The modern-day popular novel is composed of scenes – the depiction of imaginary characters doing, thinking and feeling things at some particular time and place.
When you’re writing a novel, it’s likely that a few of your scenes will “write themselves.” In other words, the action, dialogue and setting will all seem flow out your imagination and onto the page, with little or no effort on your part.
More often than not, however, what you’ll actually have is simply a general idea about what needs to happen in a scene in order to logically move the story forward. But you’ll have only the foggiest notion of how to create a scene that keeps the reader engaged and which sustains – and, ideally, heightens – the story’s momentum.
When I was drafting Scream Cruise: A Motor City Thriller, I developed the following scene-writing template, which I used to keep my mind focused on the component elements that would make the scene work. After each heading, I would briefly fill in what I could put into the scene that would fulfill that element.
My Scene-Writing Template
- Scene Function:
- Scene Setting:
- What happens:
- Emotional Drivers:
- Tension Elements:
- Character Interactions:
- Key Images:
- Opening Hook:
- Ending Hook:
Now let’s look at the elements of the scene-writing template more closely.
What is the primary function of this particular scene? Is it to arouse curiosity? Is it to depict action? Is it to create suspense? Is it to create or heighten the reader’s empathy or antipathy toward the focal (POV) character? Is it exposition (i.e., information dump)? Although a scene can conceivably have multiple functions, it’s likely to work best if only one predominates. You should be clear about which one that is.
A good way to heighten the effect of a scene is to place it in an interesting setting. One way to create compelling settings is to place your characters in locations that are at least a bit out of the ordinary, and are perhaps even unusual or extraordinary. Put the reader inside places that suit the action of the scene, but that are interesting in themselves as well. Examples: An expensive, speeding limousine. A billionaire’s luxurious bedroom. The boardroom of an multinational corporation. The hushed quiet of a museum. A private jet descending toward a white-beached Caribbean island. Note that the out-of-the-ordinary setting can be downscale as well as upscale. The passenger seat of a garbage truck. An old, abandoned warehouse full of rusting machinery and moldering trash. A ramshackle convenience store on a country highway. The out-of-the-ordinary setting helps keep the reader’s attention and, when chosen well, can also contribute to the emotional impact of the scene.
Chances are, something needs to happen in the scene in order to simply move the story forward logically. This can be physical action or dialogue or a combination of both. (In popular fiction, most “action” actually consists of dialogue betwen characters.) But besides the necessary component, what else could happen in the course of depicting the story-forwarding events? And what could you incorporate that would make what happens more compelling? Could there be some small or even a major surprise that occurs as well? Could your focal character or one or more of the other characters say or do something that’s unexpected? Could the setting they’re in also play a role in what’s said or done? In sum: how can you make the “what happens?” in this scene as interesting and impactful as possible?
People tend to like or dislike fictional stories – whether on film, television, or in books – because of the emotional experience the story arouses in them. If they’ve sufficently identified with the primary hero/heroine character, they vicariously experience the same feelings the character experiences. Laughter, love, erotic desire, affection, jealousy, anger, resentment, regret, guilt, suspicion, curiosity, outrage, suspense, fear, dread, danger: there’s a broad palate of feelings you can attempt to induce in the reader. Over the course of a novel, you may well seek to arouse a variety of feelings in them. But for a single scene, chances are you will generally want one key emotion to predominate. You should be clear about the particular feeling-experience you’re aiming to induce in the reader as you imagine and write the scene.
Many books on fiction-writing make the claim that a good story must be driven by conflict between opposing forces. Conflict can be external (the traditional ”good guy versus bad guy” story); or it can also be an internal conflict in the mind of the protagonist (should Peggy Sue choose the devoted millionaire or the wild, rebel pauper?). It’s my belief that conflict is overrated as a story driver. I think that what drives stories can best be characterized as narrative tension. In other words, situations that engage the reader both emotionally and cognitively.
For sure, narrative tension can be created by the conflict of opposing forces. But it can also be derived from situations such as romantic or erotic attraction, personal quandaries (how will she or he solve this?), personality judgments (is this person friend or foe, lover or betrayer?) and plain old curiosity (What’s going on here? Why is this happening?). In the course of writing a scene, characters may indeed be in direct (or even indirect) conflict with one another. But a scene in which the protagonist discovers they have a resourceful and empathetic ally can be just as powerful.
So if there are no directly opposing forces in the scene, ask yourself: what tensions is your focal character experiencing or undergoing in the scene? Who or what is causing them? How do they respond to the tensions? What do they do to resolve them? And perhaps most important of all: how can you heighten the tension for the focal character – and hence for the reader as well?
Although it’s possible to depict a focal character interacting only with their physical environment for whole scenes (consider, for instance, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, surveilling the lair of some enemy he’ll later on annihilate), in most cases there’ll be interactions with other characters. Who will your focal character be interacting with in this scene? What will each be trying to get from the other? Do they have hidden as well as overt agendas? In what ways could their differing personalities skew the interaction? How will their differing views of the world or their immediate situation affect how they interact? What will be the end result of their interaction?
Although most popular fiction attempts to depict believeable characters in a naturalistic setting, it is possible to heighten the dramatic effect of the scene by choosing and highlighting certain images that occur in the scene. Images from nature (a withering-hot sun; a gyring hawk or eagle; a dark, looming mountain; a crystal-clear, fast-running creek , a scuttling rodent) have an innate power, but images from human culture (a thundering locomotive, a softly-humming computer, a telephone that’s anxiously burbling) can also be invested with emotional resonance. Any image that resonates with emotional nuance can be a powerful reinforcement for the fraught interactions between your characters, or for a dramatic event that occurs for your focal character.
A hook is anything that grabs the reader’s attention right at the outset. There are any number of ways to create hooks: a seemingly paradoxical statement; a statement that leaves out some important element, and thus creates curiosity; a person saying something dramatic or strange; a dramatic event, depicted at its outset or perhaps even in mid-action.
You may have noticed that, although I’m talking about hooks that open scenes, I’ve listed this as one of the latter elements. That’s because, in my experience, it’s easier to find an opening hook once you already know what the primary content of the scene is going to be. If you try to write the scene beginning with the hook, it may set you on a narrative path that doesn’t truly fit the main function of the scene. Once you’ve got the scene down, it’s easier to create an opening hook that suits the material that follows.
Finally we come to the last element: the ending hook. As with openings, there are many ways to devise ending hooks. They can, for instance, be: a character asking themselves or someone else a leading question; the sudden appearance of a new character or new information; a statement that withholds some portion of information that makes it understandable. The possibilities are almost endless. The requirement is simply that it should portend something that’s going to happen. Possibly as soon as the next page is turned, or possibly down the line. Curiosity may have killed the cat – but it is catnip to virtually all readers.
How To Use The Scene-Writing Template
If, like me, you’re a planner and outliner, as opposed to a seat-of-the-pantser, you can add the template to your outline. I like to paste the list shown at the outset of this article (with the colons) underneath the scene summary I’ve sketched out for my outline. I then go through the elements one by one, and brainstorm my answers. I then go to my draft and write the scene, referring back to the template whenever I start losing track of where the scene is going. In some cases, I’ll paste the template into the draft document so that it stays right in front of me. That way, even my monkey mind can’t avoid it. If you’re a “pantser,” this might be a good way to make the template work for you.
And that’s it. The template is no be-all or end-all, and will by no means provide every answer to the problems you’ll encounter in your scene-writing. But it works for me, and hopefully will make the job at least a little bit easier for you as well.
Detroit author Jim DeLorey
PS: if you want to check out my Detroit thriller, Scream Cruise, just click on any of the links you see on the sides of this page.
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