Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. If you’re a newer writer, you should strongly consider making a plan before you dive into writing. The reason is always the same: if you go in with a plan, there’s a higher likelihood that you’ll turn out something worth reading. A lot of strategy goes into making a scene great, and you want to have those things in mind when you write yours.
What Happens Next?
When I find myself procrastinating despite being deep into a story, I’ve come to find that means I don’t really know where I’m going or what’s next. Instead of writing words to write words, I recommend you stop and figure out what comes next and why. Although I’ve come to believe in planning, I can’t get down to a micro-level before I actually dig into the book. I can, however, do some thinking before I settle into a new scene…and you can too.
I usually start by asking: what comes next and why? I’m sort of a mix of gut reaction and analysis, but I’ve come to learn that my most boring parts are when I’m just filling space. Page turning isn’t necessarily about something “big” happening in every scene: it’s about something new happening in every scene that advances the story or character development. It’s actually embarrassing how long it took me to figure that out.
What I normally do when I’m stuck is ask myself what happens next. To get there, I sometimes sketch out what already happened, and I often refer to my broad notes about where I generally want the story to go. If I’m super stuck, I spend more time mapping out what I’ve already written. This process usually brings clarity about the next step. It might sound like a waste of time to write about what you’ve already written, but I forget what I’ve said sometimes. I forget what I’ve covered. Bullet points and brain storming help.
Writing a novel takes at least a few months, and it’s easy to forget what you’ve already said. Usually when I look back on what I’ve written, I see a hole that needs to be plugged or a character that should be addressed. Then I can focus on what the juiciest, most interesting, or most pertinent to the overall story I should go for next.
Variety is the Spice of Life
When it comes to writing scenes, advancing plot or character, in a way that moves the story forward—not just as a character sketch, is the primary goal. You always want to think about what’s next in the context of where you’ve been. However, a novel is also more than just a series of plot points in a row. It’s about connecting to characters and understanding their motivation. Another thing to consider when writing a scene is how varied they are.
If you have one action scene after another, you probably have a very plot driven novel. That’s great, but even in the most high concept thrillers, readers want to connect. Consider adding a “breather” scene, when we see how the characters feel about the situation. In the same vein, if you have more of an emotional story, make sure your protagonist isn’t spending too many pages in a row contemplating all that’s happened prior to that point. Novels, like life, benefit from variety.
Every single scene should advance your story, but how far or in what way is up to you. If you’re stuck, spend time thinking about where you’ve been and what’s the most interesting way to get where you’re going. If you keep these principles in mind along with varying pace, you’re well on your way to writing great scenes.