Writing a Tough Scene

Some scenes flow out of us and almost write themselves, but we all run into ones that stop us cold. Like I mentioned in my writer’s block post, action scenes sometimes stopped me from writing for an entire week. I just couldn’t wrap my head around exactly what needed to happen. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. The bottom line is that a scene is just characters – in a place – doing things – to reach a goal. Here’s how I work my way through the tough ones.

how i write through a difficult or confusing scene

I’m not always a fan of mind maps, because my thought process is rigid and linear, but in this instance, they come in handy. When I get stuck on a scene, I drag out this old thing and fill in all the information I can come up with.

Here’s a copy of the mind map – it’s saved in FreeMind format, OPML that can be used in outline form, and PDF. 


Figure out the main players in your scene, then start on the right and work your way down.


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Get yourself grounded in the scene. Where are the characters? In a kitchen, a dark alleyway, a cabin on a cruise ship? Put that in the location branch.

What’s around them? List items and those items’ attributes. Anything that pops into your head. You won’t be using all of the descriptions in your scene. This is to get you grounded in the space. You can pick out the ones you need to include later. Once you’re done here, move on to the purpose of the scene.


Every scene in your story has a reason for being there. Is it a transition scene to get your characters from one mindset to another? For them to learn something about their situation?

Write down how it moves the plot forward and what your main character is getting out of it. Knowledge, an item, a tool, something. Not every scene needs to be a huge revelation–it could be just to ratchet up the tension, but every scene should add something.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 11.31.41 AM


Speaking of tension, that’s next. In a story, two things are at odds… that’s what tension is. The tension doesn’t have to be between the characters in this particular scene. It can come from an outside force that they are working together to defeat. Either way, it has to be there. Scenes without tension are dull.

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Open and End

Now it’s time to move on to the left side of the map. What characters are in the opening of the scene? What are they doing? Write that in the Opening branch.

Where do you want them to end up at the end of the scene? What will best serve the purpose of the scene you typed in a few minutes ago. Think of the last paragraph of the scene…

  • Who storms out?
  • Who wanders in?
  • Who asks the question that makes everyone’s mouth drop open?
  • Who gets hurt?
  • Who dies?
  • Do they escape from the bad guys?
  • Do they run into the bad guys?

Where will your characters be when the scene is over? Obviously, the end of a scene doesn’t have to be that dramatic, but it should end in something that makes the reader want to keep going. Think of who’s walking out of this scene and what they need to have done or learned. Write that in the Ending branch.

Then comes the middle. List the actions and/or dialogue that will take the character(s) from the Open to the Close. You don’t need details yet! Just list. Don’t worry about describing anything, being fancy, or getting the punctuation right. None of that matters when you’re brainstorming. You just need the barebones, step-by-step list.

Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 11.54.37 AM

After you’ve brainstormed that and have a complete list in chronological order, there’s nothing left to do but write the scene. Take the location, sprinkle in surroundings and senses, and get your characters where they need to go so you can get back to writing.



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