Well, despite having been in the Sri Lankan mountains making concrete and building fences with little but a satellite phone for communication, I've somehow managed to write a blog post too. This one is about scenes.
What goes into a scene? Sometimes you have a large, sprawling plot in mind. It has all the fantastic character development and wonderful narrative twists, turns and resolutions that you need. But somehow, you struggle to get your individual scenes to have the pace and excitement they require. We’ve all been there. Keeping the pace and interest up, consistently, on a scene to scene basis is difficult. It is also one of the biggest reasons for mid-novel slumps or slow beginnings. The ideas are there, but the individual scenes just don’t cut it.
So how do you write a scene?
In this post, I will be giving some tips and tricks to make your individual scenes exciting, impactful and most of all, interesting. When I refer to a scene I refer to a single frame of the story, as it follows a character or group of characters over a single period and in a single place. These might be chapters or bits of chapters, but when you shift time forward or shift to another place, you are shifting scene.
The first thing you need to start doing is to think of your scenes like mini-novels in and of themselves, with hooks, development, climaxes and resolutions. The traditional narrative theory of story-arcs applies well on a much smaller scale and should not be forgotten.
Let’s break down each individual part.
Start with the climax of your scene. Identify what it is.
In other words, write down the specific plot point that you want to get out of this scene. What is this scene here for, in terms of your plot?
It should be able to be reducible to a single line – something as straightforward as:
The protagonist realises that his brother has been lying to him.
The protagonist is forced to kill his prisoner.
I’m going to be using my own example to demonstrate scene mechanics, the climax of the scene being:
The protagonist confronts his lover about her infidelity.
Make sure it is clear. If you can’t identify the point of your scene to the overall narrative, then it probably shouldn’t exist. This is very important. If your scene does not have a clear narrative moment directly relevant to the moving plot, it isn’t a good scene. It’s filler.
There are two ways to deal with filler: cut it or integrate whatever information you need into a scene that isn’t filler, rather than giving it a scene of its own. Both of these options are feasible.
Scene Planning Step 1: Write down what the climax of the scene is.
The old adage remains true:
Good scenes advance either plot or character. Bad scenes do neither. Great scenes do both.
Always aim to write great scenes, then at least if you fail at one you’ll still have a good scene on your hands.
Look at your plot point you have written down and identify how your protagonist and perhaps your secondary characters are impacted by this plot point. Ask yourself the following questions:
Does it change the way they view the world?
Does it affect their relationship with another character?
Does it affect their motivations?
Does it affect their goals?
If the answer to all of the above is no, then my follow-up question is: why is it there?
Remember that plot is character, and your plot points should be there to develop your character. If your character is not being developed by the climactic plot point in your scene, you once again have filler.
What do we do with filler? Cut or integrate.
Scene Planning Step 2: Write down how that plot point develops your protagonist and/or secondary characters.
I like to think of scenes as a clear structure of three basic movements: hook, development and cliff-hanger. While this may seem formulaic, it is by getting used to the formulas that we can really start to be creative. The formulas we use are hugely adaptable, given the context, but this particular formula has really helped me in structuring my scenes.
Let’s go through each one and think about what they mean and what they need.
Like the beginning of your novel or story, the beginning of your scene should start with a hook of some kind. There are a variety of ways to do this, which I will explore in a moment, and you don’t have start each scene in media res with action (that would be repetitive). But don’t count on your reader being on board with your story enough that your scene doesn’t need a hook. Don’t do this at any point in your novel.
Your scene needs to start in such a way that the reader needs to keep reading after the first few sentences to find out where this is leading. It is hard to do, but very important.
Start as close to the climax as narratively possible
The first thing you should be doing is starting as close to the climax as narratively possible. This means that you should cut all the dead weight at the start of the scene that isn’t necessary to the climax that you wrote down.
Let me go back to my example: Joe Protagonist is confronting his girlfriend, Karen, in a coffee shop, about her cheating on him.
Now, let’s imagine the beats of the scene: She’s there waiting for him, he arrives, goes and orders a cup of coffee, pays for it, goes and sits down next to her, drinks a sip, they talk awkwardly for a moment while he builds up the courage, he’s nervous - he doesn’t want it to be true, then he confronts her. She denies it. He calls her a liar. She’s outraged. Cue big argument. She’s very offended, so much so that he questions whether he’s right. He doubts himself. She storms out. He feels ashamed. He begins to question his motives and blame himself.
Okay – we have an obvious plot point: Joe confront Karen and they fight.
We have obvious character development: Joe begins to question his own motives and starts to blame himself for even thinking that she was cheating.
Great. Fine. So where do we start?
