Quick Fix: Make Your Scenes Count

My toes can count!

My toes can count!

In well-crafted scenes (as opposed to narration, description or exposition), readers are irresistibly transported to the fictional world where they can live vicariously through the character. But how can you write irresistible scenes that readers can’t refuse?

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some easy ways to craft better scenes:

Predetermine Scene Purpose

Even the most ardent seat-of-the-pants writer needs certain events to occur if the Main Character is going to attain a goal. As I’ve said before, you can imagine these vital steps as squares on a board game–your character begins on START and when the story ends the game is over. Either your character attains the goal and wins or loses or she doesn’t get what she wants and wins or loses. The only other possible outcome is a stalemate or some sort of ambivalence–which takes great skill to pull off without disappointing readers. Try laying out your “game board” with changes in attitude, emotion or even location marked in scenes or groups of scenes. It’s OK if you need to alter your board game as you write. But with a simple sentence or two, you can see at-a-glance what sorts of scenes are necessary to the story.

If you just can’t plan your scenes that way, at least give your character a real purpose or goal as you draft each scene. This purpose/goal is going to hold readers’ interest better if tension and conflict are built in. Let’s say your MC has a goal of sneaking into a nightclub. If he obtains a fake ID, shows it to the bouncer and walks straight in, there is nothing of value at stake and readers are likely to abandon the story. But if the bouncer recognizes MC and threatens to call his parents or the police, readers will want to see how it plays out. Especially early in the story, a Main Character should lose enough so that readers will be forced to follow him, just to see if he can overcome the obstacles in his way. Begin by asking yourself why you need to write the scene. If you have a worthy goal (the why) and worthy obstacles (the who/how), the event is probably important enough to warrant a scene. Beware of reasons such as “To introduce a character,” or “To enrich the story.” The characters, if they tangle with your MC, will introduce themselves. And if your goals and obstacles are worthy enough, they won’t need enrichment.

Stay Out of the War Room

Another way to craft scenes that matter is to avoid scenes where important events or changes in attitude are discussed and then implemented. I call these “War Room” scenes, because in them, the characters plan great things like generals strategizing a battle. Readers would rather read about the actual battle than a bunch of stuffy generals planning as they push the tiny boats around a board. When characters plan what they are GOING to do and then proceed to do it, tension is lost. If your character’s planning something big and explains it all to her best friend, but then everything goes haywire, you have surprise on your side. In real life we plan–say you want your sister to stand with you in the cold the night before Black Friday. She will have to say yes or no and we hope (for your hypothermic self’s sake) she shows up with hot cocoa. If she does all as planned, it’s probably not a scene you should write–predictable is boring. If she stands you up and you’re freezing as well as mad, worried or some other emotion, then it will add to the story tension and may rate a scene to dramatize this development. Just don’t allow your character to push the tiny boats around the board for too long.

Balance Real and Fictional

To make a scene count, it must walk a fine line between reality and fiction. If any element of the scene feels fake–whether it’s dialog, actions, thoughts or emotions, the scene won’t advance your story. Yet if a scene is  TOO realistic, the same fate may befall it. For instance, you’re writing a scene where the MC has picked up two runaway girls on the freeway and is in a restaurant getting them something to eat. In real life we have to order, wait for the food and then be served before we taste the first bite. But if the scene is to build tension and move closer to the goal, it must unfold in a way that keeps readers guessing. To craft scenes that ratchet tension, a general rule is to speed over or even omit unimportant details and slow down when your character is making important decisions. Many other factors go into good scenes, but these three should help you craft better, more reader-friendly fiction.

Your Turn: What is the hardest part of scene writing for you?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

11 comments on “Quick Fix: Make Your Scenes Count

  1. Thanks Linda. I find that I commit all of these mistakes to some degree. Especially during my first draft. For me, the trick is to write it, go back and edit it, then have at least one other trustworthy person edit it. I’m a member of several critique groups and find them very beneficial.

    I appreciate your willingness to share and care for others.

  2. Bruce,
    As I was learning to write fiction I wanted someone to teach me the tricks. There were books, but they somehow didn’t penetrate my thick skull as much as I needed! That’s why I blog and coach other writers. I always say, get it down any way you can–mistakes and all. Then edit away. Crit groups are valuable–other writers always see things I miss. Keep writing!

    • Thanks for your comment, Stephanie. You’re doing exactly right–practicing. It’s how we all get better. Let me know how it’s going, OK?
      Keep Writing,

  3. What is the hardest part of scene writing for me? Well, I was fortunate enough recently to have the writer in residence at our city library review the first 15 pages of my work in progress. She recommended I drop the first action scene that led into the inciting event because it was “comic-booky”. I think I can see what she meant – it was an action scene that had the protagonist rescued from a violent interaction with a racist. He was rescued by the novel’s antagonist. Their first meeting, if you will.

    Now I am worrying that every action scene I write is over the top and I find myself second guessing myself and toning everything down. Right now, the second guessing and not writing on instinct is the hardest part of writing a scene for me.

    • Hey Michael,
      When you draft, please don’t worry about it being over the top. If you do, you will be allowing that editor self to kill your creativity. Just write (crap) but later, after it’s had a chance to gestate, evaluate for believability. Who is your audience? Do they expect comic bookish action? More importantly, what will your character do or not do? It’s easy to sit and evaluate someone else’s work. Think over what that writer said and take what you can use (or accept) and leave the rest.
      Keep Writing!

  4. Linda – I found your blog on Live Write Thrive. I use information from various sources to conduct a free monthly session at a non-profit facility. My next session will be Part 2 – Action Scenes. This blog, and some others that I have researched on your site, are exactly what I plan on presenting. I will be sending you a separate email to request your permission to use your postings in upcoming sessions. I am so glad that I noticed your blog. This Quick Fix is On The Spot!

  5. I have always found that believable dialogue in the scene is the hardest for me. I can get the scene OR the dialogue, but trying to get both right is tough. Lately I have just been ploughing ahead and hoping I can make it better on my 32nd rewrite. My other issue is forcing myself to be disciplined. I love writing, but I’m such a perfectionist that I tend to get frustrated when my characters aren’t “behaving themselves” and are trying to go off on their own tangents. I can only listen to their opinions for so long before I have to step away. But I’ve started making myself sit and listen more recently, just letting them go on their ways, and knowing I can fix it all later.

    • Pam,
      Believable dialogue tends to be tricky because we want it to sound “real,” yet actual dialogue often wanders, is full of hesitations or doesn’t provide an impetus to move the story. Keep practicing and listen to people as they converse as well as the dialogue in movies or TV shows.
      Keep writing,

  6. Pingback: How to craft better scenes: | Kawanee's Korner

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