Strengthening your scenes

Strengthening your scenes

Gwynn Scheltema

Have you ever read a section in a novel and then skimmed or skipped pages to get to the next interesting bit? Have you ever got frustrated over having to plough through screeds of internal character soul searching before anything actually happens? How about being confused and frustrated about where the story is taking place or who the character is and only finding out pages later?

In my recent blog, “What is a scene” I examined what a scene was and its function in a story: namely it is a building block in your story that moves the story forward, actions and tension that result in a change of some kind, either in the growth of the characters/relationships or the course of the plot or both.

If you are including these elements and your scenes still feel flat or confusing, how can you up the energy? Ask yourself these questions:

Is this scene dramatic?

Image by Isa KARAKUS

I don’t mean: is there violent action or overwrought emotion happening? I’m talking “show don’t tell.” Make your reader a witness to what happens. Is the reader “hearing” the character actually speak the words in dialogue or merely being told that the character said them? Is the reader being told that a character is angry or actually witnessing the physical or verbal reaction of that character that shows the anger? Is the reader observing the setting through the eyes and emotional perspective of the character, or being given a dry listing of the stage set?

Is the setting right for the scene?

Important news delivered in place from which there is no retreat or where expression of emotion is difficult will add tension. A child being told they are adopted on the school bus. A wedding engagement broken off in a busy restaurant. Being followed at night versus in the day.

Sometimes just changing the weather helps. If a marriage proposal takes place on a cliff, a lovely sunny day makes things easy (and likely boring). What if there’s a high wind? (element of danger or resistance) Rain? (negative feelings). Even proximity to the edge of the cliff can change the feel of the scene and either heighten or play against the emotions being expressed.

Is this scene repetitive?

Image by prettysleepy1

Because we write novels over long periods of time, it’s easy to forget that we have already mentioned something earlier. Did the reader already witness a scene that showed the tense relationship between siblings? If so, is this new scene showing something different in the relationship, like an escalation or de-escalation of that sibling tension?

Is this scene in the right place in the novel?

Would it help to move a scene closer to the beginning or end? Perhaps if the reader knew that a character hated her father early in the novel, her negative reactions to other male characters would seem more natural. Finding out early in internal dialogue that Amy really loves Jimmy despite her actions to the contrary might deflate the tension. If the reader believes like Jimmy that she hates him, the later realization and revelation of her love for him would be a more dramatic moment.

Can I up the stakes or make things harder?

Can you inject extra complications, or greater emotional or physical strain? Anything you can do to make things more difficult for your character helps. They don’t have to be big things. Rushing up a hill rather than on flat ground; running out of time; car trouble; interruptions…

Is this scene important?

If it’s important, slow it down. Our natural tendency as tension mounts is to go faster and faster, but the opposite maxim applies to good pacing in scenes. If your action is over too quickly the readers don’t get to enjoy the excitement. If the moment is high tension, give readers all the details, all the reactions, all the choreography.

Did I “Get in late and leave early.”?

I don’t know where I heard it, but I use this advice all the time to examine my scenes. Excessive internal thought, long description or exposition, or purposeless action or dialogue is a killer of tension at the start of a scene. It’s what one of my writing mentors refers to as “throat clearing”. Get to the action as soon as you can.

Image by Frauke Flohr

Consider this: The scene begins with a groom stuck in traffic. His cell phone is dead and he’s getting more angry with the taxi driver who moves him slowly though the traffic so that they finally arrive at the church just as his tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father. —OR —The scene begins as a taxi screams into the church parking lot with the groom just as the tear-stained bride is leaving on the arm of her father.

And the same for leaving early. When a tense action scene has finished, don’t deflate the whole thing with a page of internal analysis or angst from the character. Yes, we do want to know how the character is affected and what they are going to do next, but use that page turning tension to start the next scene.

You might even consider ending mid –action. Now there’s a page turner. Or perhaps end with a character epiphany, or a promise of further revelation, a discovery or a threat. As they say about so many things: “Leave them wanting more.”

Last Word

Tighter, richer and more textured scenes make for a tighter, richer more textured novel. Examining individual scenes and making them as strong as you can is worth the effort.

Janus: the god of writing?

Janus: the god of writing?

Gwynn Scheltema

January is believed to be named for the Roman god, Janus. The first month of the Gregorian calendar, January replaced March as the first month of the Roman year, no later than 153 BCE.

As we’ve left behind 2016 and begun 2017, consider that Janus is, among other things, the god of time, beginnings and endings. His two faces look simultaneously to the future and the past.

Janus symbolized change, transition and motion. He presided over the progress of one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood, transition from savagery to civilization, from rural to urban space, from one universe to another. Janus oversaw the beginning and ending of conflict. As a god of motion, Janus caused actions to start.

He represented time, and was worshipped at planting and harvest, at births and marriages and deaths. He had a role to play in journeys and exchanges, gateