Painting Memorable Scenes: Laying a Solid Foundation
When I started writing my first novel, I had no idea how to block my story into scenes or that I even needed to structure it that way. I had lots of ideas for disconnected “scenes” I wanted to include, but I viewed them like crucial events and not as true scenes with their own individual beginnings, middles, and ends. The end result was lackluster, sloppy, and indefinite.
Without knowing I needed to construct my book around a novel’s basic structure, I found myself including boring and unnecessary filler in a poor attempt to transition between major landmark events and tie the story together. Desperate to understand what I was doing wrong, I turned to writing books for help and found “Writing Great Fiction: Plot & Structure” by James Scott Bell. I’ve mentioned this book in previous blog posts, but almost everything I’ve personally discovered about crafting scenes aligns with the excellent advice included there. As always, I highly recommend reading it for yourself, but I’ll detail here the basic foundation you need to lay in order to paint memorable scenes.
Before you start thinking through a scene, make sure it needs to be there. Does it progress the main plot or subplots in a meaningful way? If the answer is no, throw it away and move on to the next one. If you find yourself justifying it because it adds characterization, think really hard about whether the important parts can be combined with a more critical scene or you can get by without it altogether. I love scenes that revolve around my characters interacting with each other, but as much fun as they are to imagine and write, they often don’t do a lot for the book and I end up cutting them during revision.
Save yourself the trouble and take a moment to consider your scene’s purpose: why is this scene here and how is it important?
Also, make sure you know what kind of scene it is. You’ll find that novels usually fall into a pattern of alternating between action and reaction scenes. James Scott Bell describes it this way: “Character takes action, is frustrated by conflict, and usually ends up with a setback. He reacts to this development, thinks things over, and decides on another action.” He points out that you can also “place reaction (or sequel) as a beat within action” and sometimes you’ll have an action scene followed by multiple reaction scenes or vice versa, but this is the most common pattern. The important things to be aware of are which type of scene you’re writing and how many reaction scenes are between your action ones to maintain momentum.
Character Goals and Motivation
Keeping in mind your scene’s purpose, determine what your character motivations are as a result. Each one of the characters involved will have some kind of objective they’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s your main character or a cameo attempting to achieve a massive goal or just pursuing simple desire. It’s our job as writers to figure out what these characters want and how they’ll go about getting it, and then craft the scene around those goals.
Setting and Mood
After nailing down your characters’ scene goals, it’s time to turn your attention to the setting. Sometimes where the scene takes place is inescapably tied to the plot, but when it’s flexible, double check that your setting works with the specific details you’re providing to set the right mood. For example, if you want your characters and therefore your readers to feel uncomfortable, make the setting itself uncomfortable. If you want your characters in a panic, put them in a setting that adds to that panic or add elements to an existing setting to create the intended mood. The end goal is to make the setting antagonistic whenever possible. Never leave your characters in an idyllic environment when it can be actively fighting against them in some way, whether it comes from the other characters present, the weather, the layout of where they are, the location itself, or some other source specific to your story.
Knowing you need to block your story into scenes is only the first step to writing an amazing book. The next is laying the proper groundwork for each of those scenes. It’s much like balancing a scale. You have to weigh the right scenes to include, the best character goals to illuminate, and the proper settings to showcase in order to paint those scenes as memorably as possible. But if you can achieve that, you’ll be well on your way to crafting an unforgettable story, and it will leave a lasting impact on everyone who reads it.