Top 5 Tips for Dynamite Scenes
Guest Post By Roz Morris
Have you got a scene that’s looking lifeless? Here’s how I pep it up.
Have something change.
No scene should ever go as the reader expects. If you have a character set out to buy a pint of milk and all they do is amble to the shop, buy their stuff and walk back, you’ve hit the snooze button. Instead, take that scene somewhere the reader is not expecting. It needn’t be a big twist. It could be tiny – a change of mood, a resolution to do something. But if nothing changes, the scene isn’t worth showing.
To keep the sense of progress through the story, a scene should always contain change. Otherwise it hasn’t earned its place in the story.
Make that change have consequences for the characters.
Suppose you add something to your milk-buying scene – the character realises her boyfriend claimed he bought a certain brand of cigarette from the corner shop, but that shop doesn’t sell them. So where did he get them? And isn’t it odd that they are the same brand smoked by his ex? Are they seeing each other again?
If a change has happened, it should have a lasting effect in the story. Again, it could be small, or it could set them on a new and dastardly path. Good scenes don’t exist in isolation; they affect what comes after them. And they are affected by what happened before.
If you have to fill a blank, bring something in that you introduced earlier.
In the thick of a scene, you often have to invent details off the top of your head. Where was your minor character John last night? The cinema, you write, because it doesn’t matter where he was, he’s not very important. But go back and look at what you’ve written about John before. Is there something else you already invented that you could bring in instead? Three chapters ago, did you send him, quite casually, to choir practice? Why not send him there again, or to the chemist to get throat lozenges? Now we’re fleshing John out and with very little effort.
Bringing back ideas you used before is a great way to make the world of your story feel more solid.
Even if what you’re using is trivial it can build up – and who knows where it might lead? It’s a technique called reincorporation. It makes stories elegant and satisfying. And it adds to the feeling that everything matters.
Keep a list of everything you plucked off the top of your head because you needed to fill a blank space. You’d be surprised how useful it will be.
Have a sense of purpose coming into the scene and going out.
Screenwriters have a mantra: ‘come in late and go out early’. When I’m revising one of the major problems I find is that the first half of the scene is throat-clearing before the interesting stuff happens – the revelation the reader doesn’t expect, the point where it all goes wrong. They’re having a chat on the way to work and then the car blows a tyre. But it would be far better if they got into that car with a sense of urgency from a previous scene – instead of marking time until the tyre causes a problem. Perhaps one of the characters is spoiling for a showdown – and then the tyre ruins the moment because they have to co-operate to get out of trouble.
Conflict is the engine of story. Whole books have been written about it, but in essence, it’s when things aren’t going smoothly. One person wants something, the other has it. Or is oblivious to the other person’s need. Or is competing for that same thing. This tension creates drama. If a scene needs more sizzle, could you add some conflict?
Change, consequences, reincorporation, purpose and conflict – you may not need them all at once, but these five elements will make your scenes go with a bang.
Roz Morris is a ghostwriter now being represented under her own name. Her blog is www.nailyournovel.com and she is on Twitter @dirtywhitecandy. She critiques for a top literary consultancy and is the author of Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish with Confidence, available from and outside the US from Lulu http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/nail-your-novel/5301103.