Pleased to welcome C.S. Lakin back to the blog for a tremendously helpful post on what to keep in the front of your mind when crafting a scene. Read on and bookmark this great list!
Anyone who says writing a scene is easy probably hasn’t written one. I’ve written upwards of three thousand scenes (a fairly rough estimate), and every time I start to write one, I am humbled by the daunting task before me.
There are so many elements that make up a great scene, and so many things to juggle as you write.
And then there are all the preparatory issues to be considered before you begin. Questions that must be answered:
- Who will the POV character be for this scene? What mind-set do they need to have?
- What is the high moment I need to build to, and what will happen and be revealed in that high moment?
- Where and when will this scene take place?
- Why and how is this scene essential to my plot?
- What is the central conflict in this scene (inner and outer)?
- How will my character change by the end of the scene (because she should, in a significant way, at the end of every scene)?
- What key bits of backstory do I need to include, and how will I insert them without info-dumping?
- How will I create microtension on every page by hints, secrets, innuendo?
- What other characters should be in this scene and why?
- What is the tone or mood I need to set in this scene?
- What take-away feeling do I want to leave with the reader when they finish reading the scene?
These are only some of the many questions to consider when plotting out a scene. (You can grab this First-Page Checklist, my Scene Structure Checklist, and my 8 Steps to a Perfect Scene, for starters).
Types of Scenes
Before you write a scene, you need to determine what type of scene it’s going to be. Will it be a narrative scene in which the POV character is telling a story? Will it be a high-action scene? A low-energy dialogue scene?
I’m guessing many novelists don’t step back and look at the bigger picture of the string of scenes they are crafting for their novel. If you’ve just had a big-action scene, you might follow it with a contemplative processing scene. If you put too many high-action scenes in a row, you can start to tire out (read: bore) your reader.
Writing Deep Scenes, by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson, takes a deep look at fifteen scene types, where they might go in a novel, and when they would be used. If you aren’t familiar with all the various scene types, this would be a good resource for you. Some of these scene types are transition scenes, epiphany scenes, twist scenes, escape scenes, recommitment scenes, resolution scenes.
Rosenfeld and Alderson also explain what types of scenes are best used in the beginning, middle, and ends of novels, and what functions they serve in those specific sections of a novel. This, too, is critical to understand.
Study Novel Structure and Genre
You can see how having so many choices might paralyze you, especially if you don’t have a strong handle on novel structure. When you know, for instance, what the ten foundational scenes are, it makes it easier to choose your scene type. A climax scene will have high action, and, of course, the resolution of your novel would require a resolution scene.
Your genre comes into play as well. The type and number of high- and low-energy scenes are going to vary based on genre. A thriller is going to have a lot more high-energy scenes than a slow-paced thoughtful women’s fiction or romance.
Want to know the best way to figure out what scenes should go where? Study best sellers in your genre, novels that are as close in plot and style as yours. Tear them apart. Make a list of scene summaries and note what type of scene each one is.
Another thing that will help you determine what type of scene to write is to always keep in mind the natural cycle of action-reaction. This is also something that will vary by genre.
The natural behavior cycle of humans that our characters should also convey is this: action-reaction-process-decision-new action.
A scene might be solely a processing scene. A detective, in the prior scene, just discovered some important clues. Now, in this scene, she is mulling over what she’s learned, maybe discussing it with her partner, to determine the next course of action (decision).
Or you might have an action scene that ends with a reaction. That detective might be chasing down a lead, only to find a gang of vampires waiting for her in a dark alley. The last paragraph might show the detective swearing under her breath, wishing she had listened to her partner about going it alone.
Or you could make that scene all action, ending it with her running into the vampires, leaving the reaction to the next scene.
Sometimes that cycle of action-reaction repeats dozens of times within one scene. Think about it. Your detective chases the bad guy, who vanishes around the next corner. Now she has to process that and make a decision. Should she continue her search or give up and get a latte? She might go to get coffee (new action), only to spot the bad guy flirting with the barista. She then reacts, processes (Should I confront him here or wait till he gets her phone number?), then makes a decision.
At any point, the scene may end in the middle of that cycle on one of the five stages. It all depends on … what your high moment is, what key reveal you are building to, how the character will change and why, what is that lasting feeling you want to leave with your readers …
You see how all these pieces intertwine?
Your scene also needs an opening and ending hook. It needs a balance of narrative, dialogue, internal thoughts, and action. How do you know how much of each you should have?
Go back to those best sellers and study them. Therein lies your answer. Yes, novels will vary even within niche genres. Writing style varies, and you need to develop your own unique style. But there are parameters and markers for every genre.
These are just some of the all-important considerations of scene structure. And why “pantsing” may not be the best way to proceed. I often do a kind of storyboarding, almost always starting with my high moment and working backward. I always start with the scene’s key purpose in mind and how that scene will advance the plot. And that takes careful planning.
No one ever said writing scenes was easy—except those who’ve never written one (a good one!).
That’s the reason I started teaching intensive three-day boot camps on scene structure. If you’d like to really master scene writing, consider attending one of four Scene Mastery Boot Camps held in beautiful locales around Northern California.
In 2019, I, along with co-instructor Catharine Bramkamp, will be teaching these boot camps in Nevada City, South Lake Tahoe, Carmel, and Geyserville (wine country). At the boot camp, you’ll be immersed in learning with a dozen or so other writers in an intimate setting, learning all about scene structure, writing and rewriting your scenes, and getting feedback from other attendees and the instructors.
There is no better way to master scene structure than to go deep into the craft, applying what you learn immediately, and having personalized help every step of the way. Plus, boot camps are a whole lot of fun! No distractions, no dishes to wash, no kids to cart around. Just dedicated time to improve your novel-writing skills.
For more information on our boot camps, go to our event site Writing for Life Workshops. There, you can read up on all the events (which includes our Plotting Madness and Self-Publishing Boot Camps) and book your space.
Make 2019 the year you master scene structure!
C. S. Lakin is the author of about twenty novels of various genres. She also has eight nonfiction titles in her Writer’s Toolbox series, which aims to help fiction writers learn all they need to know to pen a terrific novel. Her online instructional school offers self-paced video courses for writers and editors on marketing and the craft of writing. Sign up for her Novel-Writing Fast Track mailing list and get two free ebooks the first week and regular emails offering tips, special offers, and freebies—all intended to help you fast track to success as a novelist.