Every now and then, a scene won’t work and my guiding principle here is that if a scene is boring to write, it’s going to be deadly dull to read. Which means time to rethink and revise. Over the years I’ve found–and have learned from others–that scenes need to have more than one thing going on in order to have that spark that keeps a reader’s attention. So here’s my checklist for all the heavy lifting that needs to happen in a scene:
If there’s no conflict in a scene, you might as well be writing down a recipe. Conflict can be as simple as she wants a glass of wine and he thinks she should have a beer. Or it can be deep and major. But it all boils down to making sure that every character wants something, and not everyone’s going to get what they want out of that scene.
This one is a little different than “conflict” — tension comes from the reader not quite being sure what will happen next. The reader may have an idea, but if it’s obvious how things will work out, there’s no tension. Sometimes you have to leave room for the characters to surprise you, meaning they’ll also surprise the reader and set up that tension. But you also have to stay away from cliches–there is nothing more predictable than a cliche. And this means do not push your characters into acting a set way to make a plot go a set way (as in the heroine who sees the hero with another woman and immediately assumes he’s cheating on her, which allows her to storm off and do something stupid, allowing the bad guy to kidnap her, so the hero can save her — just don’t do it).
Things have to get worse. Particularly, the relationship issues between a hero and heroine in a romance. And more obstacles have to crop up for the main character who is trying to reach a goal.
This can also be called “plot twists” or “turning points” or there are a lot of other terms, but the guidelines I like to follow is that you cannot resolve one conflict or issue for the main character without introducing two new ones. So this is where its time to look at the scene and ask: How is this making it harder for the main character to get to his main goal? This can be with little things that add up, or a big old nasty complication, but it’s got to get worse.
This can be posed as a question: What new side of the main character does this scene show to the reader? In other words, a song doesn’t play the same note over and over. You want your main character to stay fresh and keep developing. New conflicts means your character needs to be faced with having to make new choices. And new people in the story means you’re able to reveal new sides to your character since we all act differently with different folks. So each scene needs to show fresh angles on your main characters.
5-Show the world.
Scenes always need to take place somewhere. Ideally, the setting is as much a character as anyone walking or talking. The setting provides mood, it can be a contrast, can help heighten tension, can add in more conflict, it can enrich the reader’s feeling of being in another world. Too often I see setting skipped over, when it should be made into a vital part of the scene.
One big note here–I can write dialogue or I can write description. Meaning I can focus on the characters or the setting. Doing both at once–not an option with my brain. So I’ll do a draft that is only dialogue, and then go back and layer in the setting. Or I’ll get the setting right and then go back and lay in the scene. I have to do both, but they have to be done in different drafts.
6. Layer Subtext.
This one takes some work, but it’s one of my favorite things to do in a scene. I always want a scene to be about more than what’s obvious–there’s the surface text, and under that is the sub-text. This is where what characters want in the scene becomes very important–so does how a character goes about getting that desire. This is where you have characters talking at cross-purpose–one person talking about topic A while the other person thinks they are talking about topic B. This is where, as the writer, you can have a lot of fun, both with the characters and readers.
7. Raise the stakes.
This one seems a lot like conflict or tension, but it’s really about how a character comes out of a scene. This relates more to consequences. Every goal needs to come with consequences–what happens if you succeed and what happens if you fail? If the character’s life does not change, there are no consequences. Obviously, the worse the consequences, the greater the tension and conflict. But it’s even better if scenes can keep raising the stakes. It’s like a poker game–you want to keep making the pot bigger. Meaning, the main character has more to win–and more to lose. So how can the scene raise those stakes by offering the main character more, or by leaving the main character with a need to “ante up” to stay in the game?
8. Hit emotions.
This comes last on the list, but it’s perhaps the most important element. Readers need to feel something in a scene–if I’m crying when I write, that’s a good thing. If I’m starting to laugh, that’s great. If I don’t feel anything, that scene needs to be taken apart, scrapped, or totally rewritten. I’d rather come out of a draft with rough scene that has emotion, than perfect writing that’s flat. And if the emotion is there, I’m very, very careful with the editing — you can revise the emotion right out of a scene.
There’s also an obvious note is that scenes have to have something to do with the plot or subplots–don’t laugh, I’ve written great scenes and realized afterwards they didn’t have a damn thing to do with this book. (However, save these–they’ve found their way sometimes into other stories.)
And the final note is that scenes should be about forcing the main character to make a choice–and these should become tougher and tougher choices. The choices that someone makes reveal that person’s character. So scenes need to set up bad and worse choices–tough and tougher choices.
Now all of this is hard to get right in every single scene, so my goal is to get as many of these things right as possible. It’s my checklist. If a scene is only doing one or two of these things, that’s a scene that could be cut and the book won’t suffer for it. Or that scene needs to be revised and rewritten so that it’s doing more work.
If a scene is doing five or six of these things, cutting that scene is going to damage the story–that scene HAS to stay (and now I have good arguments if any editor even thinks of cutting it). It’s all about making sure every scene is working hard to help create a strong story.