Imagine this, you’re reading a story and it never seems to have the right pacing or be going anywhere. There are moments or scenes that go on for 30 pages and don’t add anything new to the story. Worse yet, this is your story. Your book that rattles on without resonating with the reader. Not even you can understand what’s wrong, but you know that there’s something really wrong with your story.
So, how to fix it?
Scenes are the building blocks of our stories. They are what carry the reader through till the end. And they are often the problem with stories.
When someone isn’t relating to your character, a lot of times it doesn’t have to do with the actual character but how they are shown on the page in the scenes. Thing is, though, scenes are also one of the most confusing story elements. That’s because oftentimes in creative writing classes, scenes aren’t taught and when they are, each teacher has their own idea of what a scene is.
Let’s break that. Let’s give you the knowledge and tools you need to understand scenes and stand miles above the rest of the writers out there floundering in their craft. When sitting down to craft scenes, I think it’s important to have the definition in mind to help steer and guide the writing. It also keeps the writer on track instead of wallowing in the weeds and taking away from the story’s forward motion.
Scene definition: a building block of story that takes place whenever the narrative stops or pauses on a sequence of action or dialogue that changes its charge(+/-). It hinges on a turning point and can take place across multiple locations and chapters.
Simple Scene Writing Technique
This technique is one that I stole from screenwriters and best-selling authors. You might have also come across a similar technique if you’re familiar with the book Story Genius by Cron. Mine however is broken down to fit into the space of a 4″X6″ ruled index card.
Let’s dive in!
Each card represents just one scene, but you could modify it to encapsulate a full arc containing multiple scenes. For me, I prefer to focus on one scene at a time, so that my story builds or falls just the way I want it. I use these scene cards before writing to guide me and during the editing stage to make sure that my story is flowing properly.
A tip before we begin: the more connected all of the parts of a scene are, the more it will resonate with your readers and string together all the moments and gears of your story.
Personally, I like to write the back of the card first because it helps give me an idea of what the scene is going to look like. Most of the stuff on the back is pretty straightforward, but let’s break it down to really understand each element and why they are included.
Back of Card
Characters in Scene: this is where I write who is in the scene. By putting all the characters’ names down, I can keep track of what their purpose or point is in the scene instead of having characters there that are only filling the space or serving the same functions.
Tip: Don’t overload your scenes with too many characters. The more characters that are there, the more words get added to a scene so that each character has enough space to have an impact on the scene. If a character doesn’t have an impact or function in the scene, they shouldn’t be there.
Setting of Scene: this is where I write where the scene takes place. This helps me physically see the scene in my head and see if it is the best place for the scene to take place for the characters involved.
Tip: Make the setting meaningful to the characters or themes in the scene to make the scene meaningful for the reader.
Scene Treatment Summary: this is the place to write out the scene by what happens in it. There’s no subtext or hidden meaning here. Everything should be straightforward and aimed to give you an idea of what you’re trying to accomplish from beginning to end in the scene.
Tip: The relatively small space of the card forces you to think about the scene in a streamlined manner because if it can’t fit on the card, it can’t really fit in a scene.
After I know who, what, and where the scene is taking place, I turn the card over and really start diving into the nitty-gritty parts of the scene that are going to make it work or not work. Again, on this side of the card, the more connected things are, the better the scene will resonate, causing a sense of harmony and trust in the reader.
Front of Card
Chapter Title: I put the chapter title at the top of the card because it helps with keeping the cards organized.
Tip: Add a scene number along with the chapter title to allow for easy moving around of the scenes. This way you can determine if they would do better at different parts of your story and then move them back if you don’t want to make the change.
Scene Title: Unlike the chapter title, the scene title is helpful for more than organization and reordering. Selecting or creating a scene title allows for you to boil down the scene into its main point. Like Sadie dies or Harry runs away.
Tip: Keep your scene title short (3–4 words) to keep you focused on what is important.
One-Sentence Scene Summary: Like the scene title, the one-sentence summary is aimed at getting you to focus on what’s important and to boil down the scene into its main function. Here there can be subtext. By keeping this and the above in working order, it allows for the reader to have a better grasp on the story once it’s rendered onto the page.
For example, if you have a scene summary on the back that goes into a character breaking out of a kidnap situation by putting the kidnapper off guard, then the sentence summary could be that the character talks to the kidnapper about their past.
Tip: If you can’t boil down your scene into a one-sentence summary, then there’s too much happening in the scene.
Beginning Value: This is the starting value or charge of the scene (not character) whether that be positive or negative or any of the other values.
Tip: Scenes can have these types of charges:
Ending Value: This is the ending value of the scene and should not be the same as the beginning value. By changing the value or charge of the scene, this creates change in the story, character, and reader understanding of character and story.
Internal Conflict: Here I write what the main or most prominent character in the scene is conflicted about at the moment. This helps me see how the character would act in the scene and what certain triggers or turning points may be present for them.
Tip: To make the scene believable and real on multiple levels, include what the characters’ internal worlds and conflicts are.
External Conflict: While the internal conflict is what’s happening inside the character, the external conflict is what is externally in opposition to the character — not the overall scene conflict. Sometimes this is represented by another character’s motivation in the scene or some other scene element.
Tip: Making the external conflict be another character or character motivation creates deeper story conflict.
Scene Conflict: The scene conflict is what is at risk or in conflict within the scene. For the reader, all of these different bouts of conflict help create a multifaceted scene with the most impact.
Scene Resolution: I put the resolution to the scene here. Sometimes the scene resolution also resolves the other conflicts, but it doesn’t have to.
Tip: If a conflict is raised in one scene but not resolved, make sure to come back and resolve it for reader satisfaction and story logic.
Plot/Character Change: I put the plot or character change on the right side because that is what leads to or is connected to the resolution.
Tip: If no one and nothing changes during a scene, then you don’t have a scene but a moment and it should be cut or trimmed down to a few paragraphs.
Turning Point: The turning point in the scene is when the value or charge shift happens.
Tip: A lot of times this is where I bring up past unresolved conflict, leading to a more energized turning point and moment for the reader.
Target Word Count: Having an understanding of how long or short your scene is going to be, gives you an idea of the pacing in the scene and story, how it’ll fit with the scenes surrounding it, and gives you a prescribed word count that discourages overwriting or losing the tread of the scene.
Tip: Pacing is the rhythm of your story and having it in tune presents a wonderful reading experience. Don’t have multiple scenes back to back with the same word count because that will cause monotonous pacing.
Write Better Scenes
We are storytellers. We weave worlds into existence and breathe new life into our readers. There is a wonder to our works and in what we do. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be masters at what we do.
If we are to engage our readers and bring new lives into existence, then we should do so from a point of knowledge. That’s what this technique is. A knowledge-based approach to tackling scenes and bringing forth the best in our scenes.
Here are the scene cards again, feel free to steal and run with these to your WIP or next stories.
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