Writing Your Scenes Right

2015-10-12-11-40-01Write scenes! I seem to repeat this mantra often. Scenes are usually the most efficient way to deliver action and emotion to readers. So you draft scenes, maybe even a novel-length bunch of them. Some of these scenes are awesome, some need work. At some point, you’ll want to revise your scenes to make sure they can keep your readers hooked.

Writing Tip for Today: Here’s one method for scene revision as it applies to its Pace or Rate of Revelation:

Action vs. “Quiet” Scenes

The pace of the scene should reflect its location in the story. On the one hand, in the beginning of a story, you shouldn’t drag out events that will be overshadowed by things which occur later as you near the story climax. If you do, those early scenes may look more important than they are. On the other hand, you won’t want to rush the climax scene. If you do, readers may feel cheated out of something they’ve been looking forward to. Look over your scenes and weigh them for the amount of perceived and real time they take to unfold relative to their place in the story. Keep in mind the maxim of Rising Action or Tension: Each scene impacts the next in a story-altering way through actions, emotions and thoughts of your POV character. Scenes should grow in intensity as they move toward the ultimate climax scene.

After a high-action scene, some writers insist on scenes that lack action or outward tension, saying the reader needs these “quiet” scenes to take a break from frenetic action. To allow readers to relax too much is very risky, I think. A better idea might be for the scene’s short sequel to give this breathing room if it’s necessary. And an even better strategy might be to insert a scene of limited physical action but heightened psychological or emotional tension, in order to keep the action rising. Try watching a few movies to get the hang of this technique. If a screenplay equals one page per minute, try timing the “quiet” scene in a movie to see how long nothing goes wrong. Chances are, the happy music ended just as you were getting restless (because nothing pertinent to the story was happening). Written scenes in novels can follow this pattern too.

It’s in the Details

Details are great but if a scene contains too much description as opposed to action, the scene will feel long and slow. Read your scene out loud. We can all be tricked into thinking our scenes are perfect as long as we’re staring at the screen. Reading aloud gives a better idea of how it will perform for readers. If your scene seems to go too slowly, first look for details. Cut every other modifier and re-read.

Details can also sink a scene through word choices. Take a look at your verb choices (if you can’t identify a verb, they’re the “action” words). If your verbs are formal (words that sound like they came from a lawyer’s office), multi-syllabic (you can barely pronounce them) or you have a lot of “to be” verbs (is, are, was, were) followed by words ending in -ing, substitute short particular verbs. Conversely, if your scene contains many general verbs (walk, talk, put, move) substitute specific words (amble, blab, toss, dance). Swap out flabby verbs and re-read.

Watch Your Dialogue

Readers often zip through dialogue, counting on it to help them experience the story more fully. Yet if your dialogue meanders through meaningless chit-chat or takes too long to say something that matters to the story, readers may not stick with you. One way to evaluate your characters’ lines is to play movies, paying special attention to the dialogue. How many sentence fragments do you hear? Do the movie characters use contractions? How many lines does one character say before either another character speaks or we see body language or action? And when one character asks a question, how does the other person respond?

The answers you deduce will help you rewrite your scene. Read your scene aloud again. Listen for the same kinds of rhythms, replies and rebuttals you tend to hear in movies. Are you allowing your characters to “shoot the breeze?” Make them get to the scene’s point faster. Do they use contractions? If not, they may sound like English butlers. Do your characters drone on as if it’s a monologue? Break up the lines with more back and forth exchanges. And when one character asks a question, try having the other character respond in a surprising way.

What method do you like to use when revising your scenes?

Next Time: Scene Revision, Part II

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.

2 comments on “Writing Your Scenes Right

  1. Good afternoon, Linda. My name is Shira Garnett, an administrator of the Christian Poets and Writers Facebook Group.

    I always enjoy reading your writing tips. I would love to link some of your articles to my website “Writing Tips and Resources” Page. Of course all corrects and linking back to your website of course. This would be wonderful privilege, if allowed to do so. It would be educational, encouraging and an asset to my followers and new followers for you, alike. Please prayerfully consider this. It would be an honor to have you apart of the Column. Blessings!

    • Greetings, Shira,
      I am always in favor of helping writers. You have my permission to help me spread my writing tips as long as you link back ad credit the author of the post. Keep writing!
      Thanking God for you,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *