Scenes that Sizzle

I love James Scott Bell’s advice on improving scenes in his amazingly awesome book, Revision and Self-Editing (a must-own for every novelist). He recommends going through your manuscript and identifying the ten weakest scenes, cutting number ten (the weakest), and doing the following to strengthen the remaining nine. But if you have the time, why not do the following for every single one of your scenes? Think how amazing your story would be.

First, every scene should have the three O’s, as JCB calls them:
1. An objective: the point of view character wants to accomplish something
2. An obstacle: something needs to get in the way of the objective
3. An outcome: the scene’s ending

So here’s what you do:

First, determined your character’s objective.

  • If there isn’t one, that should be a huge warning sign. Either get one or cut the scene.
  • Once you understand the objective, ask yourself if you can strengthen it. Can you make it more important? Can you reveal something that makes the objective even more crucial than your protagonist originally thought?
  • Or maybe your objective is lame. Start brainstorming! Write a list of ten alternative objectives. Think outside the box. Pick the most original one and revise the scene accordingly.

Second, examine your obstacle.

  • What’s stopping your character from getting what he or she wants? Is it another character? Is it the character himself? Is it a physical circumstance – like a disability or the weather or a traffic jam?
  • Once you’ve figured out the obstacle, ask yourself if you can strengthen it. Can you make it huge? Can you make it more immediate?
  • An excellent tool I like to utilize when it comes to intensifying my obstacles is the ticking time clock. Can you find a way to put a time limit on your character? So-and-so has to accomplish the scene objective in a certain amount of time or else? It does wonders for increasing tension.

Third, consider your outcome.

  • Does the character accomplish his goal? Why?
  • Have you considered ending with a disaster? Something that keeps the reader tense and the character away from his ultimate story goal. Because after all, it’s that tension which keeps your reader turning pages.
  • A disaster is usually the best way to end your scenes.. So ask yourself how you can make things worse.

There you go, courtesy of the amazing James Scott Bell. Some sure fire tips for making your scenes jump off the page. Hope they help!

Questions to Ponder: How do you make your scenes jump off the page? How do you decide if you’re going to keep them or ax them? What tips of the trade can you share with me when it comes to revisions?

For more help with scenes, check out 6 Elements of a Scene, Examining a Scene, and Scene and Sequel


Examining a Scene

I opened up As High as the Heavens the other day. It was my first book. Man, did I love this book. I poured my heart into it. It has some chunks of great writing. Even some three-dimensional characters who experience some pretty gripping stuff.


It’s not publishable.

Here’s why.

I wrote that novel before I had any idea that stories have structure. I wrote it before I had any idea that scenes are the skeleton holding that structure together.

According to Debra Dixon, a scene is:
Action. A scene happens. It is not a lengthy explanation of what happened or what will happen. Or even a big stretch of internal dialogue. It’s not wonderfully evocative description or exposition or backstory.

According to Jack Bickham, a scene is:
A segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without any summary, presented onstage in the story “now”.

According to Dwight Swain, a scene is:
A unit of conflict, or struggle, lived through the character and the reader.

Dwight doesn’t say that the scene is lived through just the character, but the reader too. Which means the writer must find a way to make the reader experience the same feelings of conflict. The only way to do this is to bring the scene to life. And the only way to do that is to make the scene immediate and urgent. Most importantly, make sure something is happening.

What I noticed, while skimming over that first beloved novel of mine, is that I didn’t do this. I didn’t bring my scenes to life. I often plunked my scenes in the midst of exposition…telling the reader what happened already, instead of giving them a front seat and letting them experience it themselves. Without knowing it, I distanced the reader. In my mind, all this great stuff was happening…but I didn’t bring that to life for my reader. Instead of letting them watch the movie, I sat them down and explained what the movie was about, or what the characters were about.

So how do we avoid this? How do we make a scene come to life?

We give our character a goal, a motivation for that goal, and a conflict – something that gets in the way of the goal. Each scene should move your novel forward and it should contain at least one of the following elements (from Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, by Debra Dixon):

1. Move the character toward their ultimate goal

2. Provide an experience for the character that changes their goal

3. Provide an experience for the character that strengthens their motivation

4. Bring the character into conflict with opposing forces (I think this should be in every scene, but that’s just me)

So what about you? How are your scenes holding up?

Consider asking yourself these questions:
– Is the majority of my novel told via scenes?

– What’s the purpose of this scene? (if there’s not a strong answer to this, then that’s your sign to cut it or give it one)

– Does this scene move my story forward?

For more on this topic, see posts on goal, motivation, and conflict here, or posts on story structure here.

Questions to Ponder: What have you learned about the craft of writing that’s really taken your writing to the next level? How do you feel about story structure? Do you embrace it or resist it? I’d love to “hear” your thoughts.removetweetmeme

Story Structure: Scene and Sequel

Let’s say we write words that elicit vivid imagery and dig deep into the heart and soul of humanity. Let’s say we string enough of them together that we end up with a beautifully rendered, novel-length creation. Is this creation a story? Not necessarily.

I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned this summer is the importance of studying story structure. In order to create a story, one that brings our readers through an experience from beginning to end, we must understand story structure.

Dwight Swain offers one way to structure a story: scenes and sequels. Have you heard of them?

What is a scene?
Dwight’s definition: A blow-by-blow account of a character’s time-infused effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.

What is the function of a scene?
To propel the story forward, so it moves from beginning to end.

What element unifies a scene?

What is the structure of a scene?
Goal. Conflict. Disaster.

The focal character has a goal, something he wants to accomplish. Enter in conflict. Some opposing force that prevents character from reaching his goal. End with disaster. The character is worse off than before.

In a nutshell, that is a scene, according to Dwight Swain.

What is a sequel?
Dwight’s definition: the bridge from one scene to another, decision-making time.

What is the function of a sequel?
Turn the disaster into a new goal

Establish character’s motivation, which is a key component to suspending disbelief

Control pacing: scenes are units of conflict, and too many strung together can exhaust your reader and leave them feeling a little dizzy. A sequel gives your reader time to breathe.

What element unifies a sequel?

Let’s say we write a scene where Sally tries to run away from home. It ends with Sally’s abusive father catching her and locking her in the basement (disaster). A potential topic for the following sequel: How is Sally going to escape?

Since the unifying force of sequel is not time, as much or as little time can pass during the sequel. Maybe an entire summer slips by while Sally contemplates how she might escape. Time isn’t the issue. Topic is.

What is the structure of a sequel?
Reaction. Dilemma. Decision.

The focal character reacts to the disaster and thinks about the dilemma he is now facing. The sequel does not end until the character makes a decision as far as what he’s going to do now.

In a nutshell, that is a sequel.

Put enough of them together, all working toward your character’s story objective (see GMC: Looking at the G), then you’ve got a strongly structured, well-paced novel. Congrats!

Of course, there are some reasons for including things in a story that are neither scene nor sequel. I will discuss this on Wednesday.

Questions to Ponder: How well do you think you understand story structure? What methods or tools do you use to structure your stories?

Helpful links to learn more about scene and sequel:
Writing the Perfect Scene, by Randy Ingermanson
Scene and Sequel: The Ebb and Flow of Fiction, by Mike Klassan
Scene and Sequel: Scene, by Camy Tang (I highly recommend!)
Scene and Sequel: Sequel, by Camy Tang (I highly recommend!)removetweetmeme