5 Easy Tips to Strengthen Your Scenes

In the English countryside they have stone walls to keep in the sheep. Some of these walls have been around for centuries, and they’re amazing architectural achievements. The flat stones are not uniform. They differ in color and shape, yet they fit together to form the whole.

The scenes of your fiction are like the stones in an English wall. You want your scenes to vary in shape and feel, but when you step back they should all fit together. You don’t want any stones sticking out at odd angles, or cracked through the center. If you make each scene stand on its own and contribute to the story in an essential way, your story will be structurally solid.

But if you have weak scenes, your story may crumble.

Let’s look at some simple techniques for revising scenes so your edifice will stand the test of time.

1. RELIVE YOUR SCENES. Not rewrite. Relive.

Have you ever imagined yourself to be the characters? Tried to feel what they’re feeling? Try it now. It’s not hard. Be an actor.

Often, after I’ve written a scene, I’ll go back and try to live the emotions. I’ll act out the parts I’ve created. Almost always what I feel “in character” will make me add to or change the scene.

You can also imagine the scene, step by step, in your mind. Let it play like a movie. But instead of watching the movie from a seat in the theater, be in the scene. The other characters can’t see you, but you can see and hear them.

Intensify the proceedings. Let things happen. Let characters improvise. If you don’t like what they come up with, rewind the scene and allow them to do something else.

Look at the beginnings of your scenes. What do you do to grab the reader at the start? Have you spent too much time with description of setting? Often the better course is to start in medias res (in the middle of things) and drop in description a little later.

Examine scene endings. What have you provided that will make the reader want to read on? Some great places to stop a scene are:

• 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.
• When raising a question that has no immediate answer.

Keep improving your scenes and your novel will soon develop that can’t-put-it-down feel.

2. HEAT UP THE CORE. Ask yourself what the core of your scene is. What’s the purpose? Why does it exist? If the core is weak or unclear, strengthen it.

3. ADJUST YOUR PACE. If you need to speed up a scene, dialogue is one way to do it. Short exchanges with few beats leave a lot of white space on the page and give a feeling of movement.

In the Lawrence Block story “A Candle for the Bag Lady,” a waitress tells private investigator Matt Scudder someone was looking for him, ending her descriptions by saying he looked “underslung.”

“Perfectly good word.”
“I said you’d probably get here sooner or later.”
“I always do. Sooner or later.”
“Uh-huh. You okay, Matt?”
“The Mets lost a close one.”
“I heard it was 13-4.”
“That’s close for them these days. Did he say what it was about?

To slow the pace of a scene, you can add action beats, thoughts and description as well as elongated speeches. In the Block story, a killer confesses to Scudder. Scudder asks why he did it.

“Same as the bourbon and coffee. Had to see. Had to taste it and find out what it was like.” His eyes met mine. His were very large, hollow, empty. I fancied I could see right through them to the blackness at the back of his skull. “I couldn’t get my mind away from murder,” he said. His voice was more sober now, the mocking playful quality gone from it. “I tried. I just couldn’t do it. It was on my mind all the time and I was afraid of what I might do. I couldn’t function, I couldn’t think, I just saw blood and death all the time. I was afraid to close my eyes for fear of what I might see. I would just stay up, days it seemed, and then I’d be tired enough to pass out the minute I closed my eyes. I stopped eating. I used to be fairly heavy and the weight just fell off of me.”

4. STRETCH THE TENSION. Don’t waste any good tension beats. Stretch them. Make your prose the equivalent of slow motion in a movie. Show every beat, using all the tools at your disposal: thoughts, actions, dialogue, description. Mix these up.

In a famous early scene in Whispers, Dean Koontz takes 17 pages to describe the attempted rape of the lead character. Read it and learn.

5. CUT OR STRENGTHEN WEAK SCENES. Identify the 10 weakest scenes in your work. You should have an idea of what these are. Use your gut instinct.

When you read through the manuscript, you sensed a certain letdown in some of the scenes, or even outright disappointment.

To help you further, look for scenes where:

• Characters do a lot of talking to each other, without much conflict.
• The scene feels like a setup for some other scene.
• The characters’ motivations seem undeveloped.
• There’s too much introspection going on.
• There’s not enough introspection to explain the motivations in action.
• There’s little tension or conflict between characters.
• There’s little tension or conflict inside the character.

Make yourself identify 10 weak scenes. Even if you think only five are really weak, rate another five. List the scenes in order of their relative weakness. The weakest scene is No. 1, the next weakest No. 2, and so on. Write these numbers on sticky notes and mark each weak scene in the manuscript. Now you’re ready to work.

Follow these steps:

STEP 1: Cut scene No. 1 from the manuscript. It’s gone. It is the weakest link. Goodbye.

STEP 2: Move to scene No. 2. Answer the Three ‘O’ Questions:

1.    What’s the objective in the scene and who holds it? In other words, who is the POV character and what’s he after in the scene? If he’s not after anything, give him something to go after, or cut the scene. You must be able to state the character’s objective clearly and unambiguously. You must also make this objective clear to the reader at the beginning of the scene. The character must either state it or show it in action.

2.    Next, what’s the obstacle to his known objective? Why can’t he have it? There are three primary obstacles you can use:

    • Another character who opposes him, either consciously or unconsciously.
    • The character himself is fighting an inner battle or lack of something that gets in his way.
    • A physical circumstance makes it hard or impossible for him to gain his objective.

3.    Finally, what is the outcome of the scene? A character can gain his objective or not. For the greatest tension, which do you think it should be? Not. Why? Because trouble is your game, and trouble is tension for the character, and that’s what keeps readers reading. Most of the time, let the outcome be a negative—or at least an unrealized—objective.

STEP 3: Repeat the above process for the other eight scenes on your list.

What to know what plots work best in novels? Consider:
20 Master Plots

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