Scenes carry the novel. Whether you write romance or mysteries, fantasies or literary fiction, the key to keeping readers’ attention is creating effective scenes.
The basic elements of a story have been commonly defined as plot, character, setting, theme, and conflict. These elements come together and have meaning through the creation of scenes. Without scenes, a writer would tell the entire story in one long descriptive narrative rather than show the action and let the reader absorb and interpret what is happening.
Sans an actual scene, descriptive narrative will generally serve as a reporting of events, as in this example.
After Rachael woke up and neared the kitchen, the smell of what her mother was cooking made her turn around and run for the bathroom, where she immediately threw up.
Alternatively, a scene takes place in real time and shows the action.
The smell of hickory-smoked bacon wafting into her bedroom was enough to wake Rachael, bringing back sweet memories of when she was a child and her mother made pancakes and bacon Sunday mornings before church. The cold water she splashed on her face jolted her body out of its groggy state.
As she got closer to the kitchen, she inhaled a deep breath of the sweet-smelling air. Without warning, nausea hit her. She clasped her hand over her mouth as she ran into the bathroom, reaching the toilet just in time. The sour stench of vomit quickly replaced the savory aroma of bacon. While her stomach lurched, she counted on her mother never finding out what she had done the night before.
Each scene in a novel should contribute to the story in some way, whether through characterization, atmosphere, or plot progression. Scenes are the framework of a novel—care should be given to writing them with purpose.
The Five Ws
Each scene should contain enough information to answer the who, what, when, where, and why of the action.
Readers need to know enough about each character in each scene for it to make sense. What emotions are running through their heads? What is their mood? How does the scene change them? Only as much information as is needed should be included and not anything the protagonist doesn’t know, if you’re writing in third-person limited. (See Chapter 4 for more on narrative tense.)
What is happening in the scene should be shown through action, using more nouns and verbs than adjectives and adverbs. Include conflict, suspense, and tension. And then add the character’s reaction to it.
The setting of the scene can be important. A fistfight that takes place in a church during a wedding ceremony will have a different impact on the reader than if it takes place in the middle of a secluded wooded lot. If it adds to the story, talk about the atmosphere, the smells and the sounds, nearby buildings, the weather, plant and animal life. Ask yourself what the protagonist sees while the scene is taking place. Add enough detail so readers feel they are actually there, but not so much that they become bored and skip over parts.
Most scenes occur due to someone’s motivation. What is their goal? What is it they want? What drove them to take the action? This doesn’t necessarily need to be spelled out, but make sure the reader has some clue as to the why of the scene.
When the action is occurring may be important to the scene. Is it morning, noon, or night? Is it connected to some other event? Does it take place before, during, or after another event?
Every scene must have a purpose that relates back to the goal(s) of the protagonist. Scenes should serve one or more of the following purposes in order to move the story forward:
· Create atmosphere
· Introduce a character
· Reveal something about a character
· Introduce plot
· Heighten plot
· Develop setting
· Solve a problem
· Inform the reader
· Entice the reader
To keep on track when writing a scene, make sure it serves at least one of these purposes. Otherwise, leave it out as it likely doesn’t serve to move the story forward.
Beginning, Middle, and End
Consider each scene (even the short ones) in your book as a mini novel in itself, with a beginning, middle, and end. A scene needs to build to a peak of intensity and then have some form of resolution.
The beginning of the scene should contain sufficient background information for the reader to understand what takes place later in the scene. What the character wants should be clear by the middle of the scene. The scene’s middle is also where the conflict occurs—the meat of the scene. The end should include a resolution that provides some sense of how the scene caused the character to change or get closer to or farther from his or her goal.
The following short scene is from Killing Floor by Lee Child and occurs after protagonist (and narrator) Jack Reacher is arrested for murder.
We pulled up at the front doors of the long low building. Baker got out of the car and looked up and down the frontage. The backup guys stood by. Stevenson walked around the back of our car. Took up a position opposite Baker. Pointed the shotgun at me. This was a good team. Baker opened my door.
“OK, let’s go,” he said. Almost a whisper.
He was bouncing on the balls of his feet, scanning the area. I pivoted slowly and twisted out of the car. The handcuffs didn’t help. Even hotter now. I stepped forward and waited. The backup fell in behind me. Ahead of me was the station house entrance. There was a long marble lintel crisply engraved: Town of Margrave Police Headquarters. Below it were plate glass doors. Baker pulled one open. It sucked against rubber seals. The backup pushed me through. The door sucked shut behind me.
This scene’s distinct beginning, middle, and end make it understandable and complete.
