Friday, April 03, 2020

5 Questions to Ask for Stronger Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If you have trouble plotting, ask these five questions in every scene. 

I've always been a natural plotter. That doesn't mean I was always good at it, mind you, just that figuring out what my characters had to do rarely left me scratching my head.

I think it's because I typically think in "What has to happen in this scene?" terms. And the action, the "what happens" is driven by a character with goal. Create a problem, toss in something that has to happen, add a protagonist who needs something, and voila, you have a plot.

In basic terms, a plot is a series of events that allow you to illustrate your story. It's simple, yet often difficult, which is why so many writers struggle with it.

As you start your scene, your protagonist will have a goal. It'll probably be a story goal, because the whole point is to move the story forward, right? But maybe it's a smaller goal, or a internal goal, or a unconscious goal. Maybe it's not anything they want, but something you as the author wants.

But a protagonist wanting something isn't always enough to craft a great scene. That want might be too straightforward, or not provide enough inherent conflict, or be too easy to achieve. The scene needs layers to really make it shine.

Look at the scene and ask yourself:

1. Can the protagonist be in any danger?
2. Can the protagonist learn or reveal a secret?
3. Can the protagonist be in conflict with someone, something, or themselves?
4. Can the protagonist make a choice?
5. Can the protagonist fail at something?

Sometimes all you'll find is one answer on this list, but the more of these you can add to the scene, the richer your plots can be. The outcome won't be as obvious, because there will be multiple problems going on and any of them might be the goal driving the story at that particular moment. But all of them will be doing something to deepen that story.

Let's look closer.

1. Can the protagonist be in any danger?

Odds are your protagonist will be in some kind of danger that relates back to the stakes. While you don't want to throw danger in for the sake of danger, there are probably ways in which you can raise the stakes and cause some trouble.

Let Murphy's Law play a role here, and if something can go wrong, let it.

However, if it's totally obvious that something is going to happen, resist to urge--such as suspense/horror movies where you know a cat is going to jump out at some point right before the bad guy shows up. Do something unexpected instead. Unless the goal is to fake out the reader and then have the unexpected happen, then go for it.

(Here's more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

2. Can the protagonist learn or reveal a secret?

Secrets, whether learning the truth or discovering there is truth to be had, are great ways to grab reader interest. These are good plot points to use when you have quiet moments but still need to keep the tension high and the story moving.

A secret can also be an unexpected twist to reader expectations. It can be a more mundane secret, such as a clue that moves the plot forward or provides a little foreshadowing, it might be a secret slipped in that goes almost unnoticed, yet carries great importance later on.

(Here's more on The Joy of Discovery: Keeping Readers Hooked Through Story Revelations)

3. Can the protagonist be in conflict with someone, something, or themselves?

Conflict drives a plot, so the more of it the better (within reason of course). Don't give your protagonist a break. Even if it's small, let there be personal demons to overcome, a difference of opinion to feel guilty over or have to compromise with. Moral struggles to go with the physical struggles, or even an item that won't cooperate, such as a locked door, or a gas valve that won't turn off.

Consider what kinds of things can cause problems and get in the way of any of the goals, internally and externally, your protagonist wants. One word of caution here: don't throw something in the way just to throw something in the way. If it helps the story try it, but don't make things needlessly complicated. That actually lessens the tension and bores the reader.

(Here's more on A Surefire Way to Add Conflict to Your Story)

4. Can the protagonist make a choice?

Choices are what leads your protagonist down the story path. If they're not making some kind of choice, then the book can feel random and the protagonist reactive instead of proactive. But if they need to choose something, then the opportunities for unpredictability go up. But do be careful of a situation where there is no actual choice, just a fake choice. If the choice is obvious and no one would ever choose the other option, it's not really a choice.

Choices give readers the sense that the protagonist is acting and driving the story. And every choice provides an opportunity for it to be the wrong choice, which can increase the tension and the stakes.

The choice also doesn't have to impact that particular scene. It can be a choice that has greater repercussions later in the story. Those bad decisions might come back to haunt the protagonist.

(Here's more on The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)

5. Can the protagonist fail at something?

In a novel, winning is boring. Failure forces the protagonist to think on their feet and come up with new plans. The failure doesn't have to be huge, and small mistakes that lead the protagonist down the wrong path can work very well. For example, failing to see a friend is hurting, failing to spot a clue that would save them, failure to heed their own apprehension. Any of these can affect what the protagonist is trying to achieve.

The failure might also be a huge mistake where everything goes wrong and the protagonist fails on every level. Failure to see, failure to act, failure to notice. And like the choices, this can have consequences later.

(Here's more on Do Your Characters Have the Right Flaws?)

There are plenty of things you can use to plot, but the more trouble your protagonist gets into (quiet emotional trouble or end of the world trouble), the more fun it is to watch them get out of it.

How do you develop your scenes?

*Originally published August 2010. Last updated April 2020. 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. A handy post as always, Ms. Hardy. :)

    Your statement, "A plot is just a series of events that allow you to illustrate your story," reminds me of something I had to do in one WiP. The story had turned dark and revolting, more so than I wanted. It was supposed to be about a runaway slave and how slavery had affected her ability to trust even known allies, not about a runaway slave and her sadistic master.

    So I rewound a few scenes to what started the turn the story had taken. I looked at that one and listed who had to be in the scene and who could be replaced with someone else, then figured out who those ones could be replaced with.

    Ultimately, I ended up with events that suited the desired story far better than the previous horrific mess. :-D

  2. Definitely good advice here. As a reader, I get so frustrated when a character seems to be drifting through the story instead of driving it. It's a lot harder to do when I'm writing than it is to pick out when I'm reading, but having characters make choices is so, so important.

  3. Great information. I told my daughter recently, my MC wasn't suffering enough. If I have to suffer in life, so should my MC.


  4. I'm just sketching out my plans for next novel, and this is really helpful! Thanks so much for your generosity.
    Lynne Morgan Spreen

  5. I'm bookmarking this for when I finish my first draft (in two weeks maximum?). Very helpful!

  6. I've actually started applying a similar set of questions to every scene I write. After scrapping 45 pages of my first novel, I realised I need to work on each scene having a purpose for the story.

  7. I can’t write that way, I can’t predict what’s to come… it just comes as I write.
    Now, I agree with your advice, and will implement it during revisions.

    That’s what makes my revisions so hard; I am a weak writer, and I compose by the seat of my pants.

  8. Valerie: Oh, early grats on your first draft!

    Paul: It does help. There's a common rule of thumb that says every scene should have three reasons for being in the book.

    Jeff: There's nothing wrong with being a "pantser." Lots of writers are and that's the process that works for them. One of the harder things to do when you first start writing is to find the process that works for you. I tried a lot of different things before I found mine. It might take you time to find yours. But you're working on improving and you'll get there :) We were all weak writers once.

  9. I'm definitely a plotter, so I start every scene with a plan in mind. That said, scenes don't always go as planned so as I write the scene I allow it to flow on its own, at least the first time. I've found that my characters (and subconscious) often see things that I missed or couldn't predict.

    Excellent advice Janice! I'll be adding your suggestions to my plotting journal.

  10. Gene: That's about what I do, too. I stick to the plan, but allow for spontaneity to see where the story goes on its own.