Thursday, July 7, 2011

4 Bringing Scenes to Life

Since Marissa and I are still on blog hiatus, we're not picking contest winners until we get back. In the meantime, here's a repost of an earlier article I wrote while I was thinking about bringing scenes to life in a novel.

For me, the best scenes are visual. The truly great scenes, the ones I remember from novels by other writers, play in my mind like a film. I can see the action, but unlike film, a novel also lets me smell the coffee, and taste the fear or sorrow. I can get closer to the character than I would in a film, so the emotion is right there close to my heart, and it stays there.

But how do I get to that point as a writer? How does any writer create scenes that are memorable, visual, and visceral?

First, the Structure

What is a scene? A scene is a segment of a novel. It should:
  • Establish a specific goal the main character wants to achieve.
  • Develop conflict that blocks the character from getting what she wants.
  • Add complications to the plot as the character fails to reach her goal and must react to disaster.
Along the way, it also:
  • Shows action as it unfolds.
  • Has a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Contains concrete turning points, both external and internal.
  • Moves the story forward within the overall conflict and dilemma of the novel.
  • Provides one or more pieces of new information.
  • Introduces characters or reveals something about characters previously introduced.
  • Advances the theme.
  • Leaves the reader with a specific emotion and a reason to continue reading.
The scene is then followed by the aftermath:
  • The emotional response the character has to the failure she just experience before she dusts herself off and looks for a new solution.
  • The dilemma posed when none of the possible solutions available will solve the problem.
  • The risky decision she finally reaches that seems like the lesser among the available evils.
These days, the aftermath may occur within the scene, and it may occur at each of the turning points.

Of course, the risky decision leads to a new goal, which initiates and helps us anticipate what will happen in a new scene, and so on. But even within a scene or aftermath, characters constantly gain new goals as complications are piled on. They emote, react, and make decisions based on those goals while still trying to attain the overall objective. All of this creates suspense, tension, and an urgent need for the reader to turn the pages.

Then, the Setting

Once you know what's happening in your scene and why, you need to decide where the scene takes place. That's one of the good things about being a writer--you can travel anywhere with a few strokes on your keyboard. But there are a few places you shouldn't set a scene. Don't set it in:
  • Empty air.
  • A generic version of a location.
  • An unpopulated or unfurnished location.
  • The same location you've already used for fifty other scenes. 
  • A place that won't add meaning to your story.
Great settings are specific and unique, but they aren't just window dressing. The best overall settings for a novel are in a state of change. Effective scene settings can represent and underscore the stakes of that change. Settings are the workhorses of your scene. Chosen well, scene settings:
  • Create atmosphere.
  • Help advance the plot.
  • Illuminate your characters.
  • Add complications and impediments to keep characters from reaching their goals.
  • Underscore the potential consequences of failing to fix the overall novel issue or problem.
  • Provide a framework within which your characters move.
  • Give your characters something with which to interact.
  • Create visual opportunities that make the scene both larger than life and realistic.
  • Let you use symbolism to add meaning to the scene and underscore the emotional tension.
  • Tie back to your larger theme.
That's a lot to ask, but great scene settings do all that and more. Close your eyes and think about your scene. Now:
  • Pick a setting where it would be logical for the scene to occur and tell something about both the plot and characters.
    • Why are they there?
    • Who picked the location? Why?
    • Could the scene take place anywhere else? Why not?
  • Draw a mental picture of that location.
    • What is the mood?
    • What is the weather like?
    • What is adjacent to the location?
    • What does the place look like?
    • What does it smell like?
    • What does it sound like?
    • What does it make the characters think about?
    • What does it make the characters feel?
  • Determine how this setting different from every other similar location.
    • Are there cigarette burns on the carpet?
    • Does the maid leave prayers on the pillow?
    • Is there a particular shape to the terrain that resembles an animal? A broken tree?
    • Is there fox's den nearby? Are the kits trying to sneak out while their mother hunts?
  • Put your characters in their places within the setting.
    • Are they all grouped together?
    • Is one slightly apart?
    • Who is next to whom? Why?
  • Visualize what tasks they are doing as they interact with each other and start the action of the scene.
    • Are they running for their lives?
    • Eating?
    • Working?
    • Fiddling with a radio?
    • Unpacking something?
  • Populate the setting with items that help us understand even more about your characters.
    • Do they pick something up?
    • Shift it back into place?
    • Turn it over and hide it? Why?
    • Turn away from it? Why?
    • Do their eyes keep straying to it? Why?
    • What do their eyes focus on?
    • What do they love?
    • What do they hate?
    • What do they avoid?
    • What do they want to change? Why?
    • What reminds them of childhood or specific events in their lives?
    • What does that say about them?
    • What does it symbolize?
    • How does it tie back to the central theme?
  • Imagine how they react to the changing goals, emotional responses, physical reactions, and decisions of the other characters.
    • How does their response change the tasks in which they were engaged?
    • Their physical locations?
    • Their body positions?
The Key is in the Details
A scene has a beginning, a middle, and an end--exactly like a novel. And like a novel, each scene should begin and end with a strong image. The beginning image is your establishing shot. In two or three paragraphs, this verbal image must:
  • Give the reader a quick overview of the setting.
  • Reveal the characters who are present.
  • Provide multi-sensory details to bring the reader even closer to the action.
  • Move you naturally into revelation of the main character's immediate goals.
Two or three paragraphs don't give you a lot of room to accomplish all that, so it is important to do your homework in visualizing the setting. Choose the details and actions that will bring your location to life immediately. These should be obvious from the work you did when visualizing the scene and setting. All you have to do now is set your focus on what best establishes the mood and situation.
The ending image for the scene is just as powerful. It should:
  • Set up the emotional response for the sequel.
  • Underscore the "button" or payoff for the scene.
  • Highlight the disaster that has just occurred.
Wrapping It All Together
A memorable, visual scene has to move beyond writing about generic characters and places. It demands that you create characters and settings so vivid they transcend their own uniqueness and become symbols representing specific traits.

To craft a memorable, visual scene, integrate the scene structure with a detailed, specific setting revealed through character interaction and reaction instead of narrative description.  Your scene will jump to life.

What do you think? What did I leave out? Do you have any tips to share?
Happy scene building,


For more information:

Best Scenes in Fiction
Scenes, the Building Blocks of Novels
How to Write a Scene
Easy Steps to Writing Sensational Scenes
Writing Fiction, Scenes: Part 1
Writing Fiction, Scenes: Part 2
How to Write a Novel with Perfect Scenes
Writing the Perfect Scene
Sequels: Advanced Writing Technique
Effective Scene Changes--Transitions
Controlling Story Flow with Sequels
Fiction Craft: Ending a Scene
What Makes a Great Setting
Important Tools in Setting a Novel
The Basics of Screenwriting, Setting the Scene
Using Establishing Shots in Your Screenplay



  1. Great post. Keeping this for reference.

    Have a great break!

  2. Wow...writing is so complex, the more you learn! I really like the idea (never thought of it before) of having a scene begin and end with a strong image. I'll have to look at my scenes with that in mind. I'm definitely saving this list/article for reference. Thanks!


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