Writing a Good Scene

Today’s blog post features Shannon Baker and Jessie Lourey, in an article first published in Fiction University.

Shannon: I’m going to start with the simplest bits of what makes up a scene and save the really juicy stuff for Jess. You know, she’s a professional teacher, so it only makes sense. The most basic of basics about scenes is they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and must move the story forward.

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Much like Barbara Bush’s necklace is created by each individual pearl strung along with the next, novels are simply a collection of scenes. Each one must be unique, valuable, and as near perfect as possible if you want that necklace to last for generations.

Jess: I’m going to interject to underscore that chapters are different than scenes. A chapter does NOT need a beginning, middle, and end. In fact, I often end a chapter in the middle of a scene. It creates a natural momentum that makes the reader want to turn the page. Also, in a full-length book (70-100K words), I shoot for 60-80 scenes.

Shannon: Thanks, Jess! Good points. Now, back to the gritty. The first thing I ever learned about scenes is one of the goldenest of gold nuggets I’ve collected on writing craft. I picked it up from an ancient tomb I still regard as my writer’s bible: Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. (It’s old and dry but if you don’t mind that, it’s full of great stuff.)

Mr. Swain says scenes are made up of goal, conflict, and disaster. I’ve heard various different terms for disaster but generally, it means something that propels the reader forward into the next scene. That might be foreshadowing, cliffhanger, twist, or some sort of compelling question. But we’ll go with disaster because, well, because that’s the way I learned it.

Goal: Each character in a scene should have a specific goal. Maybe Bill wants to kiss Sally. Maybe Sally doesn’t want to kiss Bill. Kelley doesn’t want either of them to kiss at all. Whatever the goal, it must mean a lot to your character or it won’t matter to your reader.

Conflict: This is the cornerstone of all fiction. Without conflict, there is no story. It makes sense each scene must have conflict or else, why bother? If Bill and Sally have no reason not to kiss, what’s making the reader care if they get together or not? I set this up so easily and so cliched in my example. Obviously, the conflict here is who wants or doesn’t want to kiss. The scene will play out as this conflict is addressed.

Disaster: You kind of had to know where I was going with this one. The end of this scene is where Sally thwarts Bill and kisses Kelley. What propels us to the next scene is whether Kelley wanted to be kissed and how will Kelley react?

That leads us to the next scene where the goals are different. Now Sally is pursuing Kelley, Bill would like to punch someone (Kelley or Sally?). Let the conflict ensue.

Jess: Ah, great twist with that disaster, Shannon! I did not see it coming. :) And I love that framework of each scene made up of Goal, Conflict, and Disaster. I want to tease out a point you alluded to above, because I think it’s important: each scene must lead to the next. The writers behind South Park have a great, two-minute video on this--though the language is a little blue. In a nutshell, the video explains that your scenes cannot be episodic.

Every scene must have a consequence, must be necessary. You’re weaving a chain, and if a scene isn’t a result of something that happened before it and doesn’t affect what comes after it, it doesn’t belong. To help me make sure I’m doing this, I summarize each of my scenes on a notecard. The summary is two sentences, max, but usually it’s only a phrase.

Then, I lay the notecards on my floor, in order. If I cannot mentally insert the word “therefore” or “but” between each note card and still have the storyline make sense, I know I either need to delete or edit the scene.

Once you feel like the flow is in your story, everything is in its place, and there isn’t any extra, it’s time to ARISE, a scene-level writing method. The foundation of this method is that every scene in your novel must offer the reader:

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  • Action

  • Romance, Humor, or Camaraderie

  • Information

  • Suspense or

  • Emotion

Obviously, the more the better, particularly if the only purpose the scene is currently serving is to provide information, which is the narrative equivalent of that guy who slows down to tell you that the store you’re standing in front of, the only one in town that sells the widget you really need, is closed but will open again tomorrow at 9:00 a.m. He might be necessary, but wouldn’t it be better if he was also being chased or was drop-dead gorgeous or leaves a mysterious clue behind or is holding a puppy?

Yes, of course.

If you’ve summarized your scene on notecards, simply pencil in which letter (A, R, I, S, E) applies to that scene. If you have at least two, you’ve got a solid scene. If you have one or fewer, either delete or add to the scene.

Well-written scenes are the foundation of a novel your reader cannot put down. Apply the information above to build your bestseller!

Shannon’s bonus tip: When I start plotting a book I always boil it down to my main character, what does she want and why can’t she get it? This is the goal and conflict of the story as a whole. Each scene is the same model.

What scene-writing tips do you have, dear reader?