Read a novel lately that you couldn’t put it down? What about a book that haunted you in your sleep or kept you up at night? The author of this novel, no doubt, wrote a fantastic story, and that story consisted of some pretty fabulous scenes.
That’s what a novel is, after all. It’s a series of well-written scenes. Those scenes are sewn together in such a way that the reader is compelled to turn page after page.
Think about scene writing like climbing up a giant cliff overlooking the ocean, or going up, click by click, to the highest point of a rollercoaster. You use scenes to build and build, and then you reach the apex (climax) and scream to the finish line!
After all, it’s our job as authors to keep the momentum going. We don’t want readers closing the book. We want readers asking themselves, “What happens next?” We want reviewers who say, “I read this novel in one sitting!”
So, what can you do make your scenes compelling and memorable? Whether you’ve written 3 novels or 30, this checklist should help you focus, tighten, and polishing. It will also help you decide which scenes to keep and which to throw away. Here’s the breakdown:
The Big Picture
1. Purpose – Even if you are a plotter or a pantser, this step is important. Determine the purpose of each scene, and figure it out before you begin writing. Are you introducing your antagonist? Is it a scene in which your character discovers something important? Does he meet someone who will change his life?
2. Value – Perhaps more importantly, ask yourself, as a writer, does the scene move the story forward? For example, if your entire novel centers on a circus in Madrid and all of a sudden, you’ve written a scene involving polar bears in the arctic, you’d better be able to tie the two together. If not, no matter how magical the writing, toss it.
3. Goal – This is different from your purpose or reason for writing the scene, as an author. In order to write sensational scenes, determine your main character’s goal or desire. It may continue the overarching goal for the book; it may be what the character wants to achieve that particular time and day. In that scene, what does your main character want more than anything else? Why?
For example, in the Hunger Games, Katniss promises her sister she will live.
In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett wants to never be hungry again.
In The Maze Runner, Thomas wants to escape the maze and gain his memory and (and hopefully, his family) back.
Then, ask yourself: why is this goal important? Why does it matter? What will happen if your main character doesn’t achieve her goal? If she fails, what are the consequences?
Katniss breaks her promise to her sister; she will die. Scarlett will have to sell Tara and lose her way of life. Thomas would never gain his memory back; never see his family again.
If a reader is invested in your character’s goal, if your reader wants to see your character succeed, he or she will empathize with your main character. Your reader will become emotionally bonded to the character.
Think about when you have NOT finished a book. It’s likely you stopped caring about the character. Don’t let that happen in your novel.
4. Conflict & Tension – Figure out what or who stands in the way of your character achieving his or her goal. James Scott Bell, in Plot & Structure, has this to say:
“When two characters with opposing agendas meet, you have built-in tension. A cop trying to question a witness who won’t talk; a would be lover tries to get a woman to give him the time of day and she won’t; a parent tries to find out what his wayward teen is doing but can’t.”
5. Dialogue – Is your novel’s dialogue balanced and realistic? Listen to people talk. Rarely do people have conversations in complete sentences. They use contractions. They interrupt. Stephen King does a fantastic job with dialogue. Check out a few pages of The Green Mile for proof.
Try listening to conversations around you to capture those subtle nuances. Characters should also speak differently, depending on their background and culture.
A New Yorker will sound quite different from a Southern belle.
What are your tips for writing sensational scenes? I’d love to hear them!