Part of a special month-long event featuring writing tips and NaNoWriMo strategies from guest writers and fellow NaNo participants.
How to Write Vivid Scenes
by Kris Bock
by Kris Bock
In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I am sharing tips adapted from my book Advanced Plotting.
In fiction writing, a scene is a single incident or event. Some writers may start by writing scene summaries, either to develop an outline or for an early draft to sketch out the plot. However, a summary of the event is not a scene and is rarely suitable for a final draft. Scenes are written out in detail, shown, not told, so we see, hear, and feel the action. They often have dialog, thoughts, feelings, and sensory description, as well as action.
A scene ends when that sequence of events is over. A story or novel is, almost always, built of multiple linked scenes. Usually the next scene jumps to a new time or place, and it may change the viewpoint character.
Think in terms of a play: The curtain rises on people in a specific situation. The action unfolds as characters move and speak. The curtain falls, usually at a dramatic moment. Repeat as necessary until you’ve told the whole story.
Easy in theory, but how do you write a scene?
· Place a character — usually your main character — in the scene.
· Give that character a problem.
· Add other characters to the scene as needed to create drama.
· Start when the action starts — don’t warm up on the reader’s time.
· What does your main character think, say, and do?
· What do the other characters do or say?
· How does your main character react?
· What happens next? Repeat the sequence of actions and reactions, escalating tension.
· Built to a dramatic climax.
· End the scene, ideally with conflict remaining. Give the reader some sense of what might happen next — the character’s next goal or challenge — to drive the plot forward toward the next scene. Don’t ramble on after the dramatic ending, and don’t end in the middle of nothing happening.
Scene endings may or may not coincide with chapter endings. Some authors like to use cliffhanger chapter endings in the middle of a scene and then finish the scene at the start of the next chapter. (For more on cliffhangers, see my essay in Advanced Plotting or click on the "cliffhangers" label in my writing blog.) These authors then use written transitions (later that night, a few days later, when he had finished, etc.) or an extra blank line to indicate a break between scenes within a chapter.
A scene can do several things, among them:
Advance the plot.
Reveal characters (their personalities and/or their motives).
Set the scene.
Share important information.
Explore the theme.
Ideally, a scene will do multiple things. It may not be able to do everything listed above, but it should do two or three of those things, if possible. It should always advance the plot. Try to avoid having any scene that only reveals character, sets the scene, or explores the theme, unless it’s a very short scene, less than a page. Find a way to do those things while also advancing the plot.
A scene often includes a range of emotions as a character works towards a goal, suffers setbacks, and ultimately succeeds or fails. But some scenes may have one mood predominate. In that case, try to follow with a scene that has a different mood. Follow an action scene with a romantic interlude, a happy scene with a sad or frightening one, a tense scene with a more relaxed one to give the reader a break.
Don’t rush through a scene — use more description in scenes with the most drama, to increase tension by making the reader wait a bit to find out what happens. Important and dramatic events should be written out in detail, but occasionally you may want to briefly summarize in order to move the story forward. For example, if we already know what happened, we don’t need to hear one character telling another what happened. Avoid that repetition by simply telling us that character A explained the situation to character B.
Avoid scenes that repeat previous scenes, showing another example of the same action or information. Your readers are smart enough to get things without being hit over the head with multiple examples. If you show one scene of a drunk threatening his wife, and you do it well, we’ll get it. We don’t need to see five examples of the same thing. Focus on writing one fantastic scene and trust your reader to understand the characters and their relationship. For every scene, ask: Is this vital for my plot or characters? How does it advance plot and reveal character? If I cut the scene, would I lose anything?
Each scene is a mini-story, with its own climax. Each scene should lead to the next and drive the story forward, so all scenes connect and ultimately drive toward the final story climax.
A work of fiction has one big story question — essentially, will this main character achieve his or her goal? For example, in my novel Rattled, the big story question is, “Will Erin find the treasure before the bad guys do?” There may also be secondary questions, such as, “Will Erin find love with the sexy helicopter pilot?” but one main question drives the plot.
Throughout the work of fiction, the main character works toward that story goal during a series of scenes, each of which has a shorter-term scene goal. For example, in Erin’s attempt to find the treasure, she and her best friend Camie must get out to the desert without the bad guys following; they must find a petroglyph map; and they must locate the cave.
You should be able to express each scene goal as a clear, specific question, such as, “Will Erin and Camie get out of town without being followed?” If you can’t figure out your main character’s goal in a scene, you may have an unnecessary scene or a character who is behaving in an unnatural way.
Yes, No, Maybe
Scene questions can be answered in four ways: Yes, No, Yes but…, and No and furthermore….
If the answer is “Yes,” then the character has achieved his or her scene goal and you have a happy character. That’s fine if we already know that the character has more challenges ahead, but you should still end the chapter with the character looking toward the next goal, to maintain tension and reader interest. Truly happy scene endings usually don’t have much conflict, so save that for the last scene.
If the answer to the scene question is “No,” then the character has to try something else to achieve that goal. That provides conflict, but it’s essentially the same conflict you already had. Too many examples of the character trying and failing to achieve the same goal, with no change, will get dull.
An answer of “Yes, but…” provides a twist to increase tension. Maybe a character can get what she wants, but with strings attached. This forces the character to choose between two things important to her or to make a moral choice, a great source of conflict. Or maybe she achieves her goal but it turns out to make things worse or add new complications. For example, in Rattled, the bad guys show up in the desert while Erin and Camie are looking for the lost treasure cave. The scene question becomes, “Will Erin escape?” This is answered with, “Yes, but they’ve captured Camie,” which leads to a new set of problems.
“No, and furthermore…” is another strong option because it adds additional hurdles — time is running out or your character has a new obstacle. It makes the situation worse, which creates even greater conflict. In my current work in progress, tentatively titled Whispers in the Dark, one scene question is, “Will Kylie be able to notify the police in time to stop the criminals from escaping?” When this is answered with, “No, and furthermore they come back and capture her,” the stakes are increased dramatically.
One way or another, the scene should end with a clear answer to the original question. Ideally that answer makes things worse. The next scene should open with a new specific scene goal (or occasionally the same one repeated) and occasionally a review of the main story goal.
Get the complete essay on How to Write Vivid Scenes, plus more tips on planning, in Advanced Plotting, $9.99 in paperback, $4.99 ebook, on Amazon, B&N or Smashwords.
Thank you for the great information, Kris! My personal favorite is ending scenes where there's still conflict. Keeps those pages turning!
Readers will also want to check out Kris's novel, Whispers in the Dark:
Whispers in the Dark is action-packed romantic suspense set in the Four Corners region of the Southwest.
About the Author:
Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Whispers in the Dark involves archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. Rattled follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page.
Kris writes for children under the name Chris Eboch. Learn more at www.chriseboch.com or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.