The Mini-Story that Builds Your Novel
Each scene is a building block to your story. And, each scene is a mini-story with the same components as the main story.
But the scene has one more function:
Pantser or Planner, It Doesn’t Matter
If you are a planner, you can plan out the basic storyline of the scene. As a writer, you know characters do and say unexpected things. You have a basic structure to keep them from going too far from the scene and disrupting the story plan. I’m not saying characters shouldn’t be disruptive within the story, just make sure actions are moving the story forward and not drama for drama’s sake.
Are you a pantser? Then don’t despair. You can review your scene after you write it to check that you have covered the basic scene elements. Some pantsers wait until the first edit to check each scene. Others check the scene and then go on to the next scene.
How to Check Your Scene
As you review the scene check each element to keep your story from going adrift.
The central character of the scene doesn’t have to be the protagonist. But you write the scene from the scene’s main character point of view. If you found you have jumped characters you need to edit to keep the scene centered on that main character.
The obstacle can be as physical as a fight to the death or as mental as trying to solve a problem. At the beginning of the scene the character confronts a problem. By the end of the scene, the character has either solved the problem--won the fight, figured it out--or is defeated. Every scene needs a challenge.
The reader needs to know where the character is. Who is in the room? On the field? On the street?
The setting can contribute to the obstacle by challenging the scene’s central character physically or adding and emotion overlay to the action and dialogue.
Worldbuilders need to add the special details around the characters as they speak and act.
The Emotional Arc
As the central character interacts with others through dialogue and action his emotional position changes. Whether she overcomes the obstacle or is defeated, she’ll have an emotional response to the consequences. The emotional arc is the key to keeping readers engaged and turning the page.
The Structure - Beginning, Middle, EndIf you have your central character in a setting that adds to the story faced by a challenge, you’re on your way. By the time the character has wrestled the challenge (middle) and either won or lost (end), you walked your scene through the structure.
The Final Evaluation - Move The Story Forward
Once your scene is complete, you need to take a look at how it fits into the overall story. If it’s an info-dump about the story world you’ll need to lighten up by integrating the information into other parts of the story. If it’s a cute scene or a big fight you still need to review how the scene moves the story forward.
If the scene is the best writing you’ve ever done it still needs to move the story along. Every writer learns to put their darlings aside if not outright kill them. You can save expository information to sprinkle in other scenes. Save that adorable scene for another story or give it an impetus to move the overall story toward the conclusion. You’ll need your editor’s hat to make sure the scene is doing the job--moving the story forward.
Want to practice scene writing? What’s happening with that duck in the dark?
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in Italy under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus and his tutor Nikolaos help solve crimes when politics and murder collide in a provice far from the King's court.
Brainstorm First, Organize Later
Writers want a story that is unlike any other. Brainstorming your scenes is a creative way to capture the essence of your story. The ideas go straight from your head into story scenes. Use old-fashioned 3x5 cards, tools like Scrivener, or just list them out in a document. Keep adding scenes until you have all the scenes of your story.
You can move them around as you add scenes, but don't focus on this too much. The concept is to write down as many scenes as you can that will be part of your story.
The key to this process is that it is a brainstorming exercise. No judgment. If a scene comes to mind, add it to the list. You'll organize them later.
After you have written your scenes, it's time to structure your story. It doesn't matter if you use The Hero's Journey, Save The Cat beats, or any one of a number of story structure devices. Different structures work best for different writers.
Get your basic plot points. Here is novelist Kristen Kieffer's basic list.
• Exposition. The necessary character, setting, and background details readers need to understand the context of your novel. (Note: exposition is *not* the beginning of a novel, though most often exposition is revealed during the first few chapters in order to set the scene).
• Call-To-Action. The moment when the hero is called to leave the ordinary world to take part in an otherworldly adventure. Usually found in fantasy and science fiction novels.
• Rising Action. The series of events leading up to the climax of the story.
• Crises. Peaks in tension or conflict that occur throughout the rising action of the novel.
