Writing Advice: Scene Tent Poles


When I’m writing a scene, I sometimes find that inspiration will strike me right in the middle of the process. I may be writing the beginning of a scene, but something that I write reminds me of a piece of dialogue or a piece of plot development that I could use later in the scene. Usually, I’m a very linear writer. But when these bits of inspiration strike me, I find that I have to abandon my linear format and jump around just a bit to ensure that those ideas aren’t lost to me forever. In situations such as this, I would suggest planting scene tent poles. These “tent poles” can be stray pieces of dialogue, abbreviated notes to yourself, or even some exposition that spells out what you want to achieve.

This happened to me while writing just this past week. I began to write a scene in which my characters were having dinner together, and all of them were angry with each other for one reason or another. As I began writing, I felt overwhelmed by what I wanted to achieve in the scene. I knew that, by the end of it, two characters would have made up and another two would still be awkward around each other. I knew that I wanted to separate the pairs of characters, so I tabbed down in my document and started writing what would happen when one pair was off in another room. Then I tabbed down even further and started writing what was still happening back at the kitchen table. Each of these “tent poles” were just a few lines long to introduce the concept I wanted to convey.

By tabbing down in my document, I was leaving space for the rest of the information to be filled in later. In other words, these little snippets that I’d written were my tent poles. One tent pole had the characters all together and the following tent poles had them separated. Thanks to these snippets, I would know the story beats I wanted to hit and be able to fill in information that got me to each of those beats. The tent poles would keep the scene as a whole intact and propped up. Once my ideas were down, I could flesh them out more easily.

This can sort of be summed up by saying that if you see the end when you’re in the middle, write it down! You don’t want to forget where you’re headed, and your mind usually moves more quickly than your fingers can type. If you’re one step ahead of yourself, jot down those steps so you’ll remember what you were thinking when you first got the idea.

These “tent poles” can also be a great tool to use if you’re about to stop writing for the day and want to come back to it later. This is what happened to me, in fact. Soon after writing this scene, my writing time was over for the day. I’m glad that I jotted down those tent pole points because now, when I return to my document, I’ll know what I intended for the scene.

I hope that the idea of using “tent poles” helps you with your writing process. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

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