Monday, April 23, 2018

How To Craft High Impact Scenes For Your Stories (Part Two)

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.

Last week, I talked about crafting high impact scenes and how as writers we tend to ask, "What is going to happen in this next scene?" when the better questions are:

  • 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?

But we don’t want our stories to be action, action, action. Even if your genre is thriller or adventure, you still need to build in moments where your character has time to react to what is happening around them.

You may have heard this taught, as I have, as writing in “Scenes and Sequels,” with scenes being the action part and sequels being the slow-down-and-react part. I’ve always found this teaching very confusing.

What does work for my brain is to think about providing opportunities for my character to process the decision they just made. Usually, the amount of processing time corresponds with how big the obstacle or decision was in the last scene.

The next question going on our list is, “Does my character need time to process what has just happened?”

Going back to my example from Within These Lines, Evalina made a gutsy decision by deciding to go uninvited to Taichi’s hometown. Neither of their families know about the true nature of their relationship. Evalina has never been to his home, nor has she ever called him, for fear that they would be found out.

This is a very big decision that she made, and I chose for some of her processing to happen offstage. It’s implied in the opening of her next scene that she spent the ferry ride over thinking through what to do now.

I could have chosen to show that, but one thing about these kinds of reaction/processing scenes is that a little goes a long way. Hanging out with Evalina while she’s sitting on a ferry and contemplating the possible ripple effects her decision might have can get boring fast, so I chose to show none of it.

In Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel, and in all the workshops he teaches, he rails against “In the kitchen drinking tea” scenes, which is what these kinds of processing moments can too often turn into. He says:
“They are a pause, a marking of time, if not a waste of time. They do not do anything. They do not take us anywhere. They do not raise questions or make us tense or worried. No wonder they do not hold my attention.”
There are many ways we can have our characters “sit around and drink tea,” and it felt to me like to have a scene where Evalina sits on a ferry and stresses out would be one of them. So instead I have her on the phone with a friend:

“Evalina, you have flipped your wig.” But Gia sounds admiring, not admonishing. “I knew when you finally fell for a boy, you would fall hard, but you seriously took a ferry to Alameda?”
“What else was I supposed to do? He wasn’t at the market this morning, plus these articles in the paper …” I swallow. “I thought maybe his family had been taken.”
“You are so dramatic sometimes. They’re not going to be taken. It’s all voluntary.”
“I don’t think so, Gia.” I twist the cord of the pay phone around my finger. “I think they’ll all be made to go.”
“I still can’t believe you took a ferry to Alameda. What are you going to tell your parents?”
“Hopefully they’ll never know. You’ll cover for me if they call or stop by, right?”
“Of course. I’m meeting Lorenzo for lunch, but I’ll just say you were with us.”
Imaginary lunches with Gia’s on-again off-again boyfriend are the only kind I can tolerate. “Thank you, Gia. I’ll let you know when I’m home.”

In this moment, readers are able to see what kind of thought Evalina has put into this decision. Even though there's movement in the seasonEvalina is on the phone, as opposed to just sitting and thinkingit still feels like a beat of rest for the audience.

There is a great example of this in the movie Tangled. After Rapunzel has sung with the thugs that she has a dream, and the palace guards have come for Flynn, Rapunzel and Flynn escape into the tunnel underneath the Snuggly Duckling. While they are in a tunnel, we have about a minute in which they process what happened.

This slowing down from the action gives us a moment to breathe, and it gives them a moment to bond. To process what happened until learn a bit more about the other. (A few years ago, I wrote a post about How To Build A Romance Thread In Your Story, Tangled Style, if that's something you're interested in.)

So you’ve given your character a moment—whether it’s a paragraph or pages—to process what has happened, survey all their choices and various consequences, and feel all the feels.

The next question is basically, What now? What decision is born out of the reaction time?

Sometimes it’s a deepening in the relationships, like Evalina. She chooses to trust Gia with what she’s really doing, partly because she needs a cover story.

In Tangled, during the processing scene, after seeing how Rapunzel held her ground in the Snuggly Duckling, Flynn has a greater respect for her and has become interested in who she is. He chooses to ask her questions.

Sometimes reaction moments take up an entire scene, particularly in heist novels or movies. A heist will go awry, and then we’ll have a scene where the whole crew is sitting in a room debating the various choices and consequences.

Regardless of how long your reaction sequence is, this is a great opportunity for you to show your reader what your character is motivated by, and why they are making this particular decision.

This also leads beautifully into the next plan of action or scene goal, because after the reflection, they’ll be making a new decision.

So here is a compiled list of all the questions:

  • 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 of what will happen foiled?
  • What decision does my character make as a result?
  • What is the outcome of my character's decision?
  • Does my character need time to process and react to what has happened?
  • If so, what is the decision born out of his processing time?

What’s really fun is that once you understand these natural pattern, then you are able to mix and match how you put together your scenes.

Scene one could be your character setting out to achieve a goal, and it might end with their expectation being foiled.

Scene two could show the decision they make and the outcome of that decision.

Scene three could be processing, making a decision, and pursuing a new scene goal.

Scene four could be pursuing the new scene goal, having their expectations foiled, and then trying to process this new obstacle.

See how it's all happening in order, just being split in different ways? Arranging the structure of your scenes is like arranging your individual sentences. If you use the exact same sentence structure every time, your prose becomes very boring. Beautiful writing comes from sentences being arranged in all different kinds of ways, and the same is true for building your scenes. If every scene begins with the character having a plan, the plan getting spoiled, and them making a resulting decision, your story will quickly take on a mechanical feel.

What is your favorite scene in your manuscript? Tell us about it!


  1. The Tangled romance blog post is one of my favorites, I look through it every time I start to create a new relationship just to get something plotted and out there, even if I don't strictly follow it.

    I needed clarification on the scene and sequel thing, and this makes it a lot easier! Thanks!

    1. Oh, that's so wonderful to hear, M! That continues to be one of the most popular posts on the blog. It's so helpful to see a story element broken down like that, I think.

      I've never done well with talk about scene/sequel or the whole "scenes need a beginning, middle, and end," teaching. Just not the way my brain works! I do better with lists of questions :)