A lot of things can happen in scenes. Plot things, character things, backstory things. We even describe them as “this is the scene where Bob finds the body in the trunk,” as if the scene has one purpose only. But great scenes subscribe to the other rule of three: Every scene needs at least three reasons for being there.
Now, that doesn’t mean three plot things. It means that every scene will accomplish multiple things. It’ll advance the plot, develop a character, reveal information, describe the world, explore the theme, raise the stakes, up the tension, foreshadow an event, etc. How it does that is up to you.
Aside from “protag must have a goal,” (and honestly, I bet there are folks who even put that up for debate) there is no rule on what should go in a scene. There’s no formula or template. But I do think that there are some things that can help you figure out what you want and how to prioritize, and I’m going to be bold and suggest a very general guideline template you can use.
A Full Meal
Some literary devices are more “important” than others and can be used to drive a story, while others are more like filler to flesh out that story. A novel really comes together when you start putting it all together. Think of it like a meal.
Some elements need to be in most scenes for them to work. Those are your entrees. Without those, you have no scene because it doesn’t do anything to serve the story. Some elements are there to make what’s happening add extra impact. Your desserts. Others are there to whet your appetite and make you want more. Like appetizers. And then there are the things that round out the meal and make it satisfying. The side dishes. You don’t always need an appetizer or dessert, but most entrees come with two sides.
While any combo of anything can work if done well, having a hierarchy of scene needs helps in knowing what to focus on. You’ll want something from the entrée list, two from the side dishes, and if you can grab an appetizer and/or a dessert, so much the better. If not, don’t sweat it. You don’t want to force things into your scenes, you just want them to be layered and interesting. A basic scene menu might look like this:
Appetizers are the things that are in your scene to get the reader excited about what they’re about the read (be it for that scene or the entire story). If they’re already excited and deep into the story you might not need to tease or entice them, but at different points in the story you’re likely to want to tempt them again.
- Show the world: An intriguing setting can make the reader curious about what might happen there.
- Foreshadow an event: A hint of what’s to come to make them anticipate or worry.
- Set the tone or mood: Get the reader in the right mindset for the story.
Entrees are why the reader is reading the story in the first place. Without these, there’s no point in picking up the book. Every scene needs one of these, and if you can get all three, even better. Sometimes these elements carry over from scene to scene, so you can layer them up. The goal night be the same as last scene, but in this scene, you reveal new info.
- A Point: The reason the scene is in the book. The author wrote it to achieve a specific thing. Something about this scene advances the story in some way.
- A Goal: Someone in the scene needs to be after something, whatever that may be.
- Discovery of new information: Something new needs to be learned. It can be about the story, the plot, a character, the world, anything, as long as the reader ends the scene knowing something about the story they didn’t before.
Side items round out the story and support the main course. They often make up the bulk of the scene and give the protag the tools they need to accomplish their goal. Without the side dishes, the entrée just lays there.
- Develop the character: Show something that fleshes out the character.
- Further the character arc: Another step (forward or backward) of the inner conflict.
- Reinforce in the stakes: Sometimes you need a reminder of what’s at stake.
- Show the motivation: Show why they’re doing this.
- Add conflict: Show what’s in the way of the protag getting what they want.
Dessert makes the story feel complete and little decadent. You can skip it from time to time, but without it, the story doesn’t feel as satisfying as it could have.
- Raise the stakes: Make things harder and matter more.
- Resolve the goal: Let them get what they want (or realize they’ll never get it).
- Show backstory: Give a little history that affects how the protag or the reader views things.
- Explore the theme: Show the bigger picture.
Obviously this list is very basic, but hopefully you get the idea of what types of elements can be used in combination to craft compelling scenes. Putting together complimentary story flavors creates a richer reading experience and leaves the reader satisfied. And hopefully, “hungry” for your next meal.