We’ve talked over the last several months about how to start with your plot ideas, construct 3D main characters, and how to create your story’s world. We covered how to draft your story and character arcs, how to work with multiple points of view, and how your characters change over the course of your story.
Now let’s focus on how to pull everything together and create compelling and evocative scenes that make your readers keep turning pages.
What are Scenes?
Scenes are the rising and falling action, and the soft moments in between, that move your story forward. They have a couple of basic purposes:
- They establish time and place. They give the reader a marker on where and when things are happening.
- They help develop character. Even if the scene is pure action, you learn about the character’s motivations by his or her decisions, choices, and actions.
- They let characters set goals. Without goals to achieve, characters have no reason to act or emote. Readers want to know what’s at stake.
- They allow the action to rise or fall. This movement is what carries your reader forward.
- They let you crank up the conflict. Without conflict, you won’t have tension. And without tension, your story is boring.
Elements of a Good Scene
Individual scenes have a similar structure to your story arc. You want to have scenes full of action separated by scenes with time for your characters to reflect and come to a decision or set a new goal.
Each action scene should be structured with a central goal worth striving for, some kind of conflict along the way that ratchets up the tension, and conclude with a setback or disaster that moves your main character further away from attaining her goal.
Follow each action scene with a breather scene that allows your character to react to what happened in the previous scene. Raise the stakes by creating a dilemma he or she now faces, and follow it up with a decision about how to solve that dilemma.
Good scenes show the changing emotional landscape that your character journeys through. They may start the scene happy and full of joy and end the scene crestfallen and morose. Your character’s mood should change by the end of your scene.
Finally, effective scenes tie into the overarching theme of your story. When you use details in your scenes that reflect and support the significance of what you want your readers to take away at the end, you’ll create meaning and depth.
Take, for example, the book The Martian by Andy Weir. An overall thematic tone of perseverance throughout is played out in each scene. Just when you think things can’t get worse for Mark Watney, the main character, disaster strikes. He struggles emotionally with all of these setbacks, but each time, Watney eventually settles down and starts to problem solve. The take-away from the book and the film is that everything essentially boils down to solving one problem at a time.
How to Create Scenes
How you begin a scene and how you end it is what grabs your reader’s attention and keeps the pages turning. You want to change up how you begin and end your scenes so they don’t appear formulaic.
Here are a few ideas for starting your scene:
- Start with action. This is always a great attention grabber and helps move your reader along.
- Begin with a short narrative. You can actually slow down the pace by telling a little bit to set the scene instead of showing. This is particularly helpful if you have an interesting setting you want to introduce to your reader.
- Show your character’s inner thoughts. This is a great way to reveal your character’s intentions that can’t be shown through action.
- Start with dialogue. This is another great way to grab attention and move your story forward.
Now for ways to end a scene:
- Cliffhangers. This is the classic scene ending that keeps readers up all night to see what happens next.
- New information. Drop the bomb and bring out a new piece of information at the end of your scene. Or better yet, promise to reveal new information next.
- Emotional confusion. Leave your character twisting in the wind emotionally.
- An epiphany. Make it something unforeseen that changes the story going forward.
Creative Ways to Plot Your Scenes
If you’re a planner, you might want to outline your scenes to make sure they include all of the necessary elements and to see how they work over the course of your chapters.
A more fun way to approach scenes is by visualizing them. Here are a couple of ways to do that:
Storyboarding. Comic book writers and film creators use storyboards as a visual way to see how the story is moving forward. Even if you can’t draw, you can still make stick figures that represent your characters and give a rough idea of what they’re doing in each scene. If you put each scene on a separate piece of paper, you can easily move the scenes around until you find an order that’s compelling and engaging.
Index cards. This is another visual method, but instead of drawing pictures, you use a sentence or two on each index card to describe the scene. You can also capture the purpose of each scene, such as whether it advances the plot or develops your characters. You could color code your index cards by type of scene (e.g., whether it’s an action scene or a breather) and use that to make sure your pacing is rising and falling. Some writing software like Scrivener allows you to create digital cards on your computer screen.
Mind mapping. A high-tech way to capture your scene ideas is to use a mind mapping computer program like MindManager or imindmap that lets you start with the reason for your scene in the middle. From there, you brainstorm the crucial elements for a good scene like the emotional mood, how the character changes, conflicts that arise, and what happens next.
If you’re not a planner and just like to sit at the computer and let the words flow, you can always use these suggestions during the editing process to help you analyze each scene to make sure it includes the essential elements and to ensure it moves your story forward.
Scenes are usually separated by chapters or can include a visual break of four lines in between the ending of one scene and the beginning of the next.
And like your story, a scene needs a beginning with a hook, a middle, and an end.
What’s most important to remember is that each scene has a responsibility to move your plot forward in a way that evokes strong emotion in your reader and compels him or her to keep turning the pages. Make your scene as alluring as possible.
If you enjoyed this post about writing a novel, you might also enjoy these articles from our archive:
- How to Construct a 3D Main Character
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Story Arc?
- How to Create Your Story’s World
- How to Create a Compelling Character Arc
- Are You Ready to Draft Your Plot?
- 4 Plot Pitfalls You Need to Avoid
- Map Out Your Character’s Transformation Using the 9 Enneagram “Levels of Development”
- The Four Drafts Your Novel Needs (and Why You Probably Won't Use a Single Word of Your First Draft!)