Be aware of some of these common scene problems:
Not everything in the scene helps to move the story forward.
She walked into the kitchen expecting to find Jim. When she didn’t see him there, she retrieved items from the refrigerator to make a ham and cheese sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and then sat down to eat. Not knowing Jim’s whereabouts made her uneasy. As she glanced around the kitchen for any sign that he had been there, she noticed a knife missing from the knife block—bottom left slot, one of the big ones. She stared at the slot for the missing knife. No longer hungry, she put down the sandwich.
Details about retrieving items from the fridge and pouring the glass of milk don’t add anything that helps to move the story forward. But the fact that she made the sandwich and then couldn’t finish it is important to the story as it shows that something was bothering her.
Rewrite: She walked into the kitchen expecting to find Jim. When she didn’t see him there, she made herself a sandwich and sat down to eat. As she glanced around the kitchen for any sign that he had been there, she noticed a knife missing from the knife block—bottom left slot, one of the big ones. She stared at the slot for the missing knife. No longer hungry, she put down the sandwich.
The character’s scene goal isn’t clear or is revealed too late in the scene.
As soon as Trudy learned the address of the place where her daughter’s captor might be hiding out, she threw on a hoodie, jumped in her car, and drove there. The lead hadn’t been that solid, but she didn’t care—her precious daughter had been missing for a month. Once she arrived at the address she had been given, she parked her car, slumped down in the seat, and stared at the small, run-down bungalow with the crooked green awnings.
What was Trudy’s goal once she arrived at the address? What did she expect to achieve? Even if she didn’t know herself what her goal was, that needs to be stated.
The character’s motivation isn’t clear.
Using the above example, Trudy’s motivation for going to the address where she thinks her daughter is being held would be love for her daughter, but it may not always be as clear in other stories. Sometimes it’s hidden, even to the character (sometimes called unconscious motivation) and is revealed subtly in the character’s behavior as in the following example.
After Allie broke up with Kenneth, her best friend reminded her that he was the fourth boyfriend she had kicked to the curb in as many months for no good reason.
“He wasn’t right for me,” she said. Has it really been four? she thought.
“Maybe you need to figure out why you keep doing this, Allie.”
“Hmm?” Allie said, failing to remember her rationale for breaking up with any one of them.
The scene lacks focus on the character’s actions and internal thoughts.
Weak: A man in a black hoodie appeared from behind the parked car and came toward him. Jack pretended he had a gun.
Better: A stream of adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins as he caught a glimpse of a man in a black hoodie approaching him from behind the parked car. When the man was within several yards, Jack reached in his pocket for a make-believe gun. “Come any closer, and I’ll shoot,” he said.
Here is an example of a scene from John Grisham’s The Testament that shows great character insight and detailed action.
I grit my teeth and remind myself of how badly I want to die. I slide the envelope across the table to Stafford, and at the same instant I rise from my wheelchair. My legs are shaking. My heart is pounding. Just seconds now. Surely I’ll be dead before I land.
“Hey!” someone shouts. Snead I think. But I’m moving away from them.
The lame man walks, almost runs, past one of my portraits, a bad one commissioned by my wife, past everything, to the sliding doors, which are unlocked. I know because I rehearsed this just hours ago.
“Stop!” someone yells. No one has seen me walk in a year. I grab the handle and open the door. The air is bitterly cold. I step barefoot into the narrow terrace which borders my top floor. Without looking below, I lunge over the railing.
The action in the scene is too short or too long.
The length of a scene depends on your goal for the scene. Long scenes tend to work better when you want to slowly build to the height of the action, highlight the climax of the story, or intentionally slow the pace after action takes place. Short scenes work best when you need to pick up the pace right after a long scene, build suspense, or create a sense of intrigue by doling out small bits of information at a time. Too many long scenes one after another may exhaust some readers. Too many short scenes one after another can make the flow of the reading feel choppy and disrupt the continuity of the story.
The reader doesn’t know what’s going through the character’s mind during the action.
When characters’ internal thoughts are revealed, readers are allowed to better understand them and/or their actions. Including the right amount (as with so many other aspects of writing good fiction) is a balancing act. Too much and the story gets lost under all that thinking. Too little and readers may be confused about the character’s motivation. Include only inner thoughts that advance the plot. Avoid those that readers can deduce from the story’s narrative or the characters’ dialogue and action.
Scenes are the fundamental building blocks of your story. They drive it forward, build suspense, develop characters, and intensify conflict. Scenes help to develop plot from beginning to end. Crafted correctly, scenes take readers into a crucial moment in time of the character’s story, engaging them as if they were actually there.