Painting Memorable Scenes: Adding Effective Substance
A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog article discussing the foundation you need to lay for each of your novel’s scenes. This foundation includes knowing your scene’s purpose, keying into the characters’ motivations, and making sure the setting strikes the intended mood. But there’s a lot more to painting a memorable scene than simply constructing a solid foundation. With that in place, it’s time to start layering substance on top of that groundwork.
I’ll again be relying on the book “Writing Great Fiction: Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell. He does a masterful job explaining this process of crafting scenes from the ground up, and though I encourage everyone to give it a thorough read no matter how much writing experience you have, I’ll detail here the major highlights that completely changed how I think about these essential novel building blocks.
Conflict, Tension, and Stakes
Identifying your characters’ scene goals and scrutinizing the setting should have spotlighted the conflict preventing your characters from achieving their objectives. If it didn’t, you’ll want to reconsider how you’re handling that scene because conflict, no matter how small, drives the action forward and creates intensity. As James Scott Bell explains: “Always make sure scenes have tension in them, either the tension of pure action (something bad is about to happen) or inner tension (the characters worrying about something). Even when characters are at rest in a relatively quiet scene, there should be an undercurrent signaling that things are not as calm as they seem.
“Raymond Obstfeld, in ‘Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes,’ has a helpful tip about the ‘hot spot.’ Every scene should have that moment or exchange that is the focal point, the essential part. If your scene doesn’t have a hot spot, it should probably be cut.”
If you find yourself without an essential hot spot but the scene is too essential to cut, figure out how to raise the stakes. Bell lists some excellent questions to stimulate creative options:
- “What is the worst thing from the outside that can happen to my character? This may be in the form of another person, a physical object, or a circumstance outside the character’s control.”
- “What is the worst trouble my character can get into in this scene? You may come up with an instant answer. Pause a moment and ratchet it up a notch. This may suggest further possibilities.”
- “Have I sufficiently set up the danger for readers before the scene? Remember, they need to know what’s at stake before they start worrying.”
- “What physical harm can come to my Lead? How far can I take that threat?”
- “What new forces can come into play against my Lead? What other characters can I introduce that will make things worse? How would these outside forces operate? What tactics would they use?”
- “Is there some professional duty at stake here? What’s the worst thing that can happen to my Lead’s career life?”
- “What is the worst thing from the inside that can happen to my character? This encompasses a whole universe of mental stakes. Hint: Look to the character’s fears.”
- “What is the worst information my character can receive?”
- “Have I sufficiently set up the depth of emotion for readers before the scene? We need to care about your Lead characters before we care about their problems.”
- “How can things get more emotionally wrenching for my Lead? Is there someone the Lead cares about who can get caught up in the trouble? Are there dark secrets from the past that can be revealed?”
You’ll see established authors recommend sending in “a guy with a gun” if all else fails. This saying, based on something Raymond Chandler said back in 1950, isn’t intended to be taken literally. Instead, it means you should introduce a fresh obstacle, some kind of surprise element that forces the characters to react like the arrival of an unexpected message or a character getting fired. Make a list of possibilities — anything unplanned with the potential to hurt your characters the most — and consider how each option could move the plot or subplots forward. Don’t let the characters have a peaceful moment when some form of tension can be introduced to raise the stakes.
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
With the foundation laid and the driving conflicts in your scene locked down, you should be ready to dive into the most exciting part: the actual writing. To start, plan out a killer opening. Hooks aren’t just for the beginning of your book. You should use some kind of hook to start each of your scenes as well as your chapters. This can come in the form of dialogue, action, or description as long as it raises an intriguing question that makes the reader want to keep reading.
Once you have your reader’s attention, maintain it by keeping tension high. To stretch physical tension, for example, slow things down by alternating between action, character thoughts, dialogue, and description, and take your time with each to milk them for all they’re worth. You don’t want to resolve anything too soon because raising questions and delaying answers is what keeps readers interested.
Ending a scene is tricky, but Bell has advice for that as well: “If a scene seems to sputter to a close and you’re not sure what to do, here’s a great tip: try cutting the last paragraph or two. You don’t have to write each scene to its logical conclusion. In fact, it’s often the best choice not to. Cutting creates interest, a feeling of something left hanging — and that makes readers want to find out why.” He also lists good ways to end both scenes and chapters to accomplish this:
- “At the moment a major decision is to be made.”
- “Just as a terrible thing happens.”
- “With a portent of something bad about to happen.”
- “With a strong display of emotion.”
- “Raising a question that has no immediate answer.”
- “A mysterious line of dialogue.”
- “A secret suddenly revealed.”
- “A major decision or vow.”
- “Announcement of a shattering event.”
- “Reversal or surprise — new information that turns the story around.”
- “A question left hanging in the air.”
However you do it, just make sure your ending has your readers desperate to turn the page and learn what happens next.
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to writing a scene, but taking the time to build a foundation of its purpose, character motivations and setting and then carefully thinking through the conflicts gets results. Our ultimate goal as writers is to keep our readers from wanting to put our book down. You do this by making every scene memorable and interesting, structuring your story in these basic building blocks to drive the plot forward and keep the tension high. Then it’s just a matter of putting those blocks together, each one building on the other until you’ve assembled an unforgettable novel that’s engaging from the first scene to the last. So go find your “guys with a gun” to give your scenes the most effective substance possible. It’ll make every one of your scenes your favorite, and your readers will never forget them.