Enrich your novel, by writing great, vivid and memorable scenes
By C M Taylor
Writing a great scene – or just as importantly, knowing if a scene you have already written stands up – can be approached as a process of inquisition. In effect, you ask yourself a number of questions to find out if the scene holds up.
One successful writer of my acquaintance has a list of sixty questions which he asks himself about every scene he writes, and while we’re not going to reach that number, below I have gathered 10 key areas to ask questions about when assessing or planning a scene.
If you score ten our of ten, your scene should be good to go. If your score is a lot lower than that, you’ve still got some editing work to do …
What is the Unique Purpose of the Scene?
This is worth asking first of all, because if you get the wrong answer here, you save yourself the bother of asking all the other questions as you can just use our friend the delete key to solve the problem.
Does this scene earn its keep? Is it doing something that is simply not being done anywhere else in the work? And if the unique thing that it does was omitted from the story, would the story have a hole?
Does the scene belong in the story being told? Should you kill it? What happens? How does it uniquely advance the plot? Or uniquely establish mood? Or uniquely deliver character comprehension, or feeling?
Does it advance the work in a way that might be done more effectively in any other scene?
If you pass that test, move on to the next question.
If the theme of your work, say, is unrequited love, does your scene angle in to that theme? Does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling which is associated with unrequited love? Or does it demonstrate a circumstance or a feeling about requited love, so as to throw into relief the experience that one of your characters will have about unrequited love?
Is your scene about what your book is about? And if it not but you still need it in because – as above – it’s the vehicle for a unique and irremovable aspect of your story, then how are you going to rewrite the scene so that it amplifies, however distantly, the theme of your story?
How does the scene turn?
What do I mean by ‘turn’? Well, first let’s back up…
People say that without conflict there is no drama. Now, I’m not so sure about that, I think a broader and more accurate assessment would be not without conflict but without change. Without change there is no drama, and what people mean by conflict is resistance to change.
You could write a scene about a woman digging a tree stump out of the ground that was full of drama, as she struggled and the tree stump resisted, and she changed from being in an optimistic state to an exhausted, pessimistic state. But would that scene be full of conflict? You might say she was in conflict with the tree stump, but that to me would be stretching it. Instead it is a scene where a character tries to change the world and that change is resisted.
Or, you could write a scene where somebody realised they had totally misremembered a very important incident from their past and that life in facts was different to how they imagined it. The drama would be in the correction of the memory. It would not be a conflict, instead it would be a swift and significant change.
So, when I ask, ‘How does the scene turn?’, what I mean is, ‘What change does it effect?’ If all of the characters in the scene are in the same state at the end of the scene as they were at the beginning of the scene, then no change has been affected and so no drama has occurred.
What is the central change of the scene? What is it that turns from one state to another state? Is it one character who turns? Many characters? A situation? Is the turn for the negative or the positive? Is the character further way from what they want, or closer?
What are the obstacles facing the character from turning the scene the way they want to turn the scene? If the character does not get what they want, change and drama are still demonstrated as they have failed and so their emotional state and desperation have increased. No change externally does not mean no change internally.
Change is of course linked to motivation and goals and desire. Make sure that the change which the scene turns on directly affects what your character is trying to achieve. Make sure their goal and motivation are clear. Are they closer to their clear goal, or are they further away?
How your scene turns will be bound up with your cast list. Does the scene change when a new character enters? Who is present at the beginning of the scene and who is present at the end? If a new character enters, is their entrance memorable and is it their arrival that turns the scene? If not, why not? In that case you have introduced a new character without that introduction having a big impact. Is that what you want? Does it suit your plot and their character for them to sidle in? Maybe it does.
If you want more information on how to create that scene turning event, then check out our inciting incidents blog post too.
Are you clear on your point of view?
The person to whom the largest change is happening is often, but not always, the person from whose point of view we will be seeing the scene. ‘Often, but not always’, because in fiction, unlike in film, point of view is not an utterly promiscuous tool, it needs to settle on, usually, one or just a handful of characters.
So, whose point of view are you telling the scene from? If it is possible, best do it, but it may not always be possible to tell it from the point of view of the person to whom the greatest change is happening.
If you think about how to write a death scene as an example. The largest change is happening to the person who is dying, but it is often not right to write the scene form their perspective as once they’re gone, they’re gone. In fact, some of the most famous deaths happen off screen. Take Cordelia in King Lear, or Ophelia in Hamlet as examples. Both of these deaths are moving, but both happen off stage – out of point of view.
But take Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich which as the title suggests is clearly focussed on the biggest change of all for Ivan and whose death is described as ‘that black sack into which an invisible, invincible force was pushing him’.
