Monday, May 05, 2014

Four Questions to Ask to Make Your Scenes Pop

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For some writers, revision is a daunting task. The fun of the creative first draft is over, and now the hard work starts. Even if you enjoy revising, it can feel a little overwhelming. Where should you start revising? Micro- or macro-level edits? Plot or character?

It helps to pull back and little and consider your novel as a reader would. Readers want a great story that will draw them in, captivate their attention, and keep them reading. Focusing on these elements is a great place to start your revisions. It can also be helpful in the planning process for those who like to outline.

Here are four questions to ask in every scene to ensure it grabs a reader and holds on tight.

1. What’s going on is this scene?

This helps determine what the action is, because it focuses you to pinpoint what a character is actually doing. If your answer is something like, “Bob thinks about how much his life has changed since he met Jane,” that’s a red flag that there’s no goal driving the scene. It’s a character thinking, not doing. But if it's more like, "Bob tells Jane how much his life has changed since he met her," then you can see what the character is doing.

In your answer, pay attention to the verbs you use. Are your character running, chasing, searching, crying, or are they thinking, pondering, considering, debating? If your verbs mean "being inside a character's head" in some way, odds are nothing is actually happening in the scene. But if the verbs are all external actions, odds are something is indeed going on.

Special verbs: Talking is an action verb, but two people sitting around talking doesn't always equate to something happening. Pay extra attention the next three questions if your scene is based on talking.

(Here’s more on goals)

2. What will readers learn or discover in this scene?

This helps determine if the scene has a reason for being there. If nothing new is learned, odds are there’s nothing to pique reader interest. Every scene should reveal something new, be it a character quirk or a gut-wrenching secret. Also aim for a mixture of discoveries, with character traits (Bob is sarcastic when angry), potential problems later (Bob is allergic to peanuts), or plot elements (Sally has been lying about who she works for).

There's no perfect mix here, but aim for at least one plot detail to help move the story forward, and balance the rest depending on what the main focus of the scene is. Is this a character-developing scene, a plot-moving scene, a set-up-scene? Crafts your discoveries as needed.

In your answer, pay attention to the types of things discovered. Are they all traits or information about the character and her past, or information that moves the plot forward? If the discoveries are heavy in one area, that could indicate there's too much backstory, infodumping, or exposition.

(Here’s more on reveals)

3. What will readers worry or wonder about is this scene?

This helps determine if there’s enough conflict or a hook to keep readers interested in what’s going on. If there’s nothing for them to worry about, that’s a big clue that there are no stakes or consequences facing the protagonist. If there’s nothing to wonder about, there’s a good chance there’s no dangling carrot to entice readers to keep reading.

There's a good chance this will be one of the harder questions to answer, because a lack of conflict is a common problem in early drafts. Often, there is nothing to actually worry about because you know the protagonist gets through the scene unscathed. That's a red flag that the scene is missing a goal, conflict, stakes, or all three.

In your answer, pay attention to how specific the details are. Vague responses suggest vague conflict or stakes, which won't be strong enough to make readers worry. "That Bob won't get to the car" doesn't sound very compelling. Why should I care if Bob makes it to the car? But "That Sally will stop Bob from fighting through the zombies to get Jane's medicine from the car" has multiple things to fear. Will Bob let Sally tell him what to do or finally stand up to her? Will Jane be okay without her meds? Will Bob get bitten if he goes out there?

(Here’s more on ways to hook a reader)

4. What will make readers want to read the next scene?

This helps determine if the scene is going anywhere. If the events of the scene don’t create a reason to read the next scene, that’s an indication that the plot might be episodic, with a lot of explanation scenes strung together. The scene might be interesting in its own right, but if you plucked it out, you wouldn't really lose anything and the next scene would play out the same. Drop hints and leave some questions unanswered so readers want to know what happens next.

While not every scene will be dependent on the prior scene, you still want a sense of story momentum. If readers can easily put the book down at the end of a scene, odds are that's a spot where the story stalls or slows.

In your answer, pay attention to the story questions left unanswered and the consequences of actions taken in that scene. Vague responses here are also red flags that there's not enough to keep readers hooked. Also consider predictable outcomes vs. unpredictable ones. "To see if Bob makes it out of the hotel alive" probably won't make readers read on, as the hero isn't likely to die. "To see if Bob makes it out of the hotel with the information that will get them inside the secret lab" will make readers turn the page, because the answer could be no.

(Here’s more on transitions)

We usually know why we want to write a scene, but looking at it from why a reader would want to read the scene offers us a new perspective. It makes us focus on the storytelling and not the technical aspects of writing, and reminds us that reading is a different experience than writing.

Do you think about the reader when you revise? 

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:
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  • 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. These are really good questions.

    I also like to drill down a little deeper. Some of my favorites:

    * What does each character want in the scene? What do they need? How do characters' wants and needs oppose one another?
    h other?

    * What does each character's stand to gain or lose in the scene? Why are these stakes important to them?

    * What are the mysteries and secrets each character is holding onto during the scene?

    * Where is the "love" in the scene? (Not necessarily romantic, or even person-to-person)

  2. Another great post, Janice. Off to my class wiki! Thanks so much.

  3. P.S. So now, I'm going to take a look at some previously written scenes and see how they measure up to these criteria!

  4. I'm going to use this as a guide for each of my scene outlines. Wonderful!

  5. Great info Janice for the WIP too, not just the revision. :-)