Monday, April 16, 2018

How To Craft High Impact Scenes for Your Stories (Part One)

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Two pieces of exciting news! The first is that Go Teen Writers was included in Writer's Digest's list of 101 Best Websites for Writers! 

This is the second year that we've made this list, and we are so delighted by that honor. We also know it's really YOU GUYS and the community that you've worked to build here and on Facebook that have made Go Teen Writers what it is. So, thank you!

The other exciting news is that in about a month (May 15th) we're going to hold another 100-for-100 writing challenge! Many of you have been asking for us to host another of these, and I wanted you to have time to put it on your calendar. If you're not familiar with it, the 100-for-100 is a challenge to write 100 words a day for 100 days. More details will be coming!

Let's get going on our topic of the day, which is scenes! (I'll try to stop speaking in exclamation marks now.)

When you write a novel, scenes are your building blocks. There is no one-size-fits-all for scenes. Some might be 500 words and others 2,500. You might have three scenes within a chapter. You might have one in a chapter.

Some writers like to start a scene in the present, jump back to the past for a bit to catch up the reader, and then return to the present. Sarah Dessen does this quite masterfully. Some start with dialogue, and others with description, almost like an establishing shot in a movie. You'll hear writing teachers say that all scenes need a beginning, middle, and ending, or that every scene needs a hook.

All these different styles and suggestions can make the question, "How do I write great scenes?" a bit confusing. 

I will go ahead and say now then I often write my scenes by instinct rather than planning out the structure ahead of time. Even so, I still make a lot of decisions about my scenes, whether I'm actively thinking about them or not. I bet you are too.

Let's examine what some of those decisions are. If you're the charting, outliney sort of writer, you can use this list to brainstorm scenes before you write them. Sometimes that's what I do. But you can also use this as a checklist of sorts when you are editing, which is what I more often do. A way to kick the tires and make sure everything is as it should be.

Often the misguided question we asked as writers is, "What is going to happen in this next scene?" 

Writing a story using this question will likely give you a book that feels more like a list of things that happen than an actual, cohesive story. Another symptom of asking this question is your characters decisions might feel "off" or mismatched from their motivations.

The question that I think is better is, "Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?"

If we want our characters to come across as thinking, feeling, logically motivated people, then this is the much better question. The story's progression will feel more organic when you use the, "Because of this, now that," approach to your scenes.

There is also an implied question here, of, "Whose point of view should this scene be told in?"

If you are writing a single point of view story, then this is an easy one! But if you are writing a story from multiple points of view, then this is a good one to ask.

Typically, we want to write our scenes from the perspective of the character who has the most at stake. Who is the most vulnerable in this scene? Who could lose the most? Who could gain the most? These are the kinds of questions you want to ask if you are trying to figure out who gets to tell this scene.

Going back to our, "Because of this, now that" question, in a multiple perspective book we may not be speaking literally about the last scene. If this point of view character knows nothing of what just happened, then we need to think from the perspective of the last scene this character was in.

The next question I think we should ask is, "What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene? What are they trying to make happen?"

It's possible they have a goal completely unrelated to what happens in the actual scene. Maybe their goal is to take their dog for a quick walk around the block, but then on the walk they are robbed at gunpoint.

But most of your scenes should have your point of view character who has something they want, and they are actively trying to obtain it, but then something gets in the way.

Let's look at an example from my World War II era historical, Within These Lines.

Early in the book, Evalina goes to the farmer's market to see Taichi. That is her goal in this scene, only when she arrives, he's not there.

This is the obstacle, which is your next question, "What obstacle stands in my character's way?" Or another helpful way to think of it can be, "How is my character's expectation foiled? What surprises them along the way?"

So now that Evalina has seen Taichi is not where she expected him to be, she gets to make a decision, which is my favorite question to answer. "What decision does my character make as a result?"

They can act, or they can choose to not act, but them making a decision is critical to your scene working. (For more on this, read my post 2 Ways To Be Sure Your Scene Really Matters)

Going back to my example from Within These Lines, Evalina could have chosen to not act in several ways. She could have just gone home. She could have complained to a friend. She could have decided that she would ask Taichi about it the next time they saw each other.

Likewise, there were many options for how she could act. She could find a phone booth and call him, or ask around the market to see if any mutual friends knew where he was.

But because Evalina is a bold sort, and because she is very afraid for Taichi, I felt she needed to make a big, showy decision. I decided that she would get on a ferry and go to his house. Not only does it fit her, which is important, but it feels interesting. Which is rather critical in writing a compelling story.

While there are no official rules for what kind of decision your character should make, having them make an interesting decision will go a long way toward crafting an interesting scene. The decision should still be logical, and it should make sense for who the character is and the circumstances around them, but it needs to be interesting.

Lastly (for today, anyway) we need to ask, "What is the outcome of my character's decision?"

Sometimes we don't fully explore the outcome until the following scene, so it might be that you close your scene by hinting at the outcome or resulting disaster, but with just a sentence or two. With the scene from Within These Lines, I ended the scene with Evalina's decision after she has talked to several others at the market and found they don't know where Taichi's family is:

Mrs. Ling holds out a beautiful naval orange, round and bold. “Share this with your friend. May it bring you both good luck.”
The market doesn’t officially open for a few more minutes, but San Franciscans already mill about the rows of tables, haggling over prices of the first spring vegetables. The men who stole the Hamasakis’ spot chat with customers, and the sight makes my chest burn.
I put the orange in my basket and pedal along the street. The fog has thinned, but my thoughts are hazy with anger. 
At the ferry ticket booth, I pull coins from my handbag and place them on the counter. “When does the boat leave for Alameda?”

I cut the scene off there, which makes for a very easy way for me to know what scene should come next. The question becomes, "Because of Evalina impulsively deciding to take a ferry to Taichi's hometown, what will she choose next?"

If you are looking for ways to surprise readers or add plot twists, try examining the way your characters expectations are foiled and the resulting decisions that they make. If your character is making logical but surprising decisions, and they are having logical but surprising outcomes, then your reader will be surprised ... but not in a way that makes them doubt the plausibility..

Next Monday, I'm going to talk about slowing down the action for moment's of reaction, and the questions we need to ask when writing those scenes.

Take a look at an active scene you've written recently, and apply the questions raised today:

Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?
What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene?
What obstacle stands in my character's way? How is their expectation foiled?
What decision does my character make as a result?
What is the outcome of my character's decision?

Did your scene naturally have all those elements? What, if any, changes will you make?


  1. I'm so excited for the 100-for-100 coming up! I also can't believe that it starts on May 15th, the day I turn 13 years old!

    1. Happy (early) Birthday!

    2. Yes, Happy Birthday in May, and happy writing then, too!

    3. I'm so excited!

  2. Yay! 100-for-100!!!! I can't wait to work on that one. :)

  3. I've never participated in a 100-for-100, but I've heard a lot about it and it sounds really fun, so I can't wait to do it!

    1. It's a really fun event, Maggie. I'm glad you'll be joining us!

  4. I should really do the 100-for-100 (it won't be a problem for me because I tend to 1000 word blog posts...) I thought that your question was great, "because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character do now?"

  5. Congrats on making the list, that's a big deal! I'm really happy for you guys!

  6. Navel orange, Stephanie. ;)

    I really like this post. I've been writing a long scene in my book and trying to come up with a theory of scene structure to work from. This helps a lot; I find that I do tend to fall into the "what happens next" mindset rather than "what does my character do next", so I will definitely be watching out for that when I get back to writing!