Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Writing: Scenes, Purpose and the CASTS system


Newsflash. Scenes must have a purpose. Preferably more than one purpose. They must have an easily discernable goal--stated pretty much upfront--that the character clearly meets or doesn’t meet, followed by the realization that our character can NEVER go back to the way things were before this scene occurred.

Not just some scenes. Every. Single. Scene.

Man, I wish I’d have known that back when I first started writing. I wrote scenes I loved, full of character development and action and sexual tension and lovely description. Yet no matter how lush or funny or sexy the writing, none of those things alone is enough to justify a scene.

Oh, the pain of having to cut 230 pages of pointless stuff from my first manuscript and basically start from scratch with what was left!

But without a goal, without that purpose, scenes lose their tension...and ultimately, lose the reader.

While I’m sure we’ll talk about this in another post, I am no longer a writer who gives myself permission to write crap. I know...I know...you can flog me for that later. But having to cut so much from my manuscripts has made me very stingy with my words. When I put them on the page, I want them to count.

So before I write any scene, I lay it out on paper. Not entirely, just the bones...but before I type a single word, I have to know what the purpose/goal/conflict of my scene is going to be. If I can’t justify it to myself, I shouldn’t be writing it.

The first thing I do is write down the scene goal for each character: What do they come into this scene wanting, specifically? I may have an alternate scene goal as an author, which is fine. But that doesn’t change that each character must have their own scene goal to justify how they will react to whatever I throw at them.

Next, I write down the word CASTS. This is not my idea...I learned this in a craft program given at my local RWA chapter a couple of years ago. I wish I could remember who the speaker was so I could give her credit, but I’m sorry...I don’t. However, her advice has stuck with me and I use this system to this day.

C = Conflict
A = Action
S = Senses
T = Turn
S = Surprise

If your scene doesn’t have each of these five elements, it is not complete. Period.

(Not to be confused with a “sequel” to a previous scene. For more on Scenes and Sequels, read “Scene and Structure” by Jack Bickham).

Let’s look at each more closely.
Conflict—what or who specifically is going to stand in the way of your POV character meeting his/her scene goal and how?
Action—something must be happening in the scene...we don’t want to watch someone sitting in their car, or doing needlework or something. This must be something that moves the story along.
Senses—make sure you engage us by utilizing your POV character’s senses at least once during this scene.
Turn—this is where the story takes a distinct shift because of what has happened during this scene...from this point on, your character can never go back. Whatever they learn or experience during this scene leaves them changed, even just a little.
Surprise—either one of the characters or the reader must be surprised by something in your scene...it doesn’t have to be a huge surprise (à la a secret summer lovechild). While you’ll want the occasional big surprise in some scenes, others can be as simple as your character being surprised by how he feels about what he’s just experienced.

And never fear...if you are more of a "pantser", you can still apply this during revisions. Just write down CASTS and see if your scene is missing any of these elements...if so, you can decide to fix it or scrap it.

Sound daunting? It may be a little, at first. But I promise you, if you get this down and make it part of your writing routine, your scenes will be stronger for it. And if each and every scene moves your story along, readers will be pulled along with them. And that’s always worth it!



  1. Ooh! A new writing term. CASTS. Thanks, Heather. This will definitely come in handy with my next writing endeavor.

  2. CASTS is a wonderful tool, isn't it? Good point about applying it during revisions.

    As for the permission to write crap thing, don't be afraid to fall back on that old crutch once in a while. It's just another tool, one that for me is an improvement over staring at the blank screen. I find that the very act of writing *something* helps me work my way through whatever problem had me stalled.

  3. Hi Linda...I was just over at your awesome blog, saying hello :) Can you hear the echo?

    Good point about just writing "something" to break through the ice stoppage, so to speak. I may have to fall back on that here pretty soon. My characters are giving me fits right now! :) I'm hoping that means that when they do finally start talking again, they'll say something great!

  4. Great blog, Heather. The CASTS system makes sense and is useful for all writers.

  5. Well done - Heather you are my scene-goal-Nazi. Every time I sit to write a scene I imagine you sitting across from me, monacle carefully in place, whip striking your highly polished boots, saying, "Your goal, Frannie, vat iz you goal?" I am printing off your CASTS tips and posting them next to the computer.
    Your humble, mostly goal-less servant,

  6. Heather, I LOVE the blog. Great advice. It much be such a treat to have both a left and right side of your brain :) It's so hard sometimes to make the creative and analytical juices flow at the same time!

  7. Hi Heather,

    Great blog! Love the CASTS tips. cheers~

  8. Oh my dear, my every thanks to you for this.
    You rock. Have a brilliant weekend.

  9. All I can say is, I wish I'd learned about scene goals a year ago. hey, can I be one of your friends who writes?

  10. Sandy, Marianne and Nancy ~ Thanks so much for coming by. I appreciate your kind words! You know I feel the same about your blogs. I always enjoy visiting :)

    Fran ~ I SOOOO need a monacle! How cool would that be? I hope those polished boots you're picturing me in are the stylish ones, not the steel toe clunkers :)

    Georgina ~ I really love your blog, too! Thanks for coming by, when I know you're so busy. Sadly, the right side of my brain has been deserting me lately. I'm hoping to whip it into shape soon (maybe with that whip Frannie pictures me with)

    Simone ~ Thanks for stopping by! I've kept my promise to get more craft like...I'm looking forward to learning more about you on your blog... :)

    Traveler ~ Welcome! And thanks for coming by. I'd love to have you as a friend who writes. E-mail me at heather@heathersnowbooks.com and we'll get to know each other. Come back again!