Monday, March 14, 2016

Thoughts On Writing a Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Part of the Your Writing Questions Answered Series 

Q: I humbly request that you address the subject of how to write a scene (action, dialogue, thoughts, summary). I really like how you put your own creative spin on the rules.

This is a fun question, because I've discussed the structure of a scene before, but I've never gone into the process itself.

A scene is a story-building block that consists of a goal, the attempt to resolve that goal, and the resolution of that goal (ending in the classic yes, no, yes--but, and no, and furthermore manner).

Every writer will have a different spin on scene writing, but I like to start with a question: "what is this scene about?" Knowing what the scene is about helps me focus on what I want to write. If the scene is about showing how the protagonist let a flaw in their personality lead to a bad decision, then the plot is going to help serve that goal, and likely focus on the character arc. If the scene is about the plot and is a major turning point, then the focus will likely be on the plot arc.

You'll likely have multiple answers here:
  • The plot-driving goal the scene is focused on
  • The character arc or emotional aspect
  • The author's goal for the scene and how it fits into the story
  • The world building or setting aspect
  • Or all four of these
(Here are more questions to ask about your scenes)

Once I know what the scene is about, I have a better idea of where to start it and where it needs to go. If it's an action-packed scene that focuses on a major plot point, I'll probably have more stage direction and description of action, and my dialogue will likely be shorter to balance out the longer narrative and keep the pace moving. An emotional or reflective scene will have more internalization, and possibly a lot of dialogue if another character is involved.

The next thing I like to know is, "what's my protagonist's goal?" 

This gives me the necessary plot point to drive the scene. No matter what the scene is going to cover, the protagonist is going to be doing something. If my author goal for the scene is to show an emotional breakdown, but the plot goal is to get the protagonist into an exclusive party, then I know somehow getting (or not getting) into that party is going to trigger that emotional breakdown. I can look for ways to do this as I write.

Other questions you might ask along these lines:
  • What is the protagonist doing in this scene?
  • What is happening to the protagonist in this scene?
  • What problem does the protagonist face in this scene?
This also can determine the balance of dialogue vs. internalization vs. description. A mental challenge will need more internal thought than a physical problem, which will probably have more description and stage direction.

(Here's more on adding problems to scenes)

Of course, a scene isn't a scene without conflict, so that's my next question: "What is the conflict in this scene?"

This can take any number of forms, from an internal conflict (the protagonist wants to protect her sister, but doing so will expose herself to even more danger), to an external conflict (the protagonist wants to rescue her sister from kidnappers, but there are a slew of guards in the way).

Other questions you might ask along these lines:
  • What obstacle is the protagonist facing in this scene?
  • What's keeping the protagonist from acting in this scene?
  • What personal issue does the protagonist have in this scene?
  • Who is trying to hurt or stop the protagonist in this scene?
  • What choices need to be made in this scene?
With conflict you also have tension, so the pacing can be even more critical here. Too slow (too much description, internalization, infodumping, or backstory) and the tension can fall. Too fast (all dialogue, excesses short sentences, no internal thought to give readers a breather) and the scene can go by in a blur. I like to aim for a nice balance between dialogue, internalization, description, and stage direction. "Balance" is subjective of course, but if you notice the scene consists of mostly one type, odds are something is off.

(Here's more on adding conflict to your scenes)

Knowing what the protagonist wants and what's in the way of getting it helps me figure out what details and actions to put into the scene. If the obstacle is to get around the guards, I know my first step is to have my protagonist act in a way to accomplish that goal somehow. Odds are, that will use more stage direction and description. A protagonist trying to talk her way out of the situation will naturally use more dialogue and internalization.

Step three is all about the stakes. "What is my protagonist risking in this scene?" 

If there are no consequences in how the scene turns out, that's a big red flag that I don't have enough conflict or the scene isn't moving the plot or character arc. Even if the bad consequences don't happen, they still need to be a possibility or the scene can feel pointless or like a big infodump.

Other questions you might ask along these lines:
  • What happens if the protagonist messes up in this scene?
  • What can go wrong in this scene?
  • Who can get hurt in this scene?
  • What unexpected thing might happen in this scene?
  • What growth lessons can be learned in this scene?
Stakes focus a lot on the things characters worry about, so you might have more dialogue and internalization here as characters think about or discuss the risks. Be wary about letting characters drone on, however, and turn those worries into melodrama. If it feels like too much, trust your instincts (or if you find yourself suddenly using a lot of exclamation points).

(Here are more ways to raise the stakes in your scenes)

Step four is about the ending: "How does this scene end?" 

