Writing unforgettable scenes
The scene is the single most important thing to master in storytelling. Yes, you have to create vivid, unique and unforgettable characters, and yes, you have to master structure to be able to be able to weave a story that makes any sort of sense, but the bottom line is, if you do not master both of these elements anyway, you will never be able to write great scenes. Great scenes stem from a deep understanding of story structure, and fleshing out complex characters that have complete, vast, and unique personalities.
What’s so important about writing great scenes? Stories are nothing BUT scenes. They are, in fact, the way that your reader experiences the story, navigating from one scene to another… if you can write 30-40 unforgettable scenes, and no weak ones in between, you have written an unforgettable book, something the reader can’t put down. Simple as that.
Simple? Yes. And, well… not so much. Entire books could be, and in fact have been written about how to write good scenes. And yet, authors still struggle to write scenes that will live on in their readers’ minds forever. In fact, I have read too many books in which there have been at least one, if not many, scenes that leaves readers yawning, rolling their eyes, and putting the book down never to pick it up again. That is the true danger of boring scenes; if you cannot hold your reader’s attention, you’ve failed, and your book will not be read to the end.
So what does make a good scene? Like I said, I could write a book about this (and maybe someday I might). But I think it boils down to five things: Conflict, structure, feeling and usefulness to the main plot.
Conflict and structure go hand in hand: the structure is built around the conflict, and conflict cannot be properly expressed without structure. First off, you should be familiar with the types of conflict and the basics of the three act structure. Now I know that I have said that most stories have many, many conflicts, and they should. But scenes are a different type of animal. They need to have the spotlight on ONE conflict. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have two or more conflicts represented within a same scene; all it means is that your scene needs to focus on one of them and no more. The structure of the scene (as well as that of the story) revolves around the development of its main conflict. The conflict, in the scene, is what creates tension, and it dictates structure in the way that it must be understood before peaking in the second stage of the three-act structure, and it must have gone back down a bit in the resolution stage before you can comfortably move to the next scene.
That being said, probably one of the most important parts of writing a scene is the structure, and the art of knowing exactly where to begin and end it so the reader, caught up in the “just one more scene and then I go to bed” momentum, wants to move on to the scene which comes right after, and the one after that. You have to pinpoint the exact moment when to start so that the reader will be swept into the action, and yet still create a rising feeling that leads to the peak of the scene; likewise, you have to end it where there is a feeling that this most pressing issue has been resolved, but still leave it at a point where the reader will want more without feeling overly frustrated.
As with conflict, you need to have one feeling, or emotion, dominate the scene. That is not to say that you cannot have other emotions infiltrate your writing; but the secondary feelings will necessarily be flavored by the first one. For example, in a really tense scene, sudden outbursts of humor might be very awkward; in a humorous scene, sadness will be bittersweet, and so on. Much as I recommended in my post about description, you should try to find words and expressions that reflect the tone, or feeling, which you have chosen for your scene. There will be a post in the future that will dedicate itself entirely to how to best represent emotion, but for the sake of this one, I will say at least this: vivid emotion and feelings stem from rich, complex and three-dimensional characters, who have goals and personality which the reader knows and understands. You should never have to explain an emotion; the reader will live it because the character does, in much the same way as most people are able to empathize with what the people they truly care about are going through.
Finally, above all, a scene MUST be useful to advancing your plot. There are three ways it can do that. First, it’s absolutely essential for the causality, or sequence of events leading to your story’s climax and conclusion; in other words, the event of that scene are part of the domino effect of the story, and if removed, the structure doesn’t make any sense anymore. Second, it should serve to define character, either to give the reader new information about the character, or illustrate an already known character trait for the purpose of reinforcing it. Last but not least, the scene should reinforce credibility; of the setting, of the character’s motivation, of the magic system, of the premise, of any of the things that are necessary to your story. If your scene accomplishes none of these things, it should either be reworked so that it does, or scrapped entirely. Chances are that it isn’t that compelling, anyway. Think about it. How would you react if you suddenly found yourself reading a scene that did nothing to advance the action, that did not stress any character emotionally or put him in conflict with something or someone, and didn’t even make you understand something about the story which you were wondering about? You’d probably remember that the cat needs feeding, that your shelves need dusting, or that your nails need trimming, and you would put the book down for these more entertaining activities.