Scene Craft 3: You Need Two Brains to Write a Scene

Sat Aug 11 2018

Part 1 and part 2 of this series talked a lot about what scenes are, what they need, and how they work. That information is useful and even necessary, but does not address the actual how of writing scenes that:

In this concluding installment of the series, we're going to fix that by looking at the mental process of taking your knowledge of what you want the scene to be and discovering what words to actually write.

Scene writing requires two brains

Of course, I do not mean two actual brains crammed inside your one skull. But I don't mean the left-brain/right-brain duality we hear about so often.

Rather, I mean that writing scenes requires the dual efforts of your organizer brain and your experiencer brain.

Meet your organizer brain

Your organizer brain lives in the world of facts and information. This is the part of your mind that keeps track of the knowledge you already have about what you want the scene to be. This is the brain that knows where and when the scene must take place, who's there, what's supposed to happen, what deal is supposed to be negotiated. In short, this brain knows where the scene is supposed to start and end and roughly how it will make that journey.

Organizer brains tend to want to cut to the chase. They're not interested in frilly details. Novels written solely by organizer brains tend to be heavily oriented towards summaries (i.e. telling) rather than vivid, engaging writing (showing), as explored in the recent show, don't tell series on this blog.

Meet your experiencer brain

Your experiencer brain lives in the world of imagination and the senses. It is the tactile, sensual part of your mind that cares about sights and sounds, smells, the texture of the bark on the trees and the soft crunch of pine needles underfoot. This is the brain that evokes the experience of being in a place, doing things or watching things happen.

Experiencer brains want to linger, savoring every bit of juice a scene or even just a moment has to offer. Novels written solely by experiencer brains tend to be richly evocative, yet terribly slowly-paced and without much of a coherent storyline.

Writing scenes

Fortunately, both brains' strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly. If you can engage both brains while you write, keeping their relative contributions balanced, you will create scenes that achieve the four bullet-points listed at the top of this article.

Organizer brain directs the scene, telling experiencer brain what's going on, transitioning from one moment to the next, being mindful of everything the scene needs both structurally and in terms of content. Experiencer brain evokes the sights and sounds of being in that scene and watching everything your organizer brain says should be happening. You-the-writer then put simply put those imaginings into words.

As Experiencer does its job, it will run into vague spots where Organizer's notes didn't have enough information. It can then pose those questions for Organizer to make a decision about. As Experiencer gets carried away with details, Organizer can rein it in and keep everything on track.

The two brains go back and forth, taking turns directing and imagining, until the scene is concluded.

Two brains in action

The best way I know of explaining how that process actually works is to present an example of writing a scene, as a dialogue between these two brains.

I'll use the example from last week, a group of people going into the woods on some sort of escapade. In this dialogue, Organizer is on the left, while Experiencer is on the right.

Ok, let's get this scene started. Addie arrives at the turn-out on the road, with Sean and Emily. It's pretty late in the evening. Ok, go.

Right. So, I'm seeing a dusty road--wait, is it dusty? You didn't tell me whether it was paved or not.

Uh, better be paved. Otherwise, it would be weird that Addie has been here before and knows where to pull over.

Got it. Paved road in the middle of the woods at night. How about this:

Addie pulled off the pavement, gravel crunching under his tires as he parked beside the road. His headlights illuminated the rough brown trunks of towering pines for a moment before he turned off the car. Sean and Emily piled out after him, the woods seeming to swallow the sound of the slamming car doors.

The forest's dense canopy blocked the faint light of the stars, filling the dark space beneath with the spicy scent of pitch. "Ok," Sean asked, "which way?"

Good. I like the bit about the stars. It's dark, so let's make this harder because nobody thought to bring a flashlight. Later it'll get pretty cold, so give me some foreshadowing of that as a looming problem. And we need to get them moving into the woods towards where Addie saw the guy with the duffel bag.

Dark and cold. Ok. I'm seeing maybe some shivering for the cold thing. But you know what, if I was there, I would totally use my phone for some light, even though I doubt it would help all that much.

Addie peered into the trees, looking this way and that, unable to see more than a few yards. After some thought, he pointed and said, "That way. I'm pretty sure."

Emily shivered, rubbing her bare arms with her hands. "Are you sure? And did anybody bring a flashlight?"

Addie shook his head, while Sean said, "Hold on," and reached into his pocket. In a moment, he held up his phone, flashlight engaged. The tiny bulb shone like a miniature star, but did little to illuminate their surroundings.

"Well, better than nothing," Sean said. "You guys save your phones. I don't have a whole lot of battery left. Ok, Ad, lead on."

Nice. Ok, now give me some general wandering in the woods stuff, so that it sounds like around half an hour has passed, and then have them see something sticking out from behind a tree.

What is it?

No spoilers. I'll tell you when they get there. Now, get busy doing your thing.

Fine. So, crunchy junk underfoot. Maybe some creepy wind in the trees. Animal sounds. And if Sean has the light but Addie is leading, then he'll be casting big shadows in front of himself. A half hour is a while, though. I'd be wondering if Addie knows where he's going. Some bickering is sure to follow.

Addie picked his way forward, his feet crackling softly on the forest's bed of dry pine needles. Sean followed, holding the light up high, with Emily behind. Addie's shadow swung wildly left and right as they crept slowly between the trees.

"Keep your eyes peeled for anything that looks like a duffel bag," Addie said.

"Or footprints," Emily added.

They made slow progress, watching both for clues and for errant sticks waiting to catch their feet. Night breezes rustled the roof of pine needles above them. From time to time they stopped, froze, at some scuttling noise in the distance.

"Squirrels?" Sean ventured.

"I d-don't think so," Emily said, her teeth chattering slightly. "They aren't n-n-nocturnal."

"Oh, relax," said Addie, "Whatever it is, it's more afraid of us than we are of it."

"Yeah, I'm not so sure about that," Sean replied. "Are there bears around--"

Hold up. We don't need a digression about the indigenous wildlife. That's not what the scene is about. Lose the bears, and let's move on with the bickering. That sounded good.

Sigh. Aye aye, cap'n.

"Yeah, I'm not so sure about that," Sean replied. "Are there bears around--Look, Ad, are you sure you know where you're going? We could wander around here all night, and Emily's freezing. Maybe we should just go--"

Emily grabbed his arm and pointed. "Wait! What's that? Is that something, behind that big tree?"

"Which one?" Addie asked.

She stepped forward. "Hold the light up. Look, that one, right there."

The others turned to look. "Ha!" Addie said. "I knew it! Come on!"

But before he could take a step, the light on Sean's phone winked out.

Ok, now will you tell me what's behind the tree?

Mmm... no.

What!? You promised, you big tease!

Yeah, but the deal is done. They've concluded the deal about whether Addie is leading them on a wild goose chase, and thus whether the others will keep following him. And besides, you gave me a great hook ending there, so the scene's over.

But I wanna know what's behind the tree! C'mon, is it the duffel bag?

Now you're just talking like a reader, which only proves my point. We should end here because now you have a new question in mind, which itself serves as the lead-out by making you pretty sure where the next scene is going to pick up.

Hmpf. Spoilsport.

Well, we could always just write the next scene. I mean, if you really want to...


That's how you write scenes. Let your inner organizer and experiencer take turns directing and imagining your way through the events. Let your experiencer raise red-flags about issues the organizer hasn't thought enough about yet. Let your organizer rein in the experiencer's excesses, keeping everything on track and well-paced.

It takes two brains to write a scene. Fortunately, both of them already live inside your writer's head, and with a little bit of practice you'll have them working together like a team.