Thursday, June 25, 2015

Scenes: Are They Making Your Story…Or Breaking It?

Karlie with you today, and I want to talk about scenes - those little stepping stones, the individual parts that work together to make a whole story. If, that is, you're using them correctly.

Here are some things to ask yourself as you move through your book, scene by scene:

1. Is this scene helping move the story along through action and conflict…or is it just pointless fluff?

  • Even if it's the best writing you've ever done, even if you're sure it's going to singlehandedly win you a Pulitzer Prize one day, if it doesn't contribute to the story - you guessed it. Cut! Don't let your ego blind you. If the story could do just as well without it, leave it out. No exceptions.
2. Is there a beginning, middle, and an end?
  • Scenes are really just miniature stories at heart. No matter how long or short they are, every scene has a plot. See it through to the finish.
3. Does something change?
  • Large, small, or somewhere in between - it doesn't matter. But change of some sort must take place at some point. If it doesn't, something's wrong.
If you're like me - a free-faller - you'll probably end up with a lot of work when it comes time to revise your book. Outliners tend to have a map of what scenes are needed, and can fill in the gaps as they go. I choose to be constantly surprised along with the characters (I'll let you know when I figure out whether that's a good thing or a bad thing), and I usually end up killing more of my darlings than is emotionally healthy. But whether you're a plotter or a pantser, logical scenes are crucial. They need to crackle with tension, desire and conflict, move the story along, and keep the reader surprised as they change the course of the character's life.

Writers, what are your "scene secrets?" Do you have anything to add?

Caitlin: You know, I was just rethinking my "scene audit" checklist, so, Karlie, you and I are on the same wavelength today!  I ditto the part about how each scene needs tension. A good way to figure out if it does is to ask yourself 1. Does your character wants something? 2. Is there something in the way of them getting it? 3. Will something bad happen if the character doesn't get it (i.e., stakes). If the answer isn't "yes" to each of these, strongly consider revising or cutting it.

Lisa: I don't have a scene secret...but I have a chapter secret that could pertain to scenes as well. Your story/character has an over-arching goal, or plot, if you will. Each chapter also needs to establish a smaller goal (of course, it can pertain to the overarching goal) for each character. Yes, even the "co-actors" need a chapter/scene goal. Establish that goal and by the end of the chapter/scene, that character must either obtain said goal or clearly fail at that goal. It's not left hanging. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a whole, this works.

I have another chapter secret that could pertain to scenes. When I'm CPing, I ask my partner to rate my chapters on a scale of 1-10, one being the worst, and so on. Little notes are welcome about why the score was so low such as: no forward motion, or why it is so high such as: really sweet and unique scenes, but those little notes aren't necessary. If you've done this for ages like I have, you've already wondered about that chapter/scene and your CP just confirmed your fears with a low number. No explanation needed. So, that's my other secret. Have your CPs rate your scenes as they go.

Dan: I think these are excellent points, particularly that the scenes should move the plot forward and that something should change during a scene. As for the structure of scenes, I'm inclined to agree with Lisa that the beginning-middle-end is more of a guidepost for long scenes or chapters. In our modern, ADD-driven world, many readers prefer shorter segments of text with lots of white space. Often it's possible to hit one or two of the guidelines above, but not all three.

Another good bit of advice: make sure that the emotion conveyed by your scenes has some variety. You check for this by assigning a single emotion/feeling to each scene, and then looking at a high-level outline to find spots where you have too many of the same emotions in a row. It's much like varying the length of sentences and words throughout the manuscript: it adds complexity and cadence to the prose.

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