Writing Tip for Today: Here are some easy ways to craft better scenes:
PREDETERMINE SCENE PURPOSE
Even the most ardent seat-of-the-pants writer needs certain events to occur if the Main Character is going to attain a goal. As I’ve said before, you can imagine these vital steps as squares on a board game–your character begins on START and when the story ends the game is over. Either your character attains the goal and wins or loses or she doesn’t get what she wants and wins or loses. The only other possible outcome is a stalemate or some sort of ambivalence–which takes great skill to pull off without disappointing readers. Try laying out your “game board” with changes in attitude, emotion or even location marked in scenes or groups of scenes. It’s OK if you need to alter your board game as you write. But with a simple sentence or two, you can see at-a-glance what sorts of scenes are necessary to the story.
If you just can’t plan your scenes that way, at least give your character a real purpose or goal as you draft each scene. This purpose/goal is going to hold readers’ interest better if tension and conflict are built in. Let’s say your MC has a goal of sneaking into a nightclub. If he obtains a fake ID, shows it to the bouncer and walks straight in, there is nothing of value at stake and readers are likely to abandon the story. But if the bouncer recognizes MC and threatens to call his parents or the police, readers will want to see how it plays out. Especially early in the story, a Main Character should lose enough so that readers will be forced to follow him, just to see if he can overcome the obstacles in his way. Begin by asking yourself why you need to write the scene. If you have a worthy goal (the why) and worthy obstacles (the who/how), the event is probably important enough to warrant a scene. Beware of reasons such as “To introduce a character,” or “To enrich the story.” The characters, if they tangle with your MC, will introduce themselves. And if your goals and obstacles are worthy enough, they won’t need enrichment.
STAY OUT OF THE WAR ROOM
Another way to craft scenes that matter is to avoid scenes where important events or changes in attitude are discussed and then implemented. I call these “War Room” scenes, because in them, the characters plan great things like generals strategizing a battle. Readers would rather read about the actual battle than a bunch of stuffy generals planning as they push the tiny boats around a board. When characters plan what they are GOING to do and then proceed to do it, tension is lost. If your character’s planning something big and explains it all to her best friend, but then everything goes haywire, you have surprise on your side. In real life we plan–say you want your sister to stand with you in the cold the night before Black Friday. She will have to say yes or no and we hope (for your hypothermic self’s sake) she shows up with hot cocoa. If she does all as planned, it’s probably not a scene you should write–predictable is boring. If she stands you up and you’re freezing as well as mad, worried or some other emotion, then it will add to the story tension and may rate a scene to dramatize this development. Just don’t allow your character to push the tiny boats around the board for too long.
BALANCE REAL AND FICTIONAL
To make a scene count, it must walk a fine line between reality and fiction. If any element of the scene feels fake–whether it’s dialog, actions, thoughts or emotions, the scene won’t advance your story. Yet if a scene is TOO realistic, the same fate may befall it. For instance, you’re writing a scene where the MC has picked up two runaway girls on the freeway and is in a restaurant getting them something to eat. In real life we have to order, wait for the food and then be served before we taste the first bite. But if the scene is to build tension and move closer to the goal, it must unfold in a way that keeps readers guessing. To craft scenes that ratchet tension, a general rule is to speed over or even omit unimportant details and slow down when your character is making important decisions. Many other factors go into good scenes, but these three should help you craft better, more reader-friendly fiction.