Monday, March 26, 2018

The Question You Need to Ask for Every Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

There are a slew of questions writers ask when writing fiction. Questions about the story, the characters, the setting, as well as questions the characters themselves pose in the narrative. Then you have the story questions keeping readers hooked—the list goes on and on.

So many questions bounce around in our heads every book, yet we don’t always ask the most important one before we start a scene.

What’s the point of this scene?

This question isn’t about the story or the goals, the conflicts or the character arc—it’s about why we decided to put this scene into our story. What’s our reason for doing it?

If you can’t answer why a scene is there, it’s a huge red flag the scene might not be serving the story.

Let’s look at some possible answers (and pitfalls) to “What’s the point of this scene?”

It shows the protagonist in pursuit of a concrete goal central to the plot.

This will be the answer more times than not, because a scene is how you dramatize the protagonist trying to achieve a goal. There’s something the protagonist or point of view character is after and the scene plays out how they go about getting it.

The answers here might look like:
  • To show Bob breaking into the safe for the codes
  • Marlo tries to explain why she missed the date to Jared
  • Shayla gets caught putting back the school mascot
The format will vary depending on your style, but notice how all three of these show action and a specific goal in mind: To get the code, to explain a missed date, to return a mascot.

With Bob, the goal is clear in the answer itself, though for the other two it’s more vague. Explaining why she missed a date isn’t the goal, but it’s easy to figure out the goal is about “getting Jared to forgive her” or something along those lines. Putting back the mascot without getting caught is probably the actual goal of the scene, but the point of the scene is to show Shayla getting caught (and thus failing in her goal).

The point in a goal-focused scene is to accomplish a goal or task of some type.

(Here’s more on the difference between a sequel and a scene)

It’s a turning point of the plot or character arc.

Around a dozen or so of your scenes will be major turning points for the plot and character arc, and hitting that moment of the story will be the point of that scene. Getting the protagonist onto the plot path is the point of the inciting event, forcing the protagonist to face their darkest fear is the point of the dark moment of the soul. If you’re missing “scenes with turning point points” at those key moments, that’s a red flag your structure might be off and your plot could be weak.

The answers here might look like:
  • For Bob to decide he’s not going to take Sally’s abuse anymore and stand up to her.
  • For Marlo and Jared to bump into each other after ten years and feel that spark of attraction again.
  • Shayla realizes she’s not prepared for the test and is going to fail and lose her scholarship.
The point of a scene in these moments is to move the story forward in a big way, so it’s doubly important to have strong goals and plot-driving elements. This is particularly true for character-arc moments, as it’s easy to get caught up in that emotional beat and write a scene that doesn’t do much from a plot standpoint.

(Here’s more on using story structure to create strong stories)

It explains why the protagonist is the way they are.

If the point of the scene is “to explain something,” odds are there’s no goal driving the scene forward. The scene isn’t trying to accomplish anything, it’s there to explain things to the reader. Even if you’re using a different word or phrase (”to show why…” is just as bad), if the point is to educate, inform, explain, or otherwise dump information about the character’s backstory, you might have a problem.

The answers here might look like:
  • To explain why Bob is scared of dogs.
  • To show why Jared has trust issues.
  • To explain what happened when Shayla was ten and why she’s so determined to be liked.

If the point of the scene is to explain, but you’ve created a story-driving scene that also allows for this backstory or information to come out, then you’re doing your job and the scene is probably working. “The point of the scene is to explain X,” but you’ve done it in a way that also advances the story through the classic goal—motivation—conflict structure. And that’s what you’re looking for.

(Here’s more on writing backstory that works)

It explains the history or reasons behind something that matters to the story or world.

If backstory is the explanation of character, infodump is the explanation of world building. If the point of the scene is to explain the history of the world, why things are the way they are now, why a particular situation works a certain way, it’s a red flag you’re dumping information and not crafting a scene.

The answers here might look like:
  • To show that everyone has to wear masks when they go outside because the environment was destroyed by a war three hundred years ago between the two major factions.
  • It shows how the lower classes are treated by those who have money and power.
  • It explains the animosity between the Jets and the Sharks.
Just like with backstory, you can have a history lesson be the point of the scene, but the scene must also have characters with goals, conflicts, and stakes driving it. Without that, you don’t have an actual scene.

(Here’s more on why over-explaining will kill your novel)

It sets up the next scene.

Sometimes scene exist to work as transitions to the next scene. For example, you can’t have the protagonist get into that fight with her spouse if she never finds the hotel receipt, but the “setup” scene isn’t as well-developed as it could be since it’s just “setup.” The protagonist decides on a whim to search pockets or a briefcase, even through there’s no plausible reason why she’d do it aside from, “the author needs her to do this to find the thing that sets up the next scene.”

Pretty much every scene in a novel will set up and hand off to the next scene (that’s the nature of a good scene), but I’m referring to scenes that are there for no other reason than to create a situation for another scene.

The answers here might look like:
  • For Bob to stumble across a clue that Jane and Sally aren’t the enemies they pretend to be.
  • To upset Marlo so much she forgets her date with Jared.
  • To foreshadow that there’s a growing evil in the land.
Be wary of setup scenes. Make sure they’re well-rounded scenes all on their own and not just contrived actions to get the characters where they need to be.

(Here’s more on the difference between setup and setup)

Scenes have multiple uses in a novel, but their main purpose is to dramatize the story and move the plot forward. So if the point of the scene is to do something other than that, stop and check if the scene is indeed a solid scene on its own. If those goal-driving aspects are missing, figure out how to include them and round out the scene.

Asking “what’s the point of this scene?” will help you pinpoint why a scene is in your novel and what you want it to do for your story. It’ll also help you find weak and unnecessary scenes bogging your novel down, so you can either develop or eliminate them.

Do you know the point of all your scenes? Are there some that might need a little more work?

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. It's like you can read my mind. I needed this info today. You're always concise and clear.

    1. I have writing gremlins who search for people are struggling with (grin).

  2. Excellent advice and perfectly timed. I'm plotting/planning/outlining my next book and now I'll know to watch out for "set-up" scenes. Thank you!