hether they write romance or mysteries, chick lit or literary fiction, top-notch women’s writers know the key to selling their work is to create a scene.
No, I don’t mean arguing with their agent. Or even butting heads with their editor.
The scenes they create are the ongoing viewable action and dialogue that we all use to tell our stories. Read on to find out how scenes work and how to use them to strengthen your fiction.
A scene is fiction’s basic building block. There may be a bit of description or background, but the emphasis is on what is happening in one set place over a limited time. This isn’t action summarized, but action shown. Think about a scene in a movie; the difference here is that your scene is written vs. filmed.
The focus of the scene’s action is the main character and her goal. It might be an everyday problem, “get to work on time,” or something huge, “save the baby.” Whatever it is, it is important to the character and, therefore, to the reader. It moves the story forward and/or reveals something about her as a character.
The action in the scene occurs as your character works to meet this goal but encounters problems. She wants to get to work on time, but the car won’t start. She tries and tries. Finally the engine catches. The scene ends with an altered goal—call a shop to check her car.
Setting new goals isn’t always easy. Your character may have to review recent events or weigh risks. Other times it is instantaneous. When she falls in a lake, she doesn’t think about whether or not to swim. The scene opens with one goal and closes with another and includes all that was said and done in between.
“The key to strong scenes is balance between dialogue and beats of action.”
Beats in a Scene
Scenes are built around this struggle to meet goals and to overcome reversals, all through dialogue and action. The key to strong scenes is balance between dialogue and beats of action.
Not all actions are physical. Bits of interior dialogue, when a character says one thing but thinks another, are action. A beat can be small, tucking your hair behind your ear, or huge, pulling the trigger, but big or small they keep the story moving and anchor the reader.
This means that you must scatter beats even within your dialogue, but do so with care. Too many beats fragment the dialogue. Let them get a sentence out. Too few leave the reader unanchored. What is going on anyway? Are they just going to sit around (or are they standing) and talk all day?
Build your scene around a carefully balanced combination. Readers will get to know your character, follow her changing goals, and root her on until the end.
But, first, you have to hook your reader.
“The opening scene reveals your main story question.”
In the Beginning
One of the best ways to hook your reader is to open with an action-oriented scene. Action is exciting. It pulls us in.
But it can’t be just any action, it must be as essential to this particular story as every other scene. Don’t start with a chase scene simply because chase scenes are exciting. Instead, come up with something that fits this story.
It should also be the point where your character’s life changes forever, even if she doesn't know it yet. Here is the opening scene from The Girl Who Chased the Moon bySarah Addison Allen:
It took a moment for Emily to realize the car had come to a stop. She looked up from her charm bracelet, which she’d been worrying in slow circles around her wrist, and stared out the window. The two giant oaks in the front yard looked like flustered ladies caught mid-curtsy, their starched leaf-dresses swaying in the wind.
“This is it?” she asked the driver.
“Six Shelby Road, Mullaby. This is it.”
Emily hesitated, then paid him and got out. The air outside was tomato-sweet and hickory smoked, all at once delicious and strange. It automatically made her touch her tongue to her lips. It was dusk, but the streetlights weren’t on yet. She was taken aback by how quiet everything was. It suddenly made her head feel light. No street sounds. No kids playing. No music or television. There was this sensation of otherworldliness, like she’d traveled some impossible distance.
And in many ways, she has. She has come to live with a grandfather she’s never met in a town her mother never talked about. A perfect fit for this story about lies, confusion, and coming home.
No matter what other issues she faces, this character can eventually meet face-to-face with her problem. A girl in the modern world isn’t kept apart from life around her by propriety. Contrast that with the opening scene in Bellfield Hall: Or The Observations of Miss Dido Kent by Anna Dean:
Monday, 23rd September 1805
My dear Eliza,
I must begin another letter to you although it is not six hours since I sent my last. I have some news to communicate which I think will surprise you not a little.
Miss Dido Kent hesitated, her pen suspended over the page. All her education and almost thirty years' experience of writing letters had not quite prepared her for this situation. As well as she could recall, the rules of etiquette said nothing about the correct way in which to convey the news that she now had to impart. However, her governess had once told her that the very best style of writing was that which gave information simply and clearly without any excess sensibility.
She dipped her pen in to the ink and continued.
There has been a woman found dead here — in the shrubbery — this evening.
