How to Write a Damned Good Scene, Part 1

Often while looking at the scenes a new writer creates, I take a look and think, Well, that’s pretty lame. So how do you avoid writing lame scenes?

First, you need to brainstorm every scene. There are a few common questions that need to be answered in each one.

Who is your viewpoint character? This is usually shown by stepping into the point of view of that person. For example, I might say, “Karen raced through the cavern . . . .” But you also need to tell us who else is in the scene besides your POV character. There are a few things that are more annoying than reading a scene where two people are having a discussion and suddenly, five pages in, we as readers discover that a third person has been sitting there all along.

Where is your scene set? One of the biggest draws of a story is its ability to transport us to fascinating places. So you need to figure out where the story is set and what makes that setting intriguing for the reader. Is it the novel geography, the magical creatures, or perhaps the fascinating history of the place?

When does this scene take place? I’ve just finished editing a novel in which almost without fail the author neglected to tell us when each scene was set. Does it happen three hours later, or three decades after the previous scene? That’s often vital for the reader to know. You can often clear matters up very succinctly by saying something like, “After the robbery . . .”

What happens in the scene? As you’re considering what you will write, you need to remember a few things. First off, when you’re starting a story, you usually need to begin “in media res,” in the middle of things. There shouldn’t be any scenes that serve little purpose. For example, if you write a “scene” in order to establish who your protagonist is or where the story is set, you’re wasting your reader’s time. They will know it, and generally they’ll quit reading right away. The story only begins when you have a character in a setting who has a significant conflict.

But a professional writer recognizes that most often, the protagonist doesn’t have “a” problem, he has more than one. He might actually have several. He’s late for his wedding, he just got in a car crash, and the reason that he crashed is because someone was trying to kill him by committing vehicular homicide. So he has three problems—all in the first paragraph.

In other words, you need to ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish with this scene? What kinds of problems do I want to introduce? What kinds of themes do I want to deal with?” And so on.

I had a writing instructor when I was young who used to say that generally speaking, every scene should try to accomplish at least three things. What those things are is up to you. You just have to make sure that you’re working the story properly or your reader will feel a slowness in the pacing that is detrimental.

Last of all, you have to figure out before you begin writing, “What exactly does happen in this scene?”

Why is your protagonist doing what he is doing? What kinds of goals does the protagonist have? What are his obstacles? Why is he choosing to handle the problem this way (in other words, what are his motivations?)

Now, not every scene needs to be a major production, but you as a writer need to know the answers to these questions before you start your scene. As you ponder it, you might want to sketch out the scene, thinking of ways that you can design the scene artfully so that the information needed flows out unobtrusively, if not artfully.

But I feel that this is just a start. Over the next few weeks, I want to dive into this topic and cover each facet in depth.

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