Well, let’s be honest: does the reader really need him walking into the shop, buying a cup of coffee and paying for it? No. He’s sitting in a coffee shop. That’s implied. A reader can work out he’s probably bought a cup of coffee. Don’t treat your readers like idiots.
Do we need the awkward talk beforehand? Maybe. That depends on what kind of story you want to tell and how important it is to the character. The question you should be asking is “is the awkward talk beforehand necessary to develop his character?” If it is, keep it. If not, cut.
Maybe we start with the confrontation. That’s very close to the climax and a good hook. The opening line could be the accusation. But can we get closer? Of course we can.
Her denial implies she’s been accused. We don’t need the actual accusation. In fact, him calling her a liar implies she denied something (and if you have written the scenes before correctly, the reader should be able to immediately imply what denial is.)
That’s where I’d start the scene. I’d have the very first line be:
“Don’t lie to me, Karen.”
That’s a good hook. Why? It forces your reader to work. It forces your reader to work out the implications. What’s she lying about? It must be the cheating. After all, we know Joe was going to confront her about it. Why is she lying?
Then, let the reader work out that they’re in a coffee shop as you dive into it. For example:
“Don’t lie to me, Karen.”
Joe shifted in his seat, uncomfortably aware that the customers at the next table could hear them. It didn’t matter - he couldn’t let her get away with this.
Trust your readers and give them some work to do. We don’t need all the explanation beforehand of where they are and why unless it’s really necessary to develop their characters.
Types of Hook
Once you’ve worked out how close to the scene you can be, your hook will probably start to be obvious. But if it isn’t, consider the below three things as being good for hooks:
New Information: offer the reader a glimpse of something they don’t already know so they want to read on.
Confrontation: like above, start with conflict of some kind to draw the reader in. This can be verbal or physical. It could be something as small as a new character walking in the room.
Routine Breaking: something happens that is hugely different to normal. Stories are about breaks in routines and expectations.
Scene Planning Step Three: Write down your hook.
Okay - so we have our hook. What’s next?
This is where the protagonist is forced into the central conflict of the scene and reacts to it. It is the ‘climax’ and the core bit of your scene. In my example above, it is the argument they have in the coffee shop.
To develop this, you need to go back to Step 2. How will this affect your character? You need to get your character from where they are, developmentally, at the start of the scene to where you want them to be at the end.
Let’s look at my example: my key development is that my protagonist feels ashamed for blaming Karen for cheating and then blames himself.
(Spoiler: She did cheat on him. She’s a manipulative bitch.)
Over the course of the conversation, I need to get him there. This is where your skill as a writer comes and you use dialogue, description of feeling and emotion to move your character from one position (blaming Karen) to another (blaming himself).
Scene Planning Step 4: Write down what the development is. If they need to get from A to B - what is A and what is B?
So how do we end our scene? It is not enough to have your scene simply end with the conclusion of the development. I can’t end the scene with Joe blaming himself - that’s a low note. A lull note. I need something to lead my reader into the next scene.
If it ends with Joe sitting in the coffee shop, feeling ashamed and blaming himself, then the reader is fine with putting the book down at the end of the scene and maybe picking it up later to find out where it leads. Not good enough. Something needs to happen to make the reader need to read the next scene.
It doesn’t need to be huge, it just needs to be some kind of call to action, or introduction of conflict.
Brent Weeks does this really well in his novels. Here are some examples of the very last lines of chapters from his great fantasy novel The Blinding Knife. There are probably better ones, but I’d prefer not to give spoilers at this point.
It comes near the end of a fight scene. A small line, but leaves the reader with a… but what will he do now? If he has lost, what is the consequence? Good end to a chapter and leaves you wanting to read more.
Here, it is just an introduction of a character that provides that new conflict. We know that Gavin and his Father basically hate each other and are working against each other. Him entering the room leaves us wondering at the outcome.
I’m going to use a similar approach in my example. I’m going to have the guy that Karen cheated on him with walk into the coffee shop while he’s sitting there. It’s the first time he’s seen him since he found out.
It isn’t huge or ground-breaking, but it leads into another piece of conflict. What will Joe do? Especially know he feels so guilty? Will his anger overcome his guilt? I must read on!
Ideally, all your scenes should lead into the next one with this kind of hook - development – cliff-hanger structure wherever possible.
Scene Planning Step 5: Write down your cliff-hanger.
And there you go - you’ve got a compelling and effectively planned scene. Now all you have to do is write it.
To ensure pace and interest throughout all the scenes of your novel, keep in mind the following.
I'd have given more examples, but Brent Weeks was all I had on hand and no internet. There should be another blog post up next Thursday, but given that I will be in Korea - it might be next Friday.
See you next week.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.