• Climax. The most intense crisis found in the narrative, though not necessarily the final crisis.
• Falling Action. The series of events after the climax of the story where questions are answered and any remaining crises occur and are resolved.
• Resolution. The final moments of a novel where any remaining threads of tension are resolved and a new reality is established.
What matters is that you choose your structure so you can start adding scenes.
Place Your Scenes in the Structure Format
Now you can place your scenes in story order, according to your chosen plot structure. Use a cork board, software, or a document to order your scenes.
Story Structure: The Container for Your Scenes
At this stage two things can happen:
Take a look at those scenes that don't fit in the story structure. If you don't find a place for the scenes to move the story forward, it's time to let them go.
Slideshow of Basics
Rewards of Brainstorming and Structure
With the scenes in line with the structure, it's time to start writing.
The immense benefit of brainstorming the scenes is that you already know what happens. You don't have to stall wondering what comes next. You've already envisioned the scene.
You'll find that you can focus on writing, and that the writing will go swiftly.
The process also eliminates spending hours of writing only to find your story has led to a dead end or you've boxed yourself in. The scene process, saves hours of rewrite time from writing "freeform."
You won't get lost. You can write the scenes in any order as your mood strikes, but in the end you'll complete your story without false starts or material that bogs down the story. Because you write more quickly, you'll save time creating your entire story.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Argolicus thinks he has retired, but he and his tutor, Nikolaos are drawn into puzzles, politics, and murder.
Check Your Scenes for Story Essentials
Indie authors are feeling a big push to produce as much as possible in the shortest time. Get those books up! Sell more!
At the same time your readers expect a great story rich in detail and emotional tugs. Sometimes when we rush to get the story done, those rich details get left behind as we follow the story outline or what comes next in our head.
Next, Consider where your scene is in the overall story. Then, examine the elements of the scene and how it fits in the overall story line. If it doesn’t move the story forward, don’t spend more time editing or adding to the scene. Cut the scene.
Slow Down For Details
Read through the scene so you can address all the scene elements. Once you have added what you think is appropriate, the last step is to check for balance within the scene.
A Better Story Equals More Sales
Your readers may not know why a scene bothers them or slows them down or makes them stop reading, but the effect of missing details can lose readers. Taking the time to go through scene by scene will enliven your story and keep readers turning the pages.
Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction.
When you go through the first edits of your story make certain that all scene components are in each scene. You’ll take your reader by the hand to lead them through the story.
Two Types of Scenes
Alternating between Proactive and Reactive scenes is a cycle that builds story in increments.
The Proactive Scene
The Proactive Scene challenges your protagonist.
By the end of the scene, the protagonist has not only failed to reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning.
Checklist for the Proactive Scene
Put your hero or heroine in the worst possible situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.
The Reactive Scene
Now that your protagonist is thwarted, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine makes a decision about what to do next.
Checklist for the Reactive Scene
These are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision.
Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make really bad decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.
Why This Structure Helps
For beginning writers, all this alternating of scenes may seem forced. I know, I was a beginning writer, and thought the same way. But my stories went nowhere and lacked tension. Readers want and expect your characters to have problems and overcome obstacles. Unless you are very compulsive, you don’t need to write these lists down. Just know which type of scene you are writing, create the obstacles either to action or decision making, and write the scene. Your story will benefit and your readers will love your story.
Scene Editing When Your Story Is Finished
Once you have written each scene with all the writer passion you hold, go back to edit your story with a cold, clear eye.
Scene Checklist For Editing
Practice story editing with an objective eye. Be as unbiased as possible about the elements in each scene. Use your critical mind to objectify the story. I think of it as switching from the story creator, the one who loves the story, to a person who is looking at a thing. Use whatever mind tricks you can to be as objective as possible.
Do this work on your story and scene structure before you send it to an editor.
Some writers completely switch into editing mode and stop writing during the process. I like to balance editing and writing so I do some of each during the editing process. Find what method works for you, but don’t skip story editing.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.