How to Make the Most of a Scene – Guest Post by Jami Gold

Jami Gold fantasy authorMarcy and Lisa are pleased to welcome special guest poster Jami Gold.

After outing a tribe of incubi in government, Jami Gold moved to Arizona and decided to become a writer, where she could put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fortunately, her muse, an arrogant male who delights in making her sound as insane as possible, rewards her with unique and rich story ideas. Fueled by chocolate, she writes paranormal romance and urban fantasy tales that range from dark to humorous, but one thing remains the same: Normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Take is away Jamie . . .

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Whether we plot our stories ahead of time or write by the seat of our pants, we need to ensure our scenes are working as hard as they could be.

  • If we’re plotters, we consciously decide on the focus of our scenes ahead of time.
  • If we’re pantsers, we make up our scenes as we go along, and the conscious evaluation doesn’t happen until revision time.
  • And if we’re somewhere in the middle, we might have an idea of where the scene is supposed to end up, but we take a rambling path to get there, so our revisions will look more like pantsers.

However we get there, at some point we’ll be taking a hard look at every scene. Is this scene needed? Is it too long or too short? Does it have tension? Does it avoid information dumps? Etc., etc.

Great, but that’s all a little vague. After all, how can we tell if a scene is needed? Sure, some scenes might be obviously unnecessary as we pantsed our way down a rabbit trail, but other scenes feel like they’re needed. So how can we tell?

Guidelines for What Makes a Good Scene

Good scenes should have at least three reasons for existing. Those evil info dump or backstory scenes falter not only because of bad structure, but also because they fail to be relevant to the overall story. They’re missing those other reasons for existing.

So as we go through our story, we need to make sure every scene has at least three of the following revelations:

  • a plot point
  • a character’s goal
  • action to advance the plot
  • action to increase the tension
  • character development
  • a cause of character conflict
  • an effect of character conflict
  • how stakes are raised
  • a reinforcement of the stakes
  • character motivation
  • character backstory
  • world building
  • story theme
  • foreshadowing
  • the story’s tone or mood

Janice Hardy has a great blog post about how to mix and match these elements in a way to make the scene feel like a full meal. She points out that some elements, like foreshadowing, world building, or tone should be treated more like appetizers. In other words, those elements shouldn’t be the main point of the scene.

I Have Three Elements in This Scene, Am I Good Now?

Making sure every scene has three reasons to exist proves the scene needs to be in our story, but we still haven’t checked to make it the best it could be. When we’re consciously evaluating a scene—whether during initial planning or revisions—we need to be aware of the main reason that scene exists.

In her post, Janet talks about the elements that are legitimate main points for a scene: Is a character pursuing a goal? Are we revealing important information? Is the plot advancing? Those questions ensure we’re not just padding an info dump scene with two other minor elements.

But even those questions don’t get to the heart of a matter. A story is more than just a collection of plot points. Stories are meant to evoke emotion. So the most important question to ask ourselves is:

“What do we want this scene to accomplish from the reader’s perspective?”

Maybe we want the reader to be scared, or worried, or excited, or whatever. Then we need to look at the actual plot points, dialogue, revelations, character emotions, and whatnot in the scene and decide:

“What’s the best way to show the elements of this scene to accomplish that?”

Once we know what we want to accomplish, maybe we’ll decide the words of the dialogue are revealing the right information, but the tone is wrong. Or maybe we’ll decide there’s a better way to show the protagonist’s vulnerability. Or maybe we’ll decide we let the protagonist advance the plot too easily.

This takes hard brainpower and conscious focus. I’ll admit this deep evaluation doesn’t come easily to me. But if I take the time to do it, I’ll often see how a sentence here or a reordering of paragraphs there will create stronger emotions in the reader. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.

Have you evaluated your scenes in depth like this before? Does it come easily to you or not? When you’ve evaluated your scenes, what have you discovered?

Find Jami at her blog, Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Goodreads.

Connect with Marcy on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+. Connect with Lisa on Twitter, subscribe to her on Facebook, or join her circles on Google+.

And don’t forget to subscribe to Marcy’s new blog Life At Warp 10 and Lisa’s new blog Through the Fire.

