I don’t know about you but I tend to think in scenes when I’m working on longer fiction – ‘the what happens next, where does it take place and who is involved?’ question.
I try to see the scene play out in my head – due I’m sure to the influence of film and television, at least I do this for the beginning of the scene, then I write it and see what happens. Sometimes it surprises me.
So how can we make sure our scenes are powerful and move the action forward. What makes a good scene in writing? Here are 10 things to consider
1. A scene must have a setting where the action takes place and it’s the setting that will often give us the opportunity to create the mood or atmosphere e.g. in my current work I’ve just written a scene set in the first snow of winter when my young protagonist hears the men out with their guns, hunting deer. There is blood on the snow etc. the mood is tense and dangerous and this signals the danger for her that lies ahead.
2.As well as happening somewhere a scene happens in time – a writer’s job is to move characters through time and space. Our readers should be in no doubt as to when the scene is happening, so that the sequence of events is clear. It can be quite simply done eg ‘When Johnson woke the next morning…’
3. By the end of each scene the reader should know more about the characters in it. Scenes are never superfluous. They exist to show characters, reveal motivations. They provide information about plot. They move your story forward. If a scene adds nothing to our knowledge of character or conflict, or forward movement of the story then it doesn’t need to be there.
4.Scenes are best begun in action and not exposition. ‘The scene begins when the blue touch paper has already been lit not on the trip to the firework shop.’ Robert Graham. Don’t forget that scenes can also begin with dialogue, which is a very immediate way to get into a scene.
5. The scene itself, like the chapter, like the whole, has a beginning, middle and end, and as such it has a rising arc of tension leading to a point of climax. Some scenes will of course be less dramatic than others but that doesn’t rule out creating narrative tension in smaller ways.
6.Narrative tension can be signalled in our writing – shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs and dialogue all add pace.
7.This tension is led by the conflict our characters experience. We ask ourselves – What is their goal? What is standing in their way? Eg. in my scene in the snow (mentioned above) my protagonist’s goal, stated from the very beginning of the novel, is to learn to read, it drives everything she does. The scene begins with her going through the snow to the woman who is secretly helping her. But towards the end of the scene when she arrives back late her secret is uncovered – there is a reversal in her fortune, new obstacles in her way. The scene starts with a plus moves to a minus but at the very end there’s a surprise.
8. A good way to end a scene can be with a surprise or a hook that will keep the reader reading on to find out what happens (used widely in crime fiction)
9.The opening scene of our novel is arguably the most important – it deserves special attention as it’s our chance to hook the reader. In looking at our opening scene we should ask, will this pull the reader in, will they want more?
10. If in doubt think film.
This first appeared on my blog in April 2015