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, andΒ Scene and Sequel


34 thoughts on “Scenes that Sizzle

  1. TerryLynnJohnson

    wow, thanks so much for all your work posting this. Amazing advice and very timely for me. Thank you!

  2. Cassandra Jade

    Some really good advice here. Thanks so much for sharing it and giving us some great pointers for strengthening our scenes.

  3. Michelle Massaro

    I wanted to pop back over and give another big thank-you for your input and clarification on my question. You too Annie! It's not always easy to identify those simple things in our own scenes but obviously worth the effort.

    Great post!

  4. Angela Cerrito

    Great ideas!!

  5. Paul Greci

    Excellent post. Brainstorming ways to keep my MC from his objective is one of my favorite ways to approach a scene during revisions.

  6. Susan J. Reinhardt

    Hi Katie –

    I have a couple of James Scott Bell's craft books, including this one.

    My writing is SOTP, and it's hard for me to be quite so deliberate on the first draft. I do better during the editing stage.

    Susan πŸ™‚

  7. Lauren

    I have one of JSB's books on writing, not revising, and it is really hard for me to think about everything he says to think about while you write. I simply just don't worry about any of it until I'm done with a rough draft. I write, then I worry about what I've written. But in regards to this post, I usually just nix out anything that sounds dopey and unrealistic.

  8. Jennifer Shirk

    I've read a few of his books–but not that one! πŸ™‚ Those are great!

    I usually like to end a chapter or scene with something happening that will force the hero or heroine to react or at least "think" in the next one.

  9. Rosslyn Elliott

    Those are great tips.

    I'm always glad I took acting classes, even though my experience in theater was not good for me in some ways. What those classes taught about objective and conflict has been a huge help in my writing.

  10. Katie Ganshert

    I'm glad so many found this helpful!

    Thanks for the kind words, Annie. That's a great suggestion for Michelle, too. πŸ™‚

  11. Annie

    I love this blog – I intend to visit often. In answer to Michelle Massaro's question, some internal dialogue about self-doubt or guilt about past relationships might add enough tension to get your readers wondering. Just a thought.

  12. Shannon O'Donnell

    Great post! I've bookmarked AND printed this one, Katie. Thanks! πŸ™‚

  13. Erin MacPherson

    Hi Katie! This is great!! I write non-fiction so this doens't completely apply, but I think the idea of identifying your 10 weakest SECTIONS would work just as well in non-fiction.

  14. Jessica Nelson

    This is such excellent advice! Thank you! I'm lengthening a category so I def. need to make sure the scenes I add make the story better and not just longer.

  15. Jill Kemerer

    I plan ahead. I plan every scene ahead. I know each one belongs! But when I'm revising, I find that some scenes are bloated or contain info that really isn't necessary–then I get ruthless.

  16. Heather Sunseri

    Thanks for the awesome post, Katie. I'm rereading James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure right now preparing for next book. I just love him.

  17. Jeanette Levellie

    Excellent post, Katie. As always.

    Tips for revisions: Read aloud, to get the cadance and flow of the words. This also helps you find where you've overused a word or phrase. I love Rodale's Synonym Finder. Excellent resource for the perfect words!

  18. Michelle Massaro

    Hmmm. This SOUNDS good. But there are a few scenes in my own book that I wouldn't know how to define in those parameters. And I don't necessarily think they are bad scenes. So maybe I need some help?

    For example, I have a scene in which my male MC drives my female MC home from church. There are seeds of interest growing between them and the car ride gives him a chance to get to know her- ask about her job, her school, her ministry. It's a simple scene full of dialogue and it ends with him realizing that he hadn't stopped smiling since she got out of his car.

    I suppose his objective is getting to know her. But I see absolutely no obstacle! I never thought about the scene needing one. I'm sure I have more like that as well. So what do I do with this? Anyone want to weigh in, or have a similar question?

    Thanks for getting me thinking today! πŸ™‚

  19. Tina Russo Radcliffe

    Wow, excellent. I too just printed it off to keep.

    Thank you.

  20. Tamika:

    This is one book I really need to get:) Thanks for sharing the snippet. Right now I'm working to strengthen a few obstacles. I know that the overall dilemma is present, but it needs more spice.

    Thanks Katie!

  21. T. Anne

    LOVE the new look! And your post is timely since I'm heading into major edits with the WIP I just finished, not to mention the WIP I just got back from my editor (Tiffany Colter who I LUV) πŸ˜‰ Have a great day.

  22. Sarah Forgrave

    First of all, I love the new look on your blog! Second, I haven't read that book yet, but it's on my list. After reading this post, I need to bump it up to the top. Such great advice!

  23. Erica Vetsch

    He's one of the best writing teachers ever, because he's such a great communicator. I can't wait for JSB's early bird session at the conference.

  24. Elana Johnson

    I so need to be better at doing this kind of stuff. I don't even think while writing. This is why my revision process is at least four times as long as the drafting process. I basically have to rewrite the whole book. So yeah. I really need to do this better from the start. Thanks!

  25. Laura Marcella

    I recently bought this book! I'm going to read it when I'm done my novel. I'm glad to hear you like it! All of James Scott Bell's books on writing are amazing.

  26. Cindy R. Wilson

    Great post. Examining each individual scene is something I've been spending time on lately with my current WIP. I did a post on revelations today, noting that I usually try to reveal something new in each scene to keep the story going and the reader interested in moving on. I like the idea of obstacles, though. I'm going to have to keep a look out for that in my manuscript. Thanks!

  27. Lacie Nezbeth

    I just bought that book (Revision and Self-Editing) and can't wait to read it. It sounds like a good investment.

    Thanks for the summary! =)


  28. Terri Tiffany

    This is what I just studied with Camy–excellent advice!

  29. Elaine AM Smith

    I found this post really useful. You have just helped me clarify the scene I am writing πŸ™‚

  30. patti

    Sigh. I'm TERRIBLE at cutting my scenes and am so glad the editor at the publishing house pulls out the ax for me.

    A few chapters got lopped off of Lily.

    Sigh. You know what? I don't miss them. So why is it so hard to be an executioner??????



  31. Mia

    Awesome advice, Katie. I love Revision and Self-Editing. I've already read it through once, but I started revision on a book this week, so I'm definitely going to pick it up again πŸ™‚

    As for tips on scenes, I'm basically going to just echo Wendy. I like starting and ending a scene or chapter with a hook.

    As for editing, I'm new at that, so I don't have any tips yet. When you're doing the first complete read through of a first draft, I do recommend coffee, chocolate, and a box of tissues, though. And a funny movie afterwards. Yeah, my first read through isn't going so well… πŸ˜›

  32. Wendy Paine Miller

    I'm big on hook sentences to open and close a scene. Make 'em want to read on & on.
    ~ Wendy

  33. Kelly Lyman

    Thanks for this post, Katie! I've been trying to find a book on self-editing. I just finished a major rewrite and am at this part of the process. My problem is being able to identify these different things in my own work.

  34. Tabitha Bird

    Awesome advise. I am going to get that book and bookmark this post. I am still learning all there is to know about this stuff. Do we ever stop really? πŸ™‚ I hope not. I like the growth!


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