Sometimes I know exactly where my scene will stop, other times I let it play out and end it when my protagonist has A) discovered something unexpected, B) hit a great moment of tension, or C) fails and is forced to change plans.

Other questions you might ask along these lines:
  • Where does the protagonist need to go in this scene?
  • What shock or unexpected event might happen in this scene?
  • How can the protagonist fail in this scene?
  • What has to happen to move the story or plot forward in this scene?
The type of ending can determine how you write it. An action-based cliffhanger might be more description of the action and stage direction as something bad physically befalls the protagonist. A reveal or discovery is often through dialogue or internalization as a character is told something, overhears something, or figures out something. An emotional gut punch might incorporate stage direction, dialogue, and internalization in one or two tense paragraphs.

(Here's more about endings)

And finally, there are the extras: "What else needs to be in this scene?" 

These might be world building details, or red herrings, or clues, or foreshadowing bits--all the behind-the-scenes details that will make the scene fit into the overall story and make it feel rich and layered. I don't always know what needs to go where, but if I know I'm working toward a big reveal or a twist, I like to start laying the groundwork for it in the first draft.

Extras can be conveyed through any type of writing device--dialogue, description, stage direction, internalization. Mixing them up and weaving them throughout the scene is a good way to balance out heavy, single-type areas, like putting in some internal thoughts in a long passage of description, or adding stage direction to break up a long conversations.

Depending on your personal level of plotting vs. pantsing, you might have all of the steps figured out beforehand, or just have a vague idea of the direction the protagonist needs to go. You might just have a goal or general idea of what the scene will cover and discover that scene as you write it. You might not even know what's going to happen until you end the previous scene and see where the protagonist ended up and what they decided to do next.

If you're not sure how much direction or planning you need, consider how hard it is to write your scenes. Is it easier to write scenes when you know the goals and conflicts, or does that make the scene feel stale and uninteresting to you? Adjust how much you need to know beforehand to suit your process.

I like to do a quick summary of my scenes to establish what I'm going to write beforehand. I find this lets me work out the details and get enough ideas to be able to write the scene more quickly. When I write a scene I like to (more or less in order):
  • Establish the setting
  • Establish who is in the scene
  • Show or state the problem (this encompasses the goal/conflict/stakes trio)
  • Make the first decision to act and take the first step of the scene
  • Move forward until conflict causes a problem and the protagonist must make another choice
  • Repeat until scene is over
  • Have sequel (the after-scene moment when the character reacts, reflects, and makes a new decision)
  • Setup the goal for the next scene
This is a very basic overview, but it's a general guide for how scenes typically unfold. Some scenes will be short and have maybe one "action" arc of goal/conflict/resolution, others will span chapters and have multiple parts and choices before they're resolved. It all depends on the story and the plot.

How much dialogue, internalization, description, and stage direction needed will also depend on what you want to accomplish in the scene. I wish there was a tried and true ratio to share, but it's really a matter of trusting your writer's ear and instinct and what feels right for the scene. That's why I like thinking about what I want the scene to do, so I can better judge how I write it.

Share your scene-writing process. How do you like to write your scenes? 

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

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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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Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue 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. This goes really well with your post the other day about opening scenes. I LOVE your blog! So very helpful Off to FB this goes!

    1. Aw, thanks! And thanks for always sharing them :) Much appreciated

  2. This post is a total keeper. I dove back into revisions yesterday (after being a non-productive writer this holiday season). I'll refer back to this post tomorrow during my writing session.

    1. Nice :) I was a total slug myself over the holidays. :)

  3. Janice,
    I agree with Carol. These posts on scenes are helping me tremendously. Thank you.

  4. Perfect timing for me too. I'm about 12,000 words into a new project, and this guided me toward the right questions to help the scene I plan to write next.

    1. Fantastic! I'm so glad a reader asked me about this.

  5. As usual, you’re amazing and I love the way you explain things.
    I couldn’t expound on the details of writing a scene…

    1. Thanks so much. I had to think about for a bit (we write so often on instinct), but it was fun to really dig into the process like that.

  6. Janice, I just came back to this blog- have it opened while I'm thinking of my next scene. Your questions are so helpful!! I plan to link to this on an upcoming blog about my favorite writers blogs. You are right up there!

  7. FYI- I returned to this (Again!) and now have created a template in Scrivener based on these points.

  8. I see that I have already commented on this blog. Enjoyed rereading it AGAIN!

  9. This was super helpful, scenes normally come naturally to me, but it was interesting to see the break-down! Already I can see future improvements being made on some of my scenes I'm writing. :)

    1. Oh good, thanks! It's fun just to examine the process.