Scene Writing for Purpose

When you’re writing a scene, do you understand its purpose?

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s explore purpose in scene writing.

The Why of Scene

Your scene’s purpose is the reason you write the scene. Purpose tells readers why they’re following your character thus far. Unfortunately, writers often miss this important element when they try to write scenes that are too life-like.

But don’t we want scenes to feel life-like? Of course we do, but if we write a scene exactly as life tends to happen, our story and the scene can be derailed. In life, we are routinely interrupted, bored, doing routine tasks or just aimlessly watching or consuming. With a scene, if you write too much of this minutiae or fill your scene with real life interruptions, events with no resolution or boring passages, readers will flee.

Remember that you must manage readers’ attention. This requires you to skip over irrelevant details or actions, convey a specific goal for the scene and show how the characters battle over this goal until the protagonist either wins, loses or it’s a draw.

Purpose shows readers why they’re following the story.

And Then What Happened

In life, we often go for long periods where not much exciting stuff happens. We stick to our routines and enjoy their comfort. In scene writing, routines and any ordinariness that does not serve the story’s goals should be barely acknowledged or omitted altogether. Your readers will assume that your character gets up, sticks feet into slippers and goes to get coffee.

Instead of focusing on these assumptions, aim for the next development as your character gets closer or farther away from her goal. Ask yourself, “and then what happened?” Be sure the what happened part is crucial for your readers to see progress. Sometimes this is called moving the story forward.

If your next scene digresses from the story goal or marches in place, readers quickly lose interest. Avoid allowing your scene to meander or involve chit-chat that has no underlying tension. Take a closer look at scenes around tables, scenes to give the readers a rest from the action or scenes that contain a lot of interior thought but little action.

Tension Everywhere All at Once

Scenes without tension have a difficult time moving a story forward. In life, we often go for the least amount of tension possible, but in scene writing, tension keeps readers reading. Yet if your scene has no real purpose, even tension can’t save it.

Imagine your story as a board game. Each scene moves the story forward toward the goal (purpose). If your scene doesn’t offer a purpose, readers will likely wonder why they’re following the story. This is one reason why mystery writers work backwards from end to beginning. They need to understand how one action defines the next.

Your character will lose a lot. If your character wins the overall goal, the story is over. At the scene level, however, purpose and the outcome of winning or losing are tied together. Use tension to help readers understand what’s at stake and why it matters. This type of tension can highlight your scene’s purpose and help readers remain eager to know what happens next.

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.

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