Anatomy of a Scene

Scene Beginnings

We are focusing on scenes for the next few weeks, and this week our focus is on the beginning of a scene. Each scene should have a purpose which moves the story forward, or gives the reader information on the characters, or shows new action and conflict.

As a reminder, a scene is small part of the continuous action of your novel, which is set in a specific moment in time, and is in a specific location.

When you consider your scene, be thinking of the scene’s purpose. Which of your characters is the scene about? Should you write that scene from that character’s point of view? What is that character’s objective? What does your character want? Think about the conflict. What happens that keeps your character from achieving their goal? Think about the scene’s ending. What happens that will move the story forward? What will keep your audience reading as the scene ends?

Before you plot out your scene, make sure you know exactly where you last left your character in time and space. Your readers should be able to understand where your character is. If your character was in Istanbul and suddenly they show up in Des Moines, be sure to include that motivation for moving locations either in your last scene, or at the beginning of your new scene, especially if you have multiple point of view characters.

Where is your character in the plot? What were they doing when you left them last? Knowing where your characters have been will help you focus on where your character should be now, and where your character needs to go next.

What is the most important information that the reader needs to know at this moment in the story? Plot your action around that information and remember that action and movement are what move the story forward.

Each and every scene should have a purpose. Why is this scene necessary? What is your intention for writing the scene? Set your scene intentions. Set your character’s intention. Does that intention make sense to the plot? Does that intention make sense for your character? Will your character achieve their intentions? Will your character achieve disappointment? Should there be supporting characters in the scene? What is the purpose of the supporting characters? Do they provide information? Do they give your character someone to bounce ideas off of? Do they create conflict?

Once you have the basic idea of your scene worked out, whether you use an outline or not, think about the action of the scene. The action should begin as soon as possible because it is action that creates momentum. How will you demonstrate the action? How will you use action to show how your character feels? If you can include some surprise action, you will propel your reader through your story. Let your character act first, and think later.

If you plan to use a long narrative, it probably will slow the pace and action of the scene. Long narrative interrupts the story, so if you do plan to use narrative, the scene opening is the best place to include it. You can use narrative to place your character in space and time so your reader can visualize the scene in their mind’s eye. Narration can also save time, if the action described would take up too much time. Think about what and how information needs to be communicated to your reader, especially if your character’s thoughts and intentions can’t be revealed in the action of the scene.

To help set your scene, use specific visual cues. What does your character see? What do they hear? Use your character’s senses to help establish your scene. You can also use scenery to set the tone, and use language to convey the mood of your character. How does the setting impact the character’s mood?

When you set out to write a new scene, ponder the above and work out how you can best relate this to the reader in a compelling way and you will have a good scene beginning.

Next time: Scene middles.


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