Hey there! Savannah here.
Did you know that a lack of context is one of the most common reasons readers disengage from a story?
It makes sense because people read to be totally immersed in another time and place–to be in the skin of another person, experiencing the story as they do. So, when you don’t include the appropriate amount of context in each one of your scenes, readers will feel confused, and their confusion will pull them out of the story.
But what does a lack of context feel like?
Have you ever been reading a book, and then you turn the page to a new scene only to realize you have no idea what’s going on?
You’re pulled out of the story, and you’re asking yourself questions like, “Wait, did I miss something? What’s happening right now?” You might even turn back a page or two just to double-check that you didn’t skip an important detail, but ultimately, you’re confused.
As writers, it’s really easy to forget to add the appropriate amount of context into each one of your scenes because you are inside your character’s head as you’re writing—the context is obvious to you, so you don’t realize it’s missing from the page.
But it’s not obvious to the reader, so you need to help them get their bearings with the appropriate amount of context. That way, they can easily ‘sink into’ each new scene and stay engaged with your story as long as possible.
I’m going to walk you through the three ‘must-have’ contextual elements that you should establish in the opening of every single scene. Let’s dig in!
1. Where and When is This Scene Taking Place?
The very first thing you’ll want to establish is where and when the scene is taking place. Is it occurring immediately after the previous scene? Is it now five months later? Has the location changed?
Whatever the case, you’ll want to make the time and location clear as soon as possible in every scene–ideally in the first paragraph.
This is important because the goal of fiction is to keep readers immersed in a story. And when readers don’t have the context they need, they disengage from what’s happening in the story and get pulled back into their own reality.
2. What is Your Protagonist Thinking and Feeling?
The second thing you’ll want to establish is your character’s mental and emotional state. So, what are they thinking and feeling when the scene opens? Have they carried in their mental or emotional state from the last scene? What are they expecting to happen, or what are they hoping for?
This is important to establish at the beginning of each scene because it will contextualize everything that happens in the rest of the scene. It will also help you write realistic behavior because you’ll better understand what’s fueling and motivating your character as they navigate the external events of the scene.
In general, there are two main ways you can show your character’s mental and emotional state. You can:
- Let readers into your protagonist’s mind and show their thoughts and feelings about whatever is affecting them
- Let your protagonist’s behavior and physical gestures give insight into their mental and emotional state
Coupled with your protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, physical gestures can go a long way toward conveying how a character is feeling, but there are a few caveats to this.
First, you can’t just tell readers that your character is upset. You need to show them exactly why they’re upset and what specific thoughts are triggering these feelings.
Second, you’ll want to avoid using generic gestures (like sighing or having a character release a breath they didn’t know they were holding) as well as repetitive gestures. So, don’t use the same gestures over and over if you can help it.
All of this is important in establishing the stakes of the scene. Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain within a scene or within a story. It’s why what the protagonist wants is important to them. And you can always get to the stakes of a scene or a story by asking two questions:
- What does the protagonist think will happen if they succeed?
- What do they fear will happen if they fail?
And you’ll want to make the answers specific, so don’t just say something like “she feels like a failure” or something abstract. Zero in on the specific mental images the protagonist is picturing as their best and worst-case scenarios.
If you articulate a character’s hopes and fears, the reader will understand why what’s happening matters to the protagonist and will feel more invested in the outcome. It’s also what makes things more satisfying if your protagonist ends up succeeding, or more poignant if they fail–because we understand what success or failure means to them.
3. What does Your Protagonist Want?
The third thing you’ll want to establish is your POV character’s scene goal. So, what does your character want, and why does this matter to them?
And a lot of writers have trouble with this one because there are really two different goals you need to think about in each individual scene.
- What does your character want when the scene starts?
- What does your character want after the inciting incident of the scene?
So, I won’t go too deep into the second part there because I have a whole episode about scene structure, that’s episode number 40, where I talk about goals and how they sometimes change after the inciting incident, but I will touch on this briefly in a second.
What we’re mainly talking about today is that your character needs to be doing something at the start of each scene–they need to be active and have agency. Agency is important because it prevents your story from being boring. It also helps readers empathize with and relate to your character. We all want something, and we like to see people go after their goals, right? So, what is your character doing when the scene opens? What do they want initially, and why do they want it?
If you’ve structured your scenes correctly, your POV character will have made a choice in the previous scene that resulted in the consequences they now must act on. So, you might already know your character’s initial scene goal based on the work you did in the previous scene. There are caveats to this, like let’s say a lot of time has passed, but for the most part, you should be following the same central thread from scene to scene.
Now, sometimes a character’s goal and motivation are obvious. For example, let’s say in the last scene, a character is trying to escape a crime scene unnoticed, but someone sees them and pursues them on foot. In the next scene, it might be obvious that their goal is to escape whoever is pursuing them.
But other times, it’s not as obvious, and you’ll need to make it clear for the reader.
Either way, you’ll want to make sure their initial scene goal is explicitly put on the page within the first few paragraphs of a new scene so that the reader knows what to care about.
So, that’s it! Those are the 3 must-have contextual elements you need (along with the structure we talked about during the training) you’ll want to include in your scenes.
Establishing the proper amount of context at the beginning of a new scene might feel tedious, or like you’re laying it on too thick, but trust me–it’s crucial to keeping readers engaged and following the story.
If you don’t ground your reader by establishing the appropriate amount of context, you run the risk of confusing them and pulling them out of your story. If readers don’t know what’s happening, where it’s happening, or why, readers will fill in the blanks themselves, which can lead to misunderstandings and further confusion. And confused and disengaged readers put books down.
With these three contextual elements in place at the start of each scene, the reader will feel well-oriented within the scene, and they’ll care much more about whether the protagonist will succeed or fail. That’s a win-win if you ask me!
Savannah Gilbo is a certified developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She’s also the host of the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast, where she delivers weekly episodes full of simple, actionable, and step-by-step strategies that you can implement in your writing right away. When she’s not busy crafting her own stories, you can find Savannah curled up with a good book, a cozy blanket, and her three furry partners in crime.
Savannah recently presented “How to Write Compelling and Well-Structured Scenes” to Apex-writers. Her talk went into easy-to-understand and integral nuts and bolts pieces on how to write compelling and well-structured scenes, along with how to avoid some of the first draft pitfalls.
Her replay is available to Apex members as are hundreds of other replays by industry leaders, including Brandon Sanderson, Jonathan Maberry, Orson Scott Card, Terry Brooks, Michael Hauge, Michael Anderle, Kevin Anderson, Lisa Cron, and Joanna Penn. Sign up today to get the opportunity to come ask your questions live and rub shoulders with like-minded individuals!
Also, if you are looking to deepen the concepts from this post, David Farland’s Writing Mastery 1 includes lessons on Precision in Character, Precision in Setting, and From Generalities to Specifics. Writing Mastery 2 is also available and its lessons continue to deep-dive into the craft of writing to help you create your best story.
To get instant access to the full lesson on how to write well structured scenes and get Farland’s best-selling audited courses as a FREE bonus, visit Apex-Writers.com