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34 comments on “How to Make the Most of a Scene – Guest Post by Jami Gold

  1. This is just what I needed this morning. I just stated for an hour at one of my scenes that grabbed be by its boringness. It needed something else. This list of options is extremely helpful, thanks!

  2. Yay, some of my favorite bloggers together in one spot 🙂 Great post Jamie! This looks at it in an angle I hadn’t thought of before. I have always tried to make sure I have a scene goal for the character in each scene, which has helped me trim unnecessary scenes and power up others. There’s one though that I love because it sets tone and world-building and shows some character development, but it’s not until the end of the scene that there’s a major plot point revealed that moves it forward and I’ve been worried I need to introduce some other layer to the scene earlier to get the reader to the end of the scene…

  3. As an unapologetic plotter, I always plan to make sure a scene has a reason to exist (otherwise it’s tempting to write a funny or beautiful scene “just because” : ). This is such a handy and well-thought checklist. Thanks for sharing it with us, Jamie! And thanks, Lisa and Marcy!

    • Hi Fabio,

      I’ve been wanting a checklist like this for a long time. (I thought I’d found one somewhere and copied it to my computer ages ago, but after a year of looking and not finding it, I suspect it was wishful thinking. 🙂 ) So I decided to make one myself. Hope it helps!

  4. Hi Jami,

    Wow, great post! I love the list. When I thought about how I attack a scene I realized there were two goals I always have in mind when writing.

    One is for the story itself (tension, plot , conflict etc…)

    While the other is for the reader. After I’ve accomplished the first to the best of my ability, 😉 I sit back and try and figure out how I can show the same thing only better – through the characters actions and expressions so that the reader will relate to them better. It might only be a ‘slumping of a shoulder’ here or a ‘cringe’ there, but I find the little things go a long way to humanize them. So I guess, character development is a constant in my scenes. 🙂

    Murphy

    • Hi Murphy,

      That’s a great way to look at it! Yes, it’s very much a combination of scene writing with the goal/motivation/conflict in mind, as well as with the reader in mind and making them more invested in the scene. As you said, that can happen by humanizing the characters. (And I’ve always said character development is one of your great strengths! 🙂 ) Thanks for the comment!

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  6. Having the shared perfectionists malady, I’ve combed through every scene I’ve ever written for nuances and wish I was actually good at it. But I’m not. Which is probably why I feel the need to go over what I write so deeply.

    Awesome information here, Jami. Adding this into my working writer file (with Janice’s post that I think is already in it). 🙂

    • Hi Gene,

      Yes, I’m not very good at this either. It’s definitely NOT one of those things I do automatically. 🙂 And it can take a lot of time, but the results speak for themselves. Good luck!

  7. Fantastic post. Jami! I love the list and the idea of approaching each scene with intent, either in the revision or the planning–preferably both. I tend to plot like crazy, and then discover additional depths and layers that make me repurpose scenes for added conflict and meaning. I drive myself crazy :D. Your list is so clear and comprehensive though, and I love the approach so much, I’m going to post this on my wall.

    Thanks so much for this!

    Martina

  8. Hi Martina,

    Aww, thank you! Yes, no matter how much I have scenes planned out ahead of time, I still find new layers and meaning later. I think that’s a good thing for us. 🙂

  9. I prefer to think in terms of shooting a photo or video. You set up the shot with the right focus, the right subject, angle and right layers. Get all of the your ‘shot’ right and it will flow perfectly. Great post.

    • Hi PW,

      Yes, that goes along with the “movie in my mind” aspect. 🙂 I use that method for the first draft.

      But I’ve often found that my subconscious has placed deeper layers in the scene, and if I bring that into my consciousness, I can tweak a word or sentence to bring that layer into the light a bit more and increase its resonance with the reader. Thanks for the comment!

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  12. I needed this right now. I’m about to engage in a little #NaNoSlackMo word sprint and I need to keep this in my head while I write. 🙂 Thanks, Jami!! (And Marcy and Lisa for having her!!)

  13. Hi Jenny,

    Great! I hope it helps. 🙂 Even when I have things plotted out, I find there’s always ways to apply this during revision too, to make the scene even better. Thanks for the comment!

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