Although every novel only exists by the grace of its scenes, we all still struggle to write these mini-arcs. Some work. Some don’t. Why and how do they do that? These seven questions will help anyone strengthen and improve their scene-crafting skills.
What Is It For?
Every word in your story is a step towards the conclusion. A scene is a big step, and it should move the narrative forwards. Always consider what a scene is for, what it’s doing for the overall plot, and how it advances characters, subplots, and themes.
Where Is It?
It’s a practical consideration. Where is this happening? Your setting can do as much work towards establishing mood, hinting at buried secrets, or foreshadowing future action as your characters’ words and deeds. Drop some description into every scene, even if it’s just the color of the flowers, the linger scent of dinner, or an oncoming storm’s crackling energy.
What’s the Action?
Is this a fight scene? Does someone propose? Maybe it’s a complex dinner party full of slights and praises setting up a character for a fall from or rise to power. A discussion may dominate the scene, and that counts as action, too. After all, speech is powerful. Thoughts have power, too, and even characters behave peacefully in the physical world, their ideas may play out an entirely different drama.
Who Acts and Who Sees?
What characters dominate this scene, and who needs to witness the action? If a councilor and general have a tussle in the hallway, they have their own action, but the real drama may come from the queen’s point of view as she watches the first pillars of her kingdom crumble. Pull in characters with something to do, and don’t waste readers’ time with side characters who aren’t involved unless their point of view changes something important.
POV determines the mood, goal, and tone of a scene. If you want to focus on the action in a scene with swords, make sure someone with a lot to lose and a sword in hand holds the POV. If you want flashing swords in the background, but more important shifts happen in the background, give the POV to someone involved in those changes. Keep the reader’s view close to the heart of the true action.
What’s the Conflict?
Who wants what and what is standing in their way? Maybe a student wants his teacher’s attention, or a graduate wants to recover their own self worth by humiliating an old foe. Maybe the teacher stymies both the student and graduate, and your scene gains multiple conflicts, especially if the student and graduate realize they have somewhat opposite intentions towards their teacher. Find the conflict, even in “quiet” scenes and let it guide each character’s behavior. It’s the same rule you follow when plotting a novel. The only difference is that in a scene, you get to watch that conflict in motion.
What Will Readers Remember?
A scene needs a crescendo. Leave the readers with a particular line, image, or threat ringing in the back of their minds as they move on. Most scenes don’t resolve major conflicts, but they may delay an inevitable fight, increase the stakes with a well-timed threat, or shift the field of obstructions between a character and their desire. Remember the point of the scene, and let the conflict drive the cast towards that purpose. Maybe a student finally gets a word of praise, or maybe the queen decides to have a talk with the witch in the woods. Something should change.
What Can Improve?
You probably won’t think of these points as you write your first (or second) draft. Editing (your third, fourth, sixteenth draft) gives you endless opportunities to apply lists like this to your scene. As you reread, look for the crescendo, debate if the scene even has a purpose, and reconsider giving the captain of the guard the point of view.
In order to perfect a scene, of course, you need to write it. Begin with a purpose, and let the conflict take the wheel. Everything else gets fixed in edits.