Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series.
Find Jill on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.
Welcome to week eight of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I am writing a book called THIRST and have been posting it one chapter a week over on my author blog. I posted Chapter 6 of THIRST yesterday. Click here to read it.
A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.
Week three was storyworld.
Today's Topic: How to Write a SceneA book is comprised of a sequence of scenes. A scene is a unit of action. Every scene in a book should have a reason for being there. It should either characterize or advance the plot. The best scenes do both. There have been many times in my career as I work with editors, that I've had to cut out scenes that I loved because the scenes had no point to them. These were often scenes that characterized but didn't move the story forward. And what little they did to characterize could be worked into another stronger scene. Always try to make each scene do several things.
A good example of this is my first chapter of King's Folly. We are in Wilek's point of view in a disturbing location: the scene of a human sacrifice to the god Barthos. We learn that Wilek is a prince, that he is hoping to be declared Heir, and that he hates these sacrifices. We also learn about the worst memory of his life. And we get to see his practical side as he talks about this with his men afterwards. That scene shows the reader a glimpse of the world Wilek lives in. It sets up the conflict between Wilek and his father--the very conflict that will drive the series forward (good kings vs. evil kings). It foreshadows events that will happen toward the end of the book. And it also gives the reader a glimpse as to the kind of man Wilek is. (You can read that scene free in Darkness Reigns.)
So how do you write a scene?
As I mentioned, you need to have a reason for the scene: something you want to happen that will move the story forward. I try to look at each scene like a mini story. It needs its own beginning, middle, and end. The author should have a goal for that scene. The scene also needs a point of view character, who has his own goal with a logical motivation. It needs an emotional tone. (Is this a romantic scene, a scary one? Intense? Relaxed? Mysterious?) The scene also needs conflict. And it sometimes helps to have a major reveal or a disaster before the end of the scene. And don't forget the logistics:
The players: Who is in this scene?
The location: Where is this scene taking place
The time: When is this scene taking place, both in time of day and time of week/month/year. Even if this isn't mentioned, it's a good idea for you, the author, to know (and maybe even keep a calendar).
Here is a little scene breakdown list I like to use when dissecting a scene:
Author's scene goal:
POV character's goal:
POV character's motivation:
Major reveal, disaster, etc:
Another powerful way to write or rewrite scenes is to write scenes and sequels. This is something I learned from Dwight Swain in his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer. According to Mr. Swain, a scene is made up of three things that should happen in this, logical order:
1. Goal: This is what your character wants at the start of the scene...
2. Conflict: ...but something starts to thwart that goal...
3. Disaster: ...until something kills the goal altogether.
A sequel is really just the second half of a scene or a subsequent scene. A sequel encompasses the:
1. Reaction: Your character responds (shock, fear, tears, disbelief) then realizes he can’t stay like that forever.
2. Dilemma: So your character looks at the options before him...
3. Decision: ...and makes a choice about what to do next.
And then you’re ready to go back to the top with a new scene, starting with a new 1. Goal and move through the process again.
Below is part of a scene from THIRST. To set this up for you, Eli and his friends have survived a disease that killed over 90% of people on earth. Hannah just joined their group. They are trying to gather supplies and head north, where they are hoping to find a clean water source. The story is written in first person from Eli's point of view. Here is my scene breakdown:
Author's scene goal: I want Eli and Hannah to talk so the reader can learn more about Hannah. I also want to start setting up the obvious: that Logan and Hannah would never be a good romantic match. And I want to continue to characterize Eli. I want Hannah to see how smart he is and how well he knows his friends.
The players: Eli and Hannah are in the front seat. Logan, Shyla, and Davis are in the back seat.
Location: Riding in an army green 2010 Suzuki Equator extended cab truck on Highway 89 north out of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Time: Early morning in mid-July.
POV character: Eli
Character's goal: Get out of town ASAP. To try and keep up a conversation with new girl Hannah.
Character's motivation: Eli is trying to be a leader--to act more mature than he feels. He wants to get to the mountains where he believes it will be safer.
