How to Make a Scene
by Chris Roerden
This article is not about pitching a tantrum when your books don’t arrive for your gala launch. It has nothing to do with the hissy fit your author throws when your editor suggests a rewrite of chapter two. No, this article focuses on the basic building blocks of a novel: scenes. It is the first in a short series of articles on how to get the kind of writing from your authors—or yourself—that sells fiction.
I support the current growth of fiction in independent publishing because I know how hard it is for writers to get past the gatekeepers at literary agencies and large royalty houses. I’ve been a gatekeeper, one of the meanies who brandish secret criteria to rapidly sentence 95 out of 100 manuscripts to the “no” pile.
Although my reading these days is more for pleasure than pay, I select my reading material using the same criteria for craft and technique that I’ve used professionally. You won’t hear me talk about rules or good and bad writing. Effectiveness is what it’s all about. Some techniques are more effective than others.
Certain techniques are valuable for all fiction and most nonfiction. My own books and articles focus on the writing and publishing of popular fiction. “Popular” is distinguished from “literary” fiction by its target marketability, which the Internet makes easier than ever before.
Popular genres or categories include mystery, romance, thriller, fantasy, science fiction, lesbian, gay, and so on. Many subgenres exist within each genre. Mystery, for example, includes traditional, private eye, police procedural, legal, medical, historical, and more. Each subgenre has its fans, and those fans have certain expectations. So do the reviewers for each genre.
My purpose is to help your books, your authors, and your editors meet the expectations of targeted readers, including the people who influence your readers. My recommendation is that you look for the qualities outlined below when you consider publishing any manuscript.
Seven elements are most important in making a scene effective, no matter the genre. You may not be able to evaluate a manuscript’s plot and character development from a few scenes, but its author’s ability to handle a scene becomes evident right away.
The seven elements to look at are:
1. Characters. At least one, preferably two. Two have greater potential for strong interactions than three or more. Using an early scene primarily for introducing characters and backstory is typical of the unskilled fiction writer.
2. Setting. One. A single setting lets readers feel grounded in place and time and satisfies what I call a hankering for anchoring. But instead of directly describing the setting for its own sake, skillful authors establish it indirectly as part of the action experienced by the protagonist.
3. POV. One point of view per scene. The narrator may be an invisible storyteller who refers to all characters in third person (he, she, him, her), or a character who narrates the story in first person (I, me, my, mine). A scene is strongest when everything is seen, heard, felt, known, thought, and realized through the eyes, ears, and other senses of that scene’s viewpoint character. The feelings and reactions of other characters are suggested most effectively by showing observable actions and body language that let readers draw their own conclusions.
Consistency in POV is so fundamental that experienced writers roll their eyes whenever it’s explained, yet head-hopping within a scene—a sure manuscript-killer—is prevalent. Watch for a new scene to open whenever a different character’s POV is presented. I cannot recommend alternating first-person scenes with third-person scenes because the method is still controversial and seldom done effectively.
4. Purpose or goal. One immediate objective should drive the protagonist to fill one specific short-range need, such as finding out what only one witness saw, or learning only the hot new neighbor’s marital status. One scene = one purpose.
The writer’s purpose, however, must be to advance the plot one scene at a time toward the story’s long-range goal: for example, solving a crime, living happily ever after with one true love, preventing world disaster, or rescuing the Mother Ship. Some writers weaken their action by not letting readers know near the start of each scene (or the end of the one before it) what the lead character hopes to accomplish in that scene.
5. Obstacle. A good scene requires something to thwart the character’s objective and dash those hopes. The obstacle can be a fact, such as missing evidence or false information (the notorious red herring), or another character with an opposing agenda. The protagonist’s internal values can contribute to creating the obstacle, but popular fiction requires external action wherever possible. In all cases, the main character has to find a way around the obstacle, thereby ratcheting up what every type of fiction requires, namely:
6. Conflict and tension. Readers have to feel anxiety and tension along with the protagonist, who is caught in a situation, feels emotion over it, reacts to it, then figures out the next step to take. What if I go to the police? What if I don’t? Readers feel anxiety when they know what the protagonist has at stake for each course of action or inaction.
Anxiety and tension also come from anticipating conflict, as in a thriller when the protagonist is not yet aware of what’s at stake—but we are.
Unskilled writers often have too many contemplative scenes. Excessive thinking slows the pace. Poetry and some literary fiction can succeed on internal conflict alone, but popular fiction needs conflict between characters in their actions and dialogue. The skilled writer keeps increasing the stakes so the protagonist has greater motivation for taking an ever-riskier next step.
7. Resolution or outcome. The situation at the end of a scene should not be the same as the situation at its opening. This change redirects the character’s immediate goal, which is to find a way around the latest obstacle. The most tension comes from setbacks, with only a few successes along the way. Each outcome should determine the next scene’s objective, setting, and action so that readers come to care about the character, buy into his or her escalating motivation, and genuinely root for successful outcomes.
Beware of scenes created as an excuse for an information dump, such as backstory or a character study, in which the characters’ qualities and quirks are told instead of shown through words and behaviors. Fiction is a show, not tell, medium.
Where a situation lacks tension, the skilled writer changes the situation or borrows conflict by moving the action to another setting that generates its own conflict. Amicable characters can be sent off to a hockey or football game, or fishing.
Even friends and lovers who share values may not share priorities at the same moment. Let’s say Mary Jane (character #1) has a short-range objective (purpose) of sounding out her theory of a crime with her best friend. But Best Friend (character #2) plans to spend her day off fishing (obstacle #1). Mary Jane gets around it by inviting herself along (conflict #1: MJ hates fishing). We visualize the setting not from a description of it but indirectly as part of the action MJ experiences from her POV:
With her first step off the dock into the unsteady rowboat, Mary Jane felt queasy. She sat on a life jacket, put her head between her knees, and didn’t look up again until the rowing stopped. A splash from the small anchor peppered her arm with welcome coolness, but the quiet beauty of the natural cove and its clear shallows drew no notice from her. Forgetting that the tall rushes were home to many species of . . .
A peaceful Saturday turns into anything but, with Best Friend focusing on catching a carp, and MJ harping on catching a criminal (conflict #2). When a whopper gets away, BF blames MJ (more conflict) and gets even by picking holes in her theory of the crime (obstacle #2). MJ is forced to revise her thinking (resolution) and the plot goes off in a new direction (outcome and new objective).
Want more tension and conflict? The writer who sends the already stressed Mary Jane tumbling overboard knows how to keep readers on edge. Want to hang on to those readers? The publisher who applies proven criteria for making a scene gains the edge.
Chris Roerden, an editor for 44 years, shares more techniques in her Agatha Award–winning Don’t Murder Your Mystery and its latest edition for all genres, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission. Authors she’s edited are published by St. Martin’s, Berkley Prime Crime, Walker & Co., Viking, Interweave, and numerous independent presses. She is past president of MidAmerica Publishers Association, speaks often at Publishing University, and welcomes questions at her Amazon blog, snurl.com/9esdq. Her next article will focus on dialogue and description.