So, don’t go chasing the point of view of the person to whom the biggest change is happening if it mutilates your novel’s point of view schema. But if you can describe death from the point of view, then make it as appropriate to the unique sensibility of the character as possible.
Similarly, when thinking how to write a sex scene, or if you are thinking about describing a kiss, point of view is everything. The unique attributes of the person to whom the sensation is happening govern how the sensation is described. How does it map on to their personal history? What are they not saying? How would their particular imagination describe what was happening?
Basically, are you in the point of view of the person having the strongest sensation of change? If you can’t be in that point of view, make sure the change being experienced elsewhere emotionally impinges on the sensations of your point of view character and effects their motivations and desires.
Does your scene make good use of location?
Where does the scene take place? At what time of day or night? Could another time or location serve to heighten the impact? Where were the characters before the scene started? Where are they going after it ends? How do they move physically across the space? Are you creating a sense of place?
Some scenes require the claustrophobia of a locked room. Other require a huge canvas. Location is particularly important when thinking how to write a battle scene. For example, the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is nothing without the water and the sand, while the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back would lose so much without the ice world.
In those instances, the type of battle you can have is heavily defined by the location. The combatants’ experience of the battle will be similarly defined. And of course if you filter the character’s experience of battle through that physical reality (sand in the eyes, struggling to keep the rifle’s magazine out of the salt water …), you will end up with a much more vivid and intense scene than you’d have without that level of detail.
Is your scene commensurate with your genre?
Let’s say for example that you are thinking about how to write a fight scene. If you are writing a work of historical fiction, say set amongst the samurai of feudal Japan, then you will make the fight scene a different scale and tone and pace to if you were writing a work of science fiction.
And again, for example, the tone of a sword fight set in feudal Japan, which might be bound up with honour and stoic, wordless masculinity, would be very different to say the sword fight scene we get in the fantasy comedy The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya is given humorous dialogue as sharp as his rapier to utter as he fights.
Any scene must be attuned to the feeling tone of the genre in which it is placed.
How do you make use of dialogue?
Does the dialogue reflect character? Is it natural? Forced?
Can you cover up the name of the person who is speaking and know who they are just from the sound and pattern of their words? Do they have unique speech patterns? Or if they all have the same accent, is it your conscious and correct decision to make them all sound the same? How is your dialect rendered?
And then feed those thoughts back into the ones about location, and genre, and theme. These things all feed off themselves, of course. So your dialogue may naturally include observations about the location. (“Damn sand!” or “Hell, my rifle’s soaked.”) Those genre / thematic issues will smuggle their way into the dialogue too. And that infiltration is an entirely good thing, of course. It’s part of making your work feel integrated and alive.
Is your scene static or mobile?
Do your characters have something to do? Is there something going on? An activity they are engaged in? If two characters are talking about their love lives what would they be doing as they spoke? In screenwriting they call this ‘interference’ – an action that characters take part in which can mirror how the scene is developing emotionally. Are they playing tennis? Putting up an Ikea shelf?
Let’s say it’s tennis, their game can improve as they talk confidently about their love life, or degenerate as they talk neurotically about their love life. If they are putting up a shelf, they can drill through a pipe just as they are told bad news. Give your characters props to enact their feelings.
Of course, some scenes are physically static and internal. No problem. Make the energy internal. Don’t let their emotions be static. Let the reactions rather than the actions carry the kinetic power of the scene.
How does your scene deal with time?
Narrative art is intrinsically about the passage of time. Change can’t happen without it. Be absolutely sure where the scene stands in the work’s overall chronology. How much time has elapsed since the last scene? Is it clear to the reader how much time has elapsed?
If we are moving into the future or the past, had you better make that very clear to the reader or are they okay to surf the time waves?
Think about continuity. Is your characters hair long one week after it has been short? If your scene takes place in a very different time are their physical characteristics about the character you can employ to imply this passage of time and give a sense of time passing?
And finally – is your scene any damn good?
Be honest. You can probably find a way to start your scene later, to get out of it earlier, to push up more on the felt drama of your point of view character, and to clarify and affect your turn more dramatically. Don’t just go through all these points once, go through them again. Scenes are not brought to their sharpest point in one pass.
Don’t forget to let us know how you’re getting on at the Jericho Townhouse, we’d love to hear from you!
C M Taylor has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year and published a number of novels, including Staying On, (Duckworth 2018), Premiership Psycho (Corsair 2011) and the Amazon best-selling Group of Death (Corsair 2012). He’s also co-written a thriller movie script, Writers Retreat, which premiered at the Sitges International Film Festival. C M Taylor also works with Jericho Writers as a book editor.