angst-filled complaints throughout that section. But I’ve learned to trust my muse, so I ran with the scene.

Then I stepped back and thought about what I’d intended to accomplish with the original family confrontation scene. Guess what? This new scene accomplishes the same high-level goal: the heroine feels attacked, insecure, and lonely. A perfect time for the hero to step up, don’t you think? *wink*

For me, thinking about concepts, about the big picture, about what I want to accomplish with a scene, is all the planning/plotting I want to do in advance. But whether we’re plotters or pantsers or something in between, everyone can benefit from thinking in concepts. As Janice (a plotter) explains, these benefits include:

“I’m not locking onto any one particular detail that might prevent me from coming up with a better idea. It also helps me stay focused on the type of plot event I want, not just a scene that feels cool but might not serve the story I want to tell…

Next time you’re plotting, try looking conceptually at how you want the story to unfold. Think about:

    • The types of events you want to happen at key points
    • When surprises are revealed
    • What plot points you want to connect or build off of
    • What events will raise the stakes and where they’ll fall
    • Where you want the reader to feel certain emotions”

I love it! I take this same attitude with me when I fill out beat sheets. I don’t worry about the details. I might know that something is going to trigger a turning point but not have the slightest clue what that trigger is until I get there.

Instead, I think about what I want to accomplish at that point, or about the type of scene I want. Am I trying to create a certain mood, reach an emotional turning point, or force a do-or-die choice? These clues to the big picture are more important to my ability to write a scene than knowing the specifics of how I’ll make it work.

So the next time you’re stuck on a scene, or worry that you’re being led down an irrelevant plot point, step back. Figure out—at the conceptual level—what you want to accomplish at that point in the story. Maybe you’ll realize you need to gag your characters. Maybe you’ll realize you were missing a goal or transition. Or maybe you’ll realize your muse came up with a better idea without telling you. *smile*

Do you think in concepts, specifics, or both? Do you struggle with knowing the point of a scene? Do you agree that thinking in concepts can help? Have you ever written a scene that accomplished the same goal but was better than the one you’d planned? Do you let your muse lead you down potentially irrelevant paths with the hope that he/she has a plan?

P.S. It’s the time of year to nominate your favorite writing blog for the annual Top 10 Blogs for Writers Contest by Write to Done. Most of those who blog do it because we love helping others and making a difference in our readers’ lives, so please share the love and nominate your favorite writing blog to show your appreciation. I’m nominating Janice Hardy’s blog. Who are you nominating?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Taurean Watkins

Great post, Jami. I’ll definitely be going through this after Nano/Thanksgiving is over, and like you, I nominated Janice Hardy’s blog.

It was SO hard to choose between Janice’s blog, yours,
and Jody Hedlund’s blog (

I would’ve nominated all three of you if I could.

(Next year will be even HARDER since I follow so many great blogs regularly now, but I hope Janice wins so I can vote for your or Jody next)

Annie Neugebauer

Jami, this is a wonderful post! I tend to think in concepts during plotting, details during drafting, and back to concepts during revisions. All of this without *really* thinking about it in these terms. I have a feeling allowing some of the concept-geared thought in during drafting might save me some revisions down the line, so I will definitely be trying that during my next project. Thanks for the tip!


I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s not so much pantsers (no plot) vs plotters (have a plot) as it is just different styles of planning.

You need a motivation, an idea, and a problem. Whether those are instinctive things that you draw from the wellspring of your subconscious before or during the act of writing, it still happens.

You need a plan, not a great plan, not a perfect plan, just a plan.

Chihuahua Zero

Thinking in concepts…I should try doing that when going for the rest of my NaNoWriMo project, although I’m not sure what to do since I’m almost at 40k and the midpoint hasn’t even been crossed…unless I make one of the earlier scenes that. I’ll have to see once I get to it.

I nominated Joe Bunting of The Write Practice.


