Writing Strong Scenes

As I mentor fiction writers, misunderstandings of what a scene is and what a scene does often show up on the page. To write strong scenes, three things must be presented:

1) The events which carry the character forward in his or her journey

2) The character’s actions and reactions to those events

3) Some sense of how these relate to the story’s theme.

A scene is a purposeful moment in sequence with other purposeful moments (scenes). Each scene contributes to moving the protagonist through the overall story structure. Even when the protagonist is not directly featured in the scene, its events will provide information, context and conflict that contribute to the protagonist’s challenges, defeats and successes.

The Elements of a Complete Scene

Like a short story, a scene has a beginning, a middle and an end. Dwight Swain defines these according to two patterns which often alternate:

  1. Goal, conflict and disaster/resolution
  2. Reaction, dilemma and decision

A disaster naturally leads to a reaction from the protagonist, and a decision (choice of direction) naturally creates a goal. These two general patterns result in an ebb and flow that propels the story forward via the two-sided coin of plot and character.

But say the scene ends. Events have not shifted in a forward direction, and/or the character has not progressed to a shift in state of mind. What does it matter? Well, readers care. To them, the storyline feels like it’s incomplete, low in interest or wandering.

With plot-oriented writers, there are sometimes plenty of conflicts and disasters, but no clear character goals to create purpose amid the mayhem. With character-oriented writers, there may be plenty of reactions and dilemmas, but a lack of decision-making and purposeful goals (striving to overcome a clear obstacle or antagonistic force).

When an emotional reaction and dilemma are followed by the intrusion of a disaster, the scene may lack logical consistency. We were focusing on the character’s internal matters, when along comes an unconnected event that sidetracks the scene from expressing development in the character’s internal journey. (It’s fine if the disaster and decision work together, though.)

Or, the scene may feel incomplete when a goal and conflict are concluded with a decision. We naturally view that decision as part of the conflict process, not the end of it. We expect to see how it plays out before the scene concludes. (But it’s fine if we can see that the decision is a disaster or a resolution.)

How to Put a Scene Onto the Page

A scene begins with a hook–something that causes the reader to want to know what comes next. A great opening line is not necessarily full of fancy words. It might drip with characterization or plot implication, and it might set up or express the scene’s goal or character problem.

A scene generally ends with a cliffhanger, which is also something that causes the reader to want to know what comes next. This is why decisions and disasters are so effective: they raise a question that demands an answer (what will come of this?), and so we must turn the page to find out.

In between the hook and the cliffhanger are the materials of the character’s perspective and experience. There are five tools of POV and one of low-tension story cohesion:

  1. Description
  2. Dialogue
  3. Action
  4. Interior monologue (either indirect paraphrase or direct statement of character’s internal thoughts)
  5. Interior emotion (gut reaction)
  6. Narrative summary (AKA “telling instead of showing,” used at low-tension points to tie the story sequence together)

Writing instructors across the board teach that the first five elements on this list should not be told about by the writer, but shown through the point-of-view character’s perspective. This is known as “show, don’t tell.” This guideline for newer fiction writers is intended to bring them out of the habit of writing almost everything in narrative summary, and teach them how to create strong vicarious experience.

However, strong fiction writing uses narrative summary in greater amounts when tension subsides, and lesser amounts when tension is high. Narrative summary is telling rather than showing. A good balance of POV work and narrative summary is like a fisheye lens, distorting the scale of the story’s timeline for strongest emotional effect.

We are emotionally engaged by conflict because we sympathize with its discomfort. Also, it raises that question. What will come of this? We’re disengaged by low conflict because the outcome is certain, or it doesn’t have a large enough scale of importance. Story conflict has to outdo the reader’s current real-life conflict in order to hold attention.

The higher the tension, the higher the detail. More time is spent on less stuff.

The lower the tension, the lower the detail. Less time is spent on more stuff.

This keeps the story’s emphasis on the most powerful emotional experiences. The reader doesn’t get bored or frustrated looking for the next interesting thing.

When a Scene Goes Badly

Occasionally, I encounter entire scenes which have been written to bring across a single sentence. That sentence is identifiable by its relationship to the plot or character arc. The unnecessary rest of the scene is identifiable by its lack of relationship to the plot/character arc. The writer has used a tool from the Macro kit, such as bringing in an extra POV, instead one from the Mid-Level kit, such as combining action and interior monologue effectively.

Perhaps it’s a memory best expressed as a brief paragraph of interior monologue, but the writer has designed an entire flashback scene in a search for the past action that affects the present. Perhaps it’s the introduction of a minor character, but a switch to that minor POV is being used to reveal a detail of Mr. Minor’s personality that can wait till later in the plot arc. Meanwhile, the Duckling Rule has been violated.

Confusion between larger-scale tools and smaller-scale tools has results similar to using a bandsaw to file a fingernail. It’s very painful for the writer and causes a lot of cleanup. Writers are my friends, and I don’t like my friends to be in pain.

Scene and Purpose

Scenes are not just snapshots; they have causality. Swain explains that these causal elements are organized in an ebb-and-flow within the scene, paragraph by paragraph. A motivating event occurs, the POV character (re)acts. That reaction may initiate another event, such as a response in dialogue, to which the character reacts next. This pattern of motivation and reaction takes the scene from initial goal or reaction, through the conflict/dilemma and to the disaster/decision. This logical flow of causality is extremely important in mimicking real-life experience in the reader’s mind.

Scene and Theme

Stanley Williams writes that every scene in a novel should express what he calls the “moral premise,” which is a two-sided look at the story theme. At different stages of the story, scenes will contain different types of internal and external conflict that drive the reader’s emotional experience. If the characters don’t interact with the theme in a given scene, the story may feel like it’s wandering (it lacks a purpose that ties everything together).

Even in action-oriented writing, strong theming is important. A theme doesn’t have to be deep to be cohesive. It can simply revolve around whatever personal values keep the hero in the fight.

Further resources:

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain
Writing Fiction For Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy
The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue & Vice for Box Office Success by Stanley Williams

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