What makes a scene captivating? In this post, I break down the common reasons your scene doesn’t hit like you want it to.
what does drive the story forward
Every scene should have a punch and a purpose, even if nothing ‘exciting’ happens, it should drive the story forward. For us author, it may be easy for us to map out our scenes that are compelling, interesting, and full of tension. In our mind, the dialogue is flowing, the setting concrete, and the senses alert. However, when we attempt to translate it to the page, we find it falls flat. How could that be? Why doesn’t it fit tightly within our narrative?
Of course, the answer may be simple or a combination of things. Sometimes it requires a step back, to leave it for a couple of days/weeks, or to simply have someone else read it. A fresh perspective can help you pinpoint exactly what is missing.
A good question to ask yourself
A good question to ask yourself is:
“If I took this scene out, would it be missed?”
Here are some simple ways you can troubleshoot your scene:
1. Remember that every scene should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
This is one most authors already know, that the scene should mimic that of the overall narrative arc. Meaning that it too needs the Big 3. Though even the most experienced authors may get swept up in their story and momentarily forget that yes, every single scene should have these 3 elements.
This includes the hook, the conflict (the juicy parts), and a resolution/dilemma that will help the story flow into the next scene. If you find your scene is a little flat, go back to the basics and check whether you have these 3 components.
2. Does your character have a goal/purpose?
This tip is similar to the last in that it has a direct cause-and-effect progression. Though writers may focus on the beginning, middle, and end, they forget that the character/s also need to have a goal. For example, it’s possible for a scene to have the Big 3 but lack the character showing their purpose/goal.
Take a step back from your scene and determine whether it starts with some kind of goal. It doesn’t need to be riveting or suspenseful, it could be literally your character wanting to cook dinner for their spouse. That is a goal in and of itself.
3. Ground the senses.
When you review/edit your scenes, you may find that you have all the key elements of an appropriate scene structure, but for some reason, your scene seems boring. If this is the case, try reviewing the senses you include in your scenes and whether they are lacking. Sometimes all a scene needs is some grounding insights from your character. Inject some smells, tastes, unusual images, sounds, or physical sensations.
Perhaps her body stiffens with fear. Her clothes feel tight and hot against her body. The smell of the burnt chicken permeates the surrounding living area. The raised voice of the accuser, an echoing white noise. She tried to block it out and avoid the accuser’s face, which contorted with anger, and she turned her gaze to the surrounding apartment. The magazines were not in their usual neat pile, but scattered across the table. ‘Strange,’ she thought, ‘that’s not like him at all.’
This is just one example of how to introduce grounding senses and may help your readers better grasp your scene.
4. Show and tell
Every writer knows the age-old golden rule: show, not tell. But let me be honest, showing is not the be-all and end-all. Just as telling is not a scary monster to be avoided at all costs. The magic of good storytelling is to carefully weave the two together. Allow the reader to experience the situation for themselves and discern the meaning behind it, but also add a dash of information when needed.
Where it’s important to use telling within the scene is when you are; giving the reader information, covering time, changing locations, or as a stylistic choice to break up your sentences. Think of telling within a scene like a garnish, sprinkle it sparingly.
5. Start your proactive vs reactive scenes strong
I’m sure you can quickly identify whether your scene is active or proactive. Proactive simply means that the character has a scene goal in which they need to solve the issue/conflict proactively. Reactive means that the character is responding to the problem/dilemma.
Now that you know what scene you have, start the scene’s beginning as quickly as possible. Avoid waiting too long for the goal to become apparent. If the goal of your scene doesn’t show up at the beginning, that’s fine, give your character a temporary goal in the meantime. It doesn’t need to be followed up on or have implications for the overall story arc to encourage your character to be proactive.
As with all things story craft related, it takes time to understand why our scenes are not working and every story, and every scene within that story, is completely individual and needs to be treated so. That being said, applying these 5 steps will help you weed out the most common issues and gain the clarity you need to write those bad-ass scenes that serve your story and propel each scene forward, one after another.
At the end
If you have had any success with these steps, feel free to let me know in the comments. They have certainly been helpful to me.