This is why I like having the cover copy if not the logline drafted before I start writing a book—it gives me a rough map of where I’m headed, tone-wise, mood-wise, content-wise, etc. 🙂

And it’s funny; I hadn’t thought of it in these terms, but the general type of outline that (sometimes) works for me could be interpreted as this type, though it’s more along the lines of jotting down actual major events/emotions/character discoveries, rather than identifying them as plot points.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Thinking in abstract concepts being the bridge between pantsing and plotting…I like this! 😀 I do agree with you that it helps to have some kind of idea what general thing you’re aiming for. E.g. I had this novel where all I knew was that the two protagonists (two 7 year olds!) will go through a series of adventures together and in the end become best friends–and that the end scene would be of them hugging. (Yeah, I like sweet stuff. ^^) As this novel was 400+ pages, it definitely helped me to have this vague goal to “shape” my efforts (or shape my pantsing), as Janice Hardy worded it. My pantsing would probably be quite blind and confused if I didn’t have such an abstract end point in my head. However, in this Nanowrimo novel I’m writing, I kind of have a problem. The protagonist is this little boy who is extremely antisocial and has no friends. Readers would EXPECT him to make some friends or at least one good friend by the end of the novel. HOWEVER, I just don’t want him to make any friends! Hehe yeah, I’m cruel. But it’s more like–it’s highly unlikely that my protagonist will break out of his preference to be separated from people, and I kind of like how he’s so independent and friendless. He’s so friendless, yet he really is perfectly happy about it! So I think that’s very cool and special so I don’t want him to change. But…  — Read More »


Then don’t change the character by giving him friends, being an absolute loner and being happy with it is only one side of his character…

The reporter thing? Absolutely. I once envisioned a scene where the main character of a bright shiny idea barged in on my shower (He’s not that bright.) and shouting, “I finally know how to start my story!” while I suppress a scream (Grandma would really think I’m crazy). This is after half an hour of thinking up of how to thinking a hook for the reader to get engaged.


I really like your idea Jami of basing the plot on concepts, on what we hope to achieve at certain points or in specific scenes. Like you I find my plans, if I made any, often change in the writing, usually taking me completely by surprise. Actually I am beginning to suspect that I’m more of a pantser than a plotter and boy is this surprising me! NaNoWriMo is teaching me so much! But having stated my pull to pantsing I shall always attempt some level of plotting. I like to know that I have a structure to turn to when the well temporarily dries up. The plot acts for me as a kind of starting point but I don’t hold myself to it format at all. This does mean lots of outline re-writes throughout the first draft!!

Teresa Robeson

I think you explained the idea beautifully in the Lost Your Pants class! That reminds me, I need to review the class notes again and then take you up on emailing you about my consultation prize (thank you SOOO much again)!


I’m one of those evil, cackling plotters, and during the first draft I find it necessary to plot out all the bits of conflict and key points down to the scene level.

But sometimes this seems to me like a security blanket — the scene will go other places, the character will do something I hadn’t predicted, but the planning is the only way I can tap into that level of unpredictability. Sounds backward, but it helps me for some reason to “know” exactly what’s happening even if it doesn’t happen at all.

This thinking in concepts is a good idea. I noticed you linked to Storyfix about the pinch points. Larry Brooks would probably say it doesn’t matter how many go-overs you have to do before you really *get* your story, as long as you get the craft concepts beneath it.

Nancy S. Thompson

That’s my initial step when I craft a story. I not down notes in my phone on what the scene is about. Then, later when I’m outlining, I flesh it out a little bit more, add more detail & action. That sets me up for the actual writing. So I guess writing my first draft is a 3-step process. Works for me!

Happy Thanksgiving!


[…] Starting a new project is great—until we have to decide where to actually start the story. Chuck Wendig reminds us that stories should never begin at the beginning. Christina Lee lets us know why tension in a story matters big time, while Martina Boone talks about using the ticking clock to create suspense. And even a pantser can use a little guidance on where to go next—Jami Gold on thinking in concepts rather than details. […]


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