Wednesday, March 26

What Changes in Your Scenes?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It's a triple shot of me today. I'm talking about developing shiny new ideas over at PubCrawl, and sharing tips on where to find ideas for Rebecca Belliston's March Book Madness series. Both articles are based on exercises in my new book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure (shameless plug) so if you want a little peek, head on over.

This Friday I'm spending a fun (and full) day in a workshop taught by editor Cheryl Klein. I love writing workshops, and I'm always eager to see how other people approach writing--from their process to how they talk about that process. In preparation for the workshop I was sent homework to work up a book map for my current novel (agent Kristin Nelson talks about edit maps here for those curious).

One element on the instructions caught my eye: what changes in every scene?

My reaction: That's awesome (and this is why I love workshops).

I don't know Klein's take on this (I'll find out Friday), but I love this simple phrase because it captures something that's often hard to get across.

Scenes need to advance the story.

But "advance" suggests forward momentum, and that's not always the case. Failure is a big part of moving the plot, because it's through failing that the characters learn the skills needed to eventually win.

Like many tidbits of common writing advice "advance the story" can leave a writer scratching their heads.

What changes? is much easier to grasp. It's so basic it's also easy to apply to each scene and pinpoint that change. If there is no change, that's a red flag the scene is missing something, or it could be made better. It's similar to the wonderful plotting questions of "but, so, therefore, and then" to see if your scenes are actually doing anything.

A quick note here...change is something fundamental to the story itself, not a detail in that story. For example, if in one scene the protagonist is trying to break into a bank and fails, and the next scene she's trying to break into a donut shop and fails, that's still two failed break in scenes. Changing a detail that doesn't affect any other changes isn't the type of change I'm talking about here. This is about changes that affect the story.

Here are some areas where change might occur in your scenes:

What changes with the goal?

If it's a scene, then a character is trying to achieve a goal. How that goal is resolved or not should change what the protagonist is trying to do in some way, even if it's small. The protagonist should be closer to or farther from that goal for having gone through this scene. If she's not, then what was the point of the scene? Or she might abandon the goal altogether and move on to a new one.

(Here's more on character goals)

What changes in the stakes?

Escalating stakes is a great way to keep readers hooked, so how might the stakes be raised? What about the situation can get worse? Maybe the change comes from uncovering new information that sheds light on an existing problem, or an action that didn't go as planned. Maybe things that were impersonal are now personal.

(Here's more on when to escalate the stakes in your novel)

What changes in the conflict?

Resolving one conflict might open the door to several more, or just a more difficult one. The conflict could be made harder or more personal, or it could shift to something that will destroy your protagonist if left unresolved. As tension comes from conflict, this is an area where changes could have a major impact on the story.

(Here's more on creating conflict in your novel)

What changes in the character?

Blake Snyder refers to this as the emotional change, but it's the same principle. Often the protagonist starts the scene feeling one way and ends feeling another based on what happens in that scene. She starts out happy, then problems occur or she learns information that changes her emotional state, and she ends the scene angry or afraid or even in love. However it happens, how she feels changes by this experience.

(Here's more on creating character arcs)

What changes in the motivations?

Characters might start out with good intentions and sink into more selfish wants as the story unfolds. The good guy might get sick of always playing by the rules and decides to cut loose, or the character with ambiguous allegiances might decide to pick a side. People change their minds all the time, and events might push your characters to re-evaluate why they're doing something.

(Here's more on character motivations)

What changes in the plot?

The scene should move the plot needle in some way. It might be one of the above reasons, or it might be a major step in the plot, but things have to change for the plot to be resolved. If the character is doing the literary equivalent of slamming against a brick wall, readers will get very bored very quickly. Three in a row of the same type of scene with the same resolution every time will feel repetitious and make the story feel stagnant. Make something change each time, and it'll feel like it's going somewhere.

(Here's more on plotting)

What changes in the setting?

It's a small change in most situations, but sometimes changing locations is a very big deal. Maybe it's the protagonist summoning the courage to head into the villain's lair, or return home to their estranged family, or facing a past trauma. When the setting changes, it often heralds a change in another area.

(Here's more on how setting can affect the story)

Not every scene will need every one of these changes, but it's worth looking at each one to see if a change would strengthen the scene. It can also be helpful to consider the point of the scene, both from the author's standpoint (what you want to show by having this scene there) and the character's standpoint (how she sees the scene and what she wants from it). If the point is to explain something else, odds are there's not enough change going on.

Your thoughts? Would considering "what changes" help you plot or revise your scenes?

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Great post, Janice. I love how you point out that failing counts as advancing the plot. Advancing the plot doesn't mean advancing the character's cause. ;)

    Though it doesn't directly translate into advancing the plot, I'd add "What changes in the emotions?" because it should naturally come out of the advancing plot and it helps keep the reader interested. If the emotion is exactly the same in five scenes in a row, there won't SEEM to be much happening, even if there technically is. It will all be a blur to the reader. Give them highs and lows, and you give them emotional markers to show time passing and things happening. We remember best with our emotions.

    1. Oh absolutely, emotions are an important part of any scene. If we don't know what a character is feeling, it's harder to connect with them as a reader.

  2. Hi Janice
    Great post. I've been working on looking at these with each of my scenes, but I like the question format you've put them in. I'll use it in the edit, checking each scene against the list.
    In my latest WIP, I've extended my scene length, just to try something new. So I'm writing scenes between four and five thousand words, each in a different POV. Of course, plenty happens in that time and I think I probably want to hit all of the things you mention in each one. It'll be interesting to see whether I have come revision time :)

    1. It'll be interesting to see how that works for you and what you discover from it. What made you pick longer scenes?

    2. I'm writing in the first person, again to try something new and stretch things. I wanted the reader to really get into the head of each character and I thought it would work better with longer scenes.
      Also, I've just finished writing the next extended novella for my blog. I post three times a week and this one is twenty five chapters long, all kept quite strictly to fifteen hundred words max and ending on a cliffhanger. I love writing it, but I wanted to relax and splurge a bit with this one :)

  3. I'm finding outlining is working wonderfully during the edit stage.

    1. I love it. It's so helpful just having a map to follow and an easy reference to the book. It also makes it very clear where you have holes to fill.

  4. Hi Janice-
    Wonderful post as always - am in the midst of an edit where my notes have turned into a mantra of your first 'awesome' thought: what changes in your scenes?

    I work mostly with new authors and primarily developmental edits, so use constant reminders that the story must grow in all directions - not just as a point-to-point line. Some things move on, others get stuck, still others interfere, and new things get introduced while existing things get mutated.

    Writing is such a blast and quality posts like yours are such fun to learn from and share.


    1. Aw, thanks so much! I like the growth concept as well, as that implies branching out as you said. You just gave me an article idea for next week, so thanks! We typically think of character growth as one direction as well, but it applies to the entire novel.

  5. The stuff about 'what changes' is so important when writing a scene. I just wrote one in which the protagonist fails big-time, but what changed were his emotions about the situation, which motivates him to keep going... Excellent suggestions, as usual. :)

    1. Excellent. This why failing is often more beneficial to a character than succeed. It's also so relatable for readers.

  6. THis is an EXCELLENT post--aren't they all? Definitely going to bookmark it and share it with my students--and reread when I'm in the middle of scene making. Thanks so much!

  7. Hi Janice, I think that's a really useful question to ask for every scene.

    One comment: Sometimes, maybe even often, the change is about (charcater or reader) perception rather tahn substance. For example, if you have a story were agents are investigating an infiltration and finally find out that terrorists have smuggled an atomic bomb into a major city to destroy it, everything about the antagonist was already in place before the story started: The goal (to kill as many people as possible); the character (a person defined by religious or ideological intolerance); the motivation (hatred of western civilisation); the stakes (mayhem and desaster). The change you have is in the knowledge either the protagonist or the reader has about this, and this change can be intriguing.

    Both kind of changes, the actual and the perceptional, can be very effective, and they often go together very well:

    In "The Silence Of The Lambs", we follow Clarice changing by learning and gaining experience, and we also get deeper into the other characters who don't change, Lector, Buffalo Bill, Crawford. The latter is devasteted by his wife dying form long before the very beginning, but we learn only over time how much pressure that puts on him while he has to give his utmost professionally.

    In "Breaking Bad", the change in Walter White is clearly the most interesting development to watch. Gus Frings does not change, but our understanding of his deepens considerably. Both "changes" are important for the build-up to the final confrontation.

    In your example with the two failed break-ins, the change that makes it work might be quite simple. Maybe she thinks she figured out what went wrong, tries a new approach, and fails in the very same way because her analysis was wrong?

    Time loop stories, like Groundhog Day, always have scenes that are almost the same, because that's what they are about, so the change will often have be very subtle. How do you describe growing frustration - I tried this so many times and I still fail - without becoming boring? Visual media use the montage ...

    1. Totally. Perception is a major change (how did I miss mentioning that one? -shakes head-) That's probably my favorite plotting device--to have something revealed that changes how the characters and the reader sees the story thus far. Great examples.

      Growing frustration is challenging. What I try to do, is to show the character getting frustrated and emotional (however they deal with frustration) but not have the reader get frustrated. That's when I think it gets boring and problematic. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murry is constantly trying and messing up, and it's exactly those failures that make the audience laugh and feel for him. But you also have the small moments, like when he saves the kid from falling out of tree, where you see even though he's frustrated, he IS growing as a person. He's just not aware of it yet.

      So I guess, A) keep the reader interested even if the character is frustrated, and B) show hints that there is forward movement in the character or story so the reader can see where things are going.

    2. Making someone who is frustrated an interesting POV character is definetely a challenge.

      It's amazing how some writers manage to pull off even more difficult tasks: Angus Wilson writes in his short story More Friend Than Lodger from 1st person POV of a woman who is not only bored and annoyed about pretty much everything, but also averse to change and indignant over the need to make decisions, so she can't even dream of a more interesting life. What makes her fascinating is her dry and acerbic wit.

    3. Voice and character can overcome all kinds of things. If readers just like a character, they'll stick with them despite all sorts of annoying traits.

  8. Janice you Rock!!!! Love this website. Thanks so much for doing all this. I wish I had all this info when I was in high school.

    1. Aw, thanks! Me too, actually. I had to do all my research on paper (gasp!)