The following is excerpted from the online course The Art of Storytelling 101: Story Mapping and Pacing by Terri Valentine, which explores style, concepts, characters, and how to write strong scenes. Learn more about the course and register at Writer's Digest University.
Practically speaking, scenes are the irreducible matter of novels. The success or failure of a novel often depends on each scene doing its share of the heavy lifting. Scenes are not the same as chapters: A chapter may contain one or many scenes.
Beginning writers often focus their attention on a few “important” scenes that they think are the heart of the novel and will wow the readers. The remaining scenes are treated as information dumps (passive talking-head scenes delivering necessary information), transition scenes (moving characters to different settings), or establishing scenes (introducing us to minor characters, settings, and secondary plot lines). In reality, these scenes are more plentiful and do more foundation-building work than the flashier “important” scenes.
The video above describes three types of scenes you can use, and the tips below provide questions you can ask when you're looking to hone those scenes in the revision process.
How to Write Strong Scenes: 4 Key Questions to Evaluate Your Scene
It helps to think of each scene as a separate short story, able to stand on its own. As such, it should have a dynamic opening which thrusts the reader right into the scene. It should have a middle that delivers something essential to the novel as a whole. It should have an ending that generates enough suspense to compel the reader into the next scene. And all this needs to be done in an entertaining way.
One technique that helps writers polish scenes is to copy and paste individual scenes into separate documents when you want to edit them. Once you physically remove a scene from the context of the rest of the novel, it’s much easier to focus on all the necessary elements. This slows your editing process because you’re not thinking about the next scene.
Another technique is to examine the scene to make sure it is necessary. Sometimes writers spend a lot of time polishing a scene that they know doesn’t quite work in the story.
They think the problem is with the technique, when in fact it’s with justifying the existence of the scene in the first place. Maybe it isn’t needed at all. To determine whether or not your scene has fulfilled a key function, consider the following:
1. The Plot Focus:
The purpose of this scene is to ________________________________________.
(example: The purpose of this scene is to reveal the protagonist’s childhood abuses in order to provide motivation for her current actions.)
2. The Character Focus:
When the audience finishes this scene, they should feel ____________________.
(example: When the audience finishes this scene, they should feel sympathy for the protagonist, yet be skeptical of her reliability as a narrator.)
3. The Theme Focus:
When the audience finishes this scene, they should think____________________.
(example: When the audience finishes this scene, they should think that the protagonist has been using these abuses as an excuse for many other self-destructive actions.)
4. The Suspense Focus:
When the audience finishes this scene, they should wonder _________________.
(example: When the audience finishes this scene, they should wonder if the protagonist will be able to overcome the horror of her childhood in order to reunite with her estranged mother.)