Sometimes reading can be dead boring. We’ve all been there, wondering why in the world someone recommended a book that makes us want to gouge our eyes out. Sure there’s a great underlying story or some fabulous emotional reward at the end (we really, really hope).
But who wants to slog through 200+ pages of agony to get there? And if we’re being honest, who’s going to? I’m not a skip-to-the-end kind of gal, but I will quietly toss a book in the bargain bin at Goodwill if it doesn’t light me up.
As writers, we never, ever want our books to put people to sleep. Even if we’re writing bedtime stories. Over the years, through tons of research and trial and error, I’ve uncovered vital strategies for crafting killer scenes. This post is an overview. I’ll be digging deep into each of these essential scene elements in upcoming posts. So stay tuned and keep writing!
1. What are the purposes of this scene?
This is important. I’m talking about all kinds of purposes here. If the scene has no purpose, other than that you like it or it moves characters from place to place, take out your handy-dandy axe and chop it.
There are several purposes to consider. Is this a scene where you plant a vital clue? How does the scene develop your characters or the theme? Are there objects or skills that must be introduced so they can be used later in the story? Does this scene contain misleading clues that can send your reader on delightful side trips while still including the truth, carefully hidden?
Are there simple plot purposes that must be included, such as characters beginning to change, or struggling through obstacles? The more purposes you can build into a scene, the better.
Knowing the purposes of your scene will help direct your writing and keep you (hopefully!) from overlooking important details. Even better, it will keep you from writing scenes that don’t really matter and that you’ll just have to kill off later.
2. Know when your scene is happening.
What year is it? What day of the week? What time of day? Be mindful of seasons and phases of the moon, changes in other celestial events such as sunrise, sunset, shifting constellations, moonrise and moonset (yep—they change, that’s why we sometimes see the moon in the middle of the day).
If you don’t keep track of all these things, you run the risk of having a sliver of a moon hanging over the trees at times when it really ought to be full or even absent. And if you’ve created a world with multiple suns or moons, be ready for some advanced juggling if you wanna keep all those balls in the air (Ok, you can throw tomatoes at me now).
Go into as much depth as you need to keep your story consistent and to create full, rich scenes. Use the changing seasons and times of day to set the stage for the emotions and purposes of your scene. But it’s important that you keep track, preferably during the outline phase, so you don’t waste tons of time later counting back to figure out what day of the week it is or, even worse, what season. (Trust me, I’ve been there.)
As the famous saying goes…Location, location, location. In plotting your scenes, it’s essential to pay
attention to setting. You must know where your characters and more importantly, why they are there. Your choice of setting should never be arbitrary. You can reveal a great deal about your plot and the characters through the locations you choose.
What unique pressures will this location apply to your protagonist? Is this a location that could occur in any story or any book? What makes this location unique?
Please never leave the reader wondering where in the heck the story is happening. They need to be grounded in the time and place as soon as possible with just enough details to spark their imagination and make them believe they are there. Because this is why readers read – to escape and explore. Make sure you create a world where they can.
4. Use character and setting details to enhance theme or advance plot while also revealing character.
The details you choose for your characters and for your setting should not be arbitrary. Every detail you include must either advance the plot, express a theme in a meaningful way, or reveal character.
What kind of backpack, purse or bag does your character carry? What mannerisms does your antagonist have that can reveal something of his or her past or their motivations?
When writing a story, make the details matter. But don’t write them in a high-flown way that draws too much attention or hijacks the storyline. It’s often best if these details are woven into the narrative in a natural, unobtrusive way.
The reader will pick up on subtle details, even if only in their subconscious. Then as the story progresses, the details quietly stack up and reveal even more about personality, motivations, character arc, and overarching theme.
5. Weather and Climate
Unless your story takes place in a single day, the weather needs to vary, especially across seasons. Weather can also be a vital part of your story line, as in The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson.
Managing climate variations across different locations is also essential. The climate varies even with changes in elevation. Be clear where your scene is taking place, with a firm understanding of current climate and weather of this scene.
How can you use the climate and the weather to establish mood? This is a vital part of enriching your scenes. Keep in mind that sunny days as well as rainy can be written in a way that conveys grief.
6. Scene or Sequel?
This one is a biggie. You must know what type of scene you are writing. Is it action or reflection? This writing technique was first identified by Dwight V. Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer.
For the purpose of this section, scenes in which the main character(s) are striving toward goals, clawing their way through obstacles, and then facing disasters will be called Scenes.
Scenes where character(s) are reacting to disasters (of whatever level), wrestling with dilemmas, and making decisions will be called Sequels.
It is vital that you know what you are trying to accomplish with each type of scene. Otherwise, you’ll end up writing scenes with no driving force. This simple template (below) helps with my plotting. I fill it out from the perspective of the main character of that scene.
Reaction to disaster:
This helps me keep focus as I’m writing so I don’t just wander around end up at cross-purposes with what I’m trying to accomplish. More to come on this in a future post!
7. Evoke emotion
If you’re not rousing emotion in your reader, they’re chucking the book out the window. Or even worse, setting it down and forgetting it.
The whole point of your story is to connect with readers, to transport them into the lives of your characters so they can feel their joy, sorrow, determination, and pain. Don’t be afraid to torment your readers. Don’t be afraid to transport them with flights of rapture, either.
But don’t overdo it. Flowery, overblown language, while fun (and possibly cathartic) to write, will actually turn your reader off. Keep it simple. Use setting and small details to convey the deep emotions your characters are feeling. Give the reader a chance to unearth them and experience the thrill of discovery rather than having the emotions spelled out on the page and thrown in their face.
If you need to state an emotion outright, keep it simple, and when, possible, use action. Consider which is more effective:
Jesus buried his face in his hands and cried heart-wrenching sobs that drained the very soul from his body as he grieved over those he loved more even than himself.
Obviously, the first sentence is the winner. Short, simple and powerful.
8. Consider questions to raise in the reader.
This is one of my favorite parts of crafting scenes. When I’m considering questions to raise, I’m doing this on several levels.
One, story questions. What curiosity can I provoke? What can I make the reader wonder or worry about?
On a higher level, what philosophical or social issues can I raise for the reader?
These are the questions that give meaning to your work, that make your writing something beyond mere entertainment.
9. Be mindful of your intended scene ending and build toward your chapter conclusion.
I’m not implying you need to plan every single aspect of every single scene, leaving no room for the Muse. There’s much inspiration that comes during the writing process as well as the planning process.
However, inspiration can strike even when you know where you’re headed. In fact, having some constraints can actually stimulate your imagination. How will you move your scene to where it needs to go? It’s important to know where you’re headed in order to keep the momentum of your story.
Another reason to jot down scene endings is just in case you don’t feel like writing in order. Sometimes a later scene lights me up and I have to scribble it down before the inspiration fades. This is a lot easier to do (and a lot easier to edit) if I know how previous scenes will be ending.
The same principle applies on a large scale with chapter endings as well as major plot points in the novel. Know where your headed. How you get there is up to you.
10. Conflict is King
Know the goals, motivations, and barriers for every character in your scene, even the waiter who is just passing through. Your deep insights into their lives will enrich your writing. Suddenly you’re not scrambling for random details and mannerisms because you know your characters’ backgrounds, pains, hopes, and struggles. This will inform your writing and the deepest levels.
Above all, make sure your characters’ goals and motivations are in conflict with each other to one degree or another. There’s nothing more boring than a bunch of people who all want the same thing and all have the same idea about how to obtain it.
Dig deep into your characters. They may have the same goals, but different motivations. This will affect the choices they make as they pursue their objectives. In an upcoming post, I’ll share my template for charting character goals and motivations.
Whatever your scene, using these writing strategies will help you ensure that you take it the way you want it to go with maximum impact on story, emotion, and above all—readers.
Please note other writing tools you like in the comments below. Happy Writing!