3 Rules of Scene Building

[Excerpted from my Sensational Scenes class]

Nobody likes to be bound by rules. As The Editor Devil, I especially hate rules. But the rules of scene building help you better meet the goals of storytelling. Here are a few that will keep you moving the story forward not backward, show not tell, and entertain not bore your reader.

Rule #1: Each scene in your manuscript should move a story forward, even if it’s moving your characters backwards in order to give them some new hurdle to overcome. Let me repeat that: Every scene must move a story forward. As scenes progress, the interplay of characters and events and landscape must change. And the plot must advance. This change from scene to scene is what creates a story arc. All scenes must progress the reader toward the final showdown and resolution, the final actions between the main characters and the final character epiphanies. One way to gauge whether your scene is advancing the story is to ask yourself, “What is the payoff of this scene and could the story live without it?”

Rule #2: Every scene must include tension and relief. That means you must have story conflict on a larger level, and scene conflict on a moment by moment level. Harmony is for love scenes and Hallmark cards. So get characters butting heads.

Typically scenes will ebb and flow with tension. Too much tension all the time and the reader will become numb. Too little, and they will feel disinterested. A scene/situation should never be repeated (unless your story is “Groundhog Day” which had a reason to literally repeat scenes as part of advancing the storyline), so look for “repeating” situations in your story and edit them. Making every scene unique helps keep the tension feeling fresh to the reader.

Rule #3: Every scene must involve the goal and motivation of a main character. Whether it’s your hero, heroine, or villain, their goals and motivations drive the story.

One way to look at it is “how does this scene/situation enable the character to change (for better or for worse)?” Yes, you can have goals and motivations for minor characters. These are called subplots, but they don’t drive the story overall and can’t hold up scenes on their own. Writers often want two create scenes with minor characters. I don’t recommend doing this, but if you do, these minor characters must be advancing or affecting the goal and motivation of a main character, even when they are working on their own subplot.

Hope these rules give you guidance on stronger scene development, whether you are writing or editing...

Happy storytelling!
Your Adoring Editor Devil

ENCORE POST: Create Characterization through Dialogue

[Here is an encore post, based on an excerpt from my Editor Devil's Guide to Dialogue book...]

Characterization is the painting of a character in a story through narrative, dialogue and action. Done well, the character will come to life on the page as if they are a real person.

Done poorly, and the author has succeeded in creating cardboard. And the reader will never forget it.

As Noah Lukeman puts it in his book, The Plot Thickens, "...character is the basis for all further talk of journey, conflict, suspense—and is the cornerstone of plot..."

Characterization is achieved by the author through the careful delivery of external (descriptions of how the character looks, walks, drinks their coffee) and internal information (how they act in any given situation, who they interact with, the decisions they make, the decisions they don’t make). Note that these do not break down the same as internal and external dialogue.

Nouns and verbs chosen for dialogue directly affect the intensity of tone and the reader's perception of the character. These words can reveal whether the character is dominant or submissive, passionate or dispassionate.

Also, the choppiness of dialogue sentences and whether the character speaks complete sentences may tell the character’s attitude or even education level. Consider how terse dialogue is spoken by a character who is combative, how sensitive phrases might be used by a care-taking character. Doing the reverse can be even more interesting. Consider how jokes from a bank robber make his/her character more interesting.

Remember: In fiction, what a character says IS who they are. Even and especially when the character is lying.