Writing: The Why of Your Scene

I love fiction writing. But when I started out, I no more knew why I was writing a scene than why there is air. I learned that knowing the “why” of a scene makes all the difference.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are some tips for determining the “why” of your scene:

Move Your Character

The basic purpose or “why” of any scene is to move your character along the arc of your story. At the opening your character stands at Start. You need to get her to Finish. All this depends on what kind of goal your character must chase.

By understanding that goal, you’ll be better able to also define the obstacles to that goal as well as the stakes if the goal isn’t met. I’ve written a lot about these three pillars of a story, but the scene is where those values actually play out. The biggest threat to any scene’s “why” lies in failing the So What? Test.

Begin by mapping out your character’s goal and bake in worthy obstacles—the goal shouldn’t be easily attained. Think about what happens if the goal isn’t met and what sort of larger ramifications there may be. Remember the Nate Bransford formula: [protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

Look for Sequel

In stories your character should react to whatever occurs. By carefully considering each reaction, you can build tension and suspense. Reaction should always lead to a dilemma, a decision and a new action. This is called a sequel.

Sometimes the character will make quick decisions so that it seems as if the dilemma is avoided. You don’t need to belabor each sequel with a detailed explanation. Rather, allow your character’s inner life and emotions to show the reaction, dilemma, decision.

By making sure that every scene’s “why” squeezes your character into a tighter box, the sequels should become more and more difficult for the character to decide to act. Each scene’s “why” progressively shows readers what kind of sacrifice or daring the character must have to succeed. You want your tension to rise scene over scene, so that tension can crescendo at the climax scene.

Make sure that every scene’s “why” squeezes your character into a tighter box. 

Tighten the Screws

If you write a scene without a clear purpose or relationship to the overall story, readers may become confused or bored. If the “why” of a scene is to avoid being eaten by lions, you can’t have the character simply refuse to enter the arena. Instead, scenes should illustrate how the character plans to outwit or win the day—even if he fails at first. Let every scene put this question into readers’ minds: What will happen next?

You can better accomplish this by making it harder for your character to “win” the scene, by withholding or planting evidence and by allowing your character to act in unpredictable ways. For instance, if a character reacts by doing the opposite of what sounds logical, readers feel more tension.

Before you write your next scene, ask yourself why this scene, with these characters and this goal? Imagine your plot as a board game, where your character sometimes loses, goes back but who eventually arrives at the winner’s circle. Avoid allowing your character to win easily or simply wander around just because you found an interesting bit of research. Build your scene in terms of its purpose—to show how and why your character attempts to win the goal and move the story forward.

How do you determine the purpose of a scene?

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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