Last time, I talked about 5 key things to keep in mind when writing scenes. Today, let’s break down the small, but crucial details.
1. First sentence – Is anyone taking a shower, having a dream, or drinking tea? Please, please, please skip all of these as scene openers. Donald Maas says this in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook:
“…cut scenes set in kitchens or living rooms or cars driving from one place to another, or that involve drinking tea or coffee or taking showers or baths, particularly in a novel’s first fifty pages… the reason is that, in careless hands, such scenes lack tension.”
I urge you to pick up a book that you love—on your own shelf, on your iPhone, or in a library. Read the first lines of scenes. How does the reader draw you in? What prompts you to continue down the page?
2. Set the Stage – In the first paragraph or two, orient the reader. Where is your main character? Are you in the Deep South or Alaska? Is he or she in a mansion or a shack? Time of day? Season? Weather? Describe the sunshine, the wind, and the sounds around your main character. You can almost color-code your scenes according to the mood.
Check out the first page of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Her rich descriptions insert you, the reader, smack dab into the middle of the dark and dangerous Belgian Congo.
3. Use your Senses – Choose two or three from the five senses and describe a sight, smell, taste, touch, or sound that is unusual and surprising to the reader. Do this early in the scene, and try to do this every chapter. It may feel awkward at first, but it is a way to ground and orient the reader as well.
Describe the sun’s color as egg yolk, give your heroine’s best friend the scent of sugar cookies, make a sound like microwave popcorn, or a touch as sticky as a toad’s tongue. My son recently talked about a Honey Crisp apple tasting like SweeTarts candy. Love it! Surprise your reader.
Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees, The Invention of Wings) is fantastic at stimulating the senses. Open her work on almost any page for great examples.
4. Action/Reaction – If your antagonist pulls a gun, does your main character jump? Scream? Faint? Quiver?
As authors, it’s our duty to show instead of tell. In doing so, we give credit to our readers that they are smart and will figure out that the main character is feeling glad, mad, or sad. Describe the ache in your character’s belly, the stab in her spine, the tension in her legs.
5. Wrap Up – Does the end of the scene prompt readers to turn the page? Don’t tie everything up too neatly and place a bow on top. Allow your main character to exit the scene before the action stops. Your reader will want to find out what happens next.
James Scott Bell, in Plot and Structure, suggests the following methods of skillfully ending a scene or chapter:
- A mysterious line of dialogue
- A secret suddenly revealed
- A major decision or vow
- Announcement of a shattering event
- A reversal or surprise
- A question left hanging in the air
Both James Scott Bell and Donald Mass, whom I mentioned earlier, are masters of story craft. I urge you to check out their books.
Read any great writing craft books? Please share!