We have a murder but it is a murder in Regency England. Our detective, Miss Dido Kent must work within the norms of her culture, norms which keep her, a lady, at a distance from much of the world. Because of this, the distance provided by opening with a letter is the perfect start to this particular story.
The opening scene reveals your main story question. It also tells the reader if your character is the main player in a romance, a thriller or a mystery. The opening scene is a contract with your reader that the climax must fulfill.
“This scene often involves a revelation, a reinterpretation of past events, or a big surprise.”
In Writing the Blockbuster Novel, Albert Zuckerman calls the climax the Obligatory Scene. The entire plot builds toward this confrontation, be it a battle or facing a personal fear. This scene is life altering, so it is also big in terms of emotion. The main character’s life will never be the same. The dynamics between characters also change. This scene often involves a revelation, a reinterpretation of past events, or a big surprise.
Build up this tension by setting obligatory scenes in places where previous disasters have occurred. In The Girl Who Chased the Moon, Allen returns the characters of her subplot to the setting where they made love in high school and she got pregnant. This time, will they stay together? Or remain heartbroken?
Or set the scene someplace physically dangerous—cliffs, steeples, stairways and mountain tops are all viable settings as are cemeteries, morgues or slaughter houses. Again, the right choice depends on your story.
In her middle grade fantasy, The Wayfinder, Darcy Pattison sets her obligatory scene at the edge of a chasm. Before the story opened, Win’s sister fell to her death in this Rift and this location has haunted him ever since.
Win was only a foot away from the edge of the Rift. He tried to feint to the right, then leap to the left, but Valda wouldn’t fall for it. She pounced on him, grabbing at the amulet. Her hand clutched the amulet’s string and the strap to the waterskin. Win wheeled about, trying to loosen her hold. They fell, right at the edge, with Valda on top. She squirmed, still holding the amulet string. Then Lady Kala hit them, knocking Valda’s face into Win’s chest.
Valda heaved backward, throwing Lady Kala off her, Lady Kala snapped at the amulet and caught it in her mouth. Valda waved her arms, wildly trying to regain her balance, while struggling with the Tazi (Kala) for the amulet. The amulet string broke, throwing Lady Kala off-balance. She fell and rolled. Then her hind legs slipped over the edge.
The tension in a standard fight scene increases with the danger of the location.
Many writers don’t put enough into this scene. Why? Delving into deep, dark emotions and tormenting characters is tough. Yet, this scene is essential to well-written fiction.
Check your obligatory scene against your other scenes. Get your manuscript out. Highlight scenes in alternating colors, with a third color for your obligatory scene. Is it longer than less meaningful scenes? If not, get to work.
“The most effective obligatory scenes are foreshadowed by one or more earlier scenes.”
The most effective obligatory scenes are foreshadowed by one or more earlier scenes. These earlier scenes preview some of the upcoming events on a smaller scale.
If your obligatory scene is about trust, set up a series of scenes that have one or both characters questioning the integrity of the other. The key is to increase the tension with each event as Allen does in her main plot. The first time Emily meets the male lead, she is having a panic attack and he helps her. So far so good.
The second time, she is asked to leave his sister’s party. Again, he makes sure she is well, but also reveals what her mother did that makes the townspeople treat Emily so badly. Could the story he tells, which makes her mother sound horrid, be true? By the obligatory scene, both families have forbidden their relationship and she finally sees proof of what his family has struggled to hide—his ability to glow in the moonlight.
He stood there and let her stare at him. His shoulders seemed to relax a little when he realized she wasn’t going to run away. But it wasn’t because she didn’t want to. She simply couldn’t. Her muscles felt frozen.
He took one step toward her, then another.
He stopped immediately as she stumbled away. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Was she all right? No, she wasn’t all right! She turned her back on him and put her hands on her knees. She couldn’t get enough air.
Will they overcome the lies told surrounding past events? Allen has set up a situation which forces two vulnerable people into a tense situation where each realizes they need the help of the other to break with history and move forward.
“The best women writers also use scenes to tie together their subplot and plot.”
Tying It All Together
The best women writers also use scenes to tie together their subplot and plot. They do this by using similar details, the same setting or repeating dialogue in two different encounters where one is crucial to the plot, the other crucial to the subplot. Each scene strengthens the other by adding depth to the overall manuscript.
Don’t just have the type of situation be the same, but the build up as well. Allen’s book is romantic fiction—will they end up together? In both plot and subplot, characters struggle with fiction that has been adopted as fact. None of the main players know the full truth, but failure to discover it will keep them apart. Each story includes having to learn to trust, discover the truth, and accept the faults and quirks of their potential partners.
Again, the key to making this work is to raise the stakes in the later scene. Allen’s first scene, the subplot scene, is private. The second is played out in front of family members who know the truth but have kept it a secret.
Another way to make this work is to duplicate types of description. In both plot and subplot, Allen describes the male love interests in terms of light and warmth.
Here is the description of the male lead in the obligatory scene.
Like blowing on embers, a light began to glow around him. It looked like he was backlit, but of course there was no light source around him. It was if radiant heat was emanating from his skin, surrounding him in waving white light. He looked like a dream of daylight in the middle of the night.
Compare it to this description of the subplot’s male lead.
He was self-possessed and proud, but everyone forgave him for that because charm sparkled around him like sunlight.
Done carelessly, the effect is repetitive. Done with care, it creates depth. Either description or emotion can be mirrored in both scenes and thus create layers of detail that strengthen the overall story.
“Writing some scenes is like finding your car keys in the bottom of a black purse at night—a total struggle.”
Writing some scenes is like finding your car keys in the bottom of a black purse at night—a total struggle. No matter how hard you fight to bring these scenes to life, they feel flat. The dialogue sounds unrealistic.
The problem may be that the writer doesn’t have a handle on the scene. How would your heroine move while battling for her one true love? While fighting to save a friend? Get out of your chair and find out. Step, reach, spin. Feel it happen.
Boring dialogue? Field test that too. Whisper it or shout it, but say the words aloud before you put them into your character’s mouth.
If you still can’t get the scene to work, the problem might not be the scene itself. If you don’t know your character well enough, you may not know how she will think or act or what she will say. Pull out your favorite character building exercises. Complete character sketches. Only then can you bring your character to life for you and the reader.
If your scene still won’t work, it may mean that a scene simply will not do the job at this particular point in the story.
“Sometimes we need to tell the reader something that doesn’t drive plot or reveal character.”
What A Scene Won’t Do
When you’ve struggled to get the scene down and nothing seems to work, perhaps the problem is the scene itself. Does your scene drive the plot? Does it reveal something about the character? No? Then maybe what you need isn’t a scene.
Sometimes we need to tell the reader something that doesn’t drive plot or reveal character. Maybe the information creates a transition and keeps your reader from feeling disoriented. Or maybe your character is doing something important, but we don’t need blow by blow details.
One of Allen’s characters bakes cakes every day. We know what types of cakes she bakes. We read a few steps here and there. What we do not get is a step-by-step lesson in cakes. The fact that she spends so much time baking is critical, but how she does it is not. Allen gets the information across but minimizes it by summarizing as much as possible.
This summary is narrative. Narrative summarizes action and gives your reader a needed break. Exciting scenes can create overload for your reader. Let her take a breather. Just don’t use narrative too often since it draws attention from the story to the author. Pay no attention to the woman behind the keyboard.
Strong scenes are essential but difficult to create. Even a top notch author like Allen, Dean, or Pattison doesn’t get it right in one try. As she writes and rewrites, she cuts and adds beats as needed to create the right level of action. She hones scenes that foreshadow her climax without giving it away. In other scenes, her subplots strengthen her plot. No matter how hard she works on her scenes, the ones that don’t work have to go. Scenes that don’t further plot or character are ruthlessly cut.
Learn to create a scene and use it well and soon your books will grace bookstore shelves alongside those of other women writers.
Sue Bradford Edwards is a writer and book reviewer who creates scenes in her home office in St. Louis, Missouri. Read her work at Education.com and Prayables.com. To find out more about her or her writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey, her book review blog, The Bookshelf, or her website.
Enjoyed this article? Check out Sue's other articles on WOW!:
Navigating the Fantastic: Rules for Writing Fantasy
How to Write a Picture Book
How to Combat Writer's Block
Tips for Crafting Comedic Scenes
How to Make Dialogue Tags Work for Your Story
Where Are We? Using Setting and Description in Creative, Yet Crucial Ways
Fattening Your Scenes