Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Recipe for Writing a Great Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

A great scene is a lot like a great meal. It whets an appetite for more, it fills up the senses, and it satisfies the hunger.  

A lot of things can happen in a scene. 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 in your novel.

That doesn’t mean three plot things, however. It means that every scene will accomplish multiple tasks. 

It might advance the plot, develop a character, reveal information, describe the world, explore the theme, raise the stakes, up the tension, foreshadow an event, etc. Which three (or more) elements in a scene is up to the writer.

Aside from “protagonist must have a goal,” (and honestly, there are folks who even put that up for debate) there's no rule on what should go in a scene. There’s no formula or template. 

But that's not very helpful for writers still figuring this out, so I’m going to be bold and suggest a very general guideline template you can use. 

Write your scene like you're cooking a meal.

You wouldn't serve all starches or just protein--you'd balance the meal with ingredients that complemented each other and provided a delicious culinary experience.  

Some elements need to be in most scenes for them to work. These are your entrees. Without then, you have no scene because it doesn’t do anything to serve the story. 

Some elements provide extra impact, or reward readers for sticking with the story. The desserts.  

Other elements whet your appetite and make you want more. Like appetizers. 

And then there are the elements that round out the meal, tie the flavors together, and make the meal satisfying. The side dishes. 

While any combo of elements can work if done well, having a hierarchy of scene needs helps you know what to focus on in that scene. For example, you don’t always need an appetizer or dessert, but most entrees come with two sides. 

While developing your scene, consider your "menu." 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 elements that aren't necessary into your scenes, but you do want them to be layered and interesting. 

A basic scene menu might look like this:

Appetizers: Make Readers Want More 

Appetizers are things that get readers excited about what they’re about the read (whether it's 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 plot you’re likely to want to tempt them (like hooks) again.
  • Show the world: An intriguing setting can make readers curious about what might happen there.
  • Foreshadow an event: A hint of what’s to come can make them anticipate or worry.
  • Set the tone or mood: The right atmosphere can put readers in the right mindset for the story.

Entrees: Give Readers Something to Chew On 

Entrees are why readers are 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 like a gooey lasagna. For example, the goal might be the same as the last scene, but in this scene, you reveal new information.
  • A point: The reason the scene is in the book. The author wrote it to achieve a specific goal. Something about this scene advances the story in some way.
  • A character goal: Someone in the scene needs to be after something, whatever that may be. This is usually the protagonist or point of view character. 
  • Discovery of new information: Something new is learned. It can be about the story, the plot, a character, the world, anything really, as long as readers end the scene knowing something about the story they didn’t before.

Side Items: Add Extra Flavor 

Side items round out the story and support the entrée. They often make up the bulk of the scene and give the protagonist the tools needed to accomplish the goal. Without the side dishes, the entrée just lays there on the plate all alone.
  • Develop the character: Show something that fleshes out the character(s) and shares insights into who they are.
  • Further the character arc: Another step (forward or backward) of the internal conflict or character growth.
  • Reinforce in the stakes: Sometimes you need a reminder of what’s at stake to keep the tension high and readers worrying.
  • Show the motivation: Why are the characters behaving this way? What's in it for them? Motivations are the why of the plot. 
  • Add conflict: Never make it easy for your protagonist. Show what’s in the way of them getting what they want.

Dessert: The Reward at the End

Desserts are the moments when readers hit a great line, an awesome moment, a cool twist, or anything that gives them a little thrill. They make 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. This raises the tension and makes readers recommit to the story.
  • Resolve the goal: Let the protagonist get what they want (or realize they’ll never get it). A little win will make readers cheer. 
  • Show backstory: Offer a little history that affects how the protagonist or the reader views things. Let readers connect to the characters more, and they'll care more. 
  • Explore the theme: Show the bigger picture. Wow readers with something deep and meaningful. 
  • Reveal a secret: Show something you've been hiding or teasing readers with. You can also drop another clue or hint that there's even more to learn. 
(Here's more on Theme Me Up: How to Develop Your Novel's Theme)

When you write your scenes, think about the various ways you can deepen those scenes. Just having the protagonist trying to resolve a goal is going to leave readers hungry. 

But add some tough internal conflict to deal with from the side dish (character arc or development), force them to make a hard choice (add conflict for the other side dish), and suddenly the scene is richer. 

Now think about how you might start off that scene with the right appetizer (create a mood) and end it with a real treat (raise the stakes). No hungry readers here.

Obviously this list is very basic, but hopefully you get the idea of the types of elements a scene might have and how they can be combined 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.

How do you craft your scenes? 

*Originally published April 2011. Last updated September 2020.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems. 

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you: 
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down. 

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. That's really neat! This is a fantastic way of looking at scenes. I might have to print this out when I take another look at the novel I'm drafting. Something's niggling at me about the beginning, but I can't pinpoint exactly what.

    Thanks for another brilliant post!

  2. I agree. This is an awesome analogy. I hadn't thought of the rule of 3 for each scene. Thanks.

  3. Wow, this is a great way to work information into a scene without it becoming too muddled! Definitely a post for the folder!

  4. Excellent post! Very helpful analogy.

  5. Great presentation :) Thank you

  6. I think most authors instinctively know that scenes need multiple goals to work, but this is a great break down. It will definitely make me more aware of what I put my book and why. Thanks Janice!

  7. Carradee: Most welcome. I hope this helps you get pasty that troubling scene ;)

    Ben: You're welcome.

    Natalie: I'm always looking for little tricks to remind me to layer :) Otherwise I get to scope locked on one thing.

    Elizabeth: Yay! Love when that happens ;)

    Anne: Thanks!

    Jacqvern: Most welcome.

  8. Angie: I agree, which is why you get that nagging feeling you're forgetting something :) Lists help! At least for me.

  9. Ooh, this post made me hungry! Thanks for the great info. This one is getting printed out. :) Now I'm off to get myself a snack.

  10. Cheryl: LOL I guess I shouldn't have written it right before dinner? Maybe that was my inspiration!

  11. Excellent analogy Janice! Thanks for a great post :)

  12. What an interesting way of looking at it. I love to describe things as analogies, and this is a perfect analogy for scene-building. I'll have to remember to make a satisfying meal the next time I write a scene.

    Have a great day, and happy writing!