We all want to write scenes that grip our readers and keep them glued to the page! Easier said than done, right? Well, here are four tips that I try to keep in mind every time I sit down to craft a scene. They aren’t 100% fool-proof, but they often help me find that extra oomph to make my scene’s sing.
The number one reason a scene falls flat is because it doesn’t have any dramatic action. Dramatic action is the action the protagonist takes to resolve the problem he has suddenly been faced with.
In STORY, Robert Mckee talks about dramatic action as “story events” and defines them as an “event that creates a meaningful change in the life situation of a character and is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.”
Well plotted stories are built on stringing together the scenes that have dramatic action. These are the important moments within the character’s life that move the plot forward. For example, we seldom see a character go to the bathroom or sleep, because there’s no dramatic action in these moments. Instead, we pick the scenes that are the most exciting and meaningful for the reader to read.
A great way to tell if your scenes have dramatic action is to check and see if there’s a significant emotional change. If the character starts the scene happy and leaves it happy, nothing has happened. But if a character starts happy and leaves sad, then something has happened in the scene to change their life situation and make them sad.
You can track the emotion of your scene by drawing emotion faces (happy faces, frowning faces) at the opening and closing of your scenes. The emotion should reflect the emotion your character carries into the scene, and the emotion the character carries out of it in when it’s over. If the emotion-face is the same, for example both are grumpy faces, then you don’t have any dramatic action in the scene. This indicates that the scene may need to be cut or revised.
Setting up expectations helps the reader to feel the emotional change in a scene. If we know what a character wants and expects as she enters a situation, the reader becomes more invested. They want to see if the character succeeds or fails. You won’t have any reversals and surprises if you haven’t set up any expectations for the reader.
It’s much more exciting to watch a scene where a character scales a cliff if we know he’s afraid of heights, or we know his family is trapped at the top, or we know he thinks he can’t do it. It’s rewarding to see the character defy his fear. It adds tension if we know each misstep means he’s one step further away from saving his family from that fire-breathing dragon above (of course … you’ve got to set that up that dragon!).
Even though we’re told to “torture our characters” it’s really common for us to protect them instead. Have you ever written as scene and decided to:
- Have an important conversation interrupted by another character/event.
- Had a character freeze up and avoid talking about their feelings in internal monologue.
- Had your character avoid asking an important question? Or had another character avoid answering it?
- Hinted to something, not once, but over and over and over again, and never unveiling the truth until late in the book.
- Bailed your character out of a situation before it reeeeeeally got tough?
- Avoided writing a scene because you the author felt uncomfortable?
All of that, is protecting your character (or in the example of the last one, yourself). The most common culprit is interruption. What’s happening is we start a scene, but the second it gets to the tough questions or uncomfortable conflicts, we bail our characters out of the scene and ask our readers to wait.
Sometimes we think we’re creating mystery and tension by drawing out the answers to questions, or avoiding the main conflicts. In real life we absolutely avoid questions and conflicts. But in drama … well, we want the drama!
Don’t cut off the scene before it gets going. Don’t avoid the dramatic action!
Stop protecting your character by allowing her to wander, avoid, and be bailed out of situations. Lock your characters in a room and make them deal with their conflicts! Be brave and get to the guts of the scene.
Happy scene-writing everyone!