Scene Beginning: Eli gets everyone into the two vehicles and they drive north out of Flagstaff.
Scene Middle: With Logan immersed in a video game, Hannah and Eli start to have a nice conversation.
Scene End: Hannah screams that there is a child standing in the road.
Emotional tone: Tense. Eli feels nervous about being the leader, and he's just had a shock that his sister is dating his best friend.
Conflict: Eli has never been confident talking to girls---especially girls he doesn't know. Plus, Logan interjects several comments that add tension to their conversation.
Major reveal, disaster, etc: Nothing major in this scene besides a child standing in the road.
And here is the start of the scene:
I told everyone to take one last bathroom break and went out and syphoned gas with my new shake syphon and gas cans. Once both vehicles were full and the gas cans re-filled and loaded into the back of the truck, I locked it up and climbed into the cab.
I was surprised to see Hannah sitting shotgun.
“Hey,” I said.
She had her feet up on the dashboard and her hands resting on her knees. She had a fancy manicure job with the glossy with white tips and that ring with the massive diamond gleamed at me. I wanted to ask about her husband or fiancé or whatever, but I didn’t want to risk making her cry.
“They’re fighting over who gets to sit where,” she said. “Lizzie is riding with Zaq, and Jaylee wants to ride with Lizzie but doesn’t want to ride with Logan. But Logan wants to talk to Zaq and said he was there first. Krista says she’s sick of the kids and wants to ride in the van and have the kids ride over here…” She sighed. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been around teenage drama.”
“Sorry,” I said, wincing. “I’d rather not be around it myself. But I’ll tell you right now, Jaylee will win and Logan will be riding with us.”
“Jaylee always wins?”
She raised her eyebrows. “Not with the shaving cream, though.” [FYI, while they were in the store, Eli told Jaylee she could not waste a whole tub packing shaving cream for shaving her legs. Essentials only.]
Oh. Right. “I guess.”
She smiled and her eyes shifted as they studied my face. “How old are you, Eli?”
Her question made me nervous, though I had no idea why. “Seventeen.”
“When is your birthday?”
“So you’re closer to sixteen than to eighteen.”
“Yep. You joined up with a band of teenage crazies. Sorry ’bout that.”
“You act older than most seventeen-year-old boys.”
The back door on my side opened and Davis climbed up. “Krista said you wanted us to ride with you.”
“I sure did,” I said, wondering who would parent these two kids since Krista didn’t seem to want the job.
“I like the new truck,” Davis said from behind me. “It feels bigger in here than in the van.”
“Not much room in there with all the egos,” I mumbled.
“Waffles?” Davis asked.
Shyla climbed in beside her brother, and Logan got in behind Hannah.
“I’ve decided to ride in the truck,” Logan said.
“Sweet. We’re glad to have you.” I grinned at Hannah. “Let’s roll!”
This isn't the end of the scene. (You can read the rest of that scene free here.) It goes on with Eli and Hannah making small talk while the others play video games in the back seat. Before the scene transitions into the next, we learn a little about Hannah---that she was a med student and traveled to Guatemala with Doctors Without Borders. The scene ends when Hannah screams , "Stop!" because there is a child standing in the road. That brings me to the start of a new scene.
We've talked about scenes on Go Teen Writers a lot. Check out some of these posts if you're looking to dig deeper into this topic:
Archived posts on writing and editing scenes:
Writing in Scenes
Arriving Fashionably Late
Arrive Late, Then Leave Early
Scene Breaks v. Section Breaks
Weeding Out Weak Scenes
Writing Scenes and Sequels
Questions to Ask When Editing Scenes
The Internal and the External of Scenes
Editing in Layers: The Big Picture of Your Scene
And for fun:
Writing the Action/Fight Scene
Editing the Action Scene
Assignment TimeChoose one scene in your book and break it down using either my scene breakdown or Dwight Swain's scene and sequel order. Share your breakdown in the comments.
Jill's Scene Breakdown
Author's scene goal:
Major reveal, disaster, etc:
Dwight Swain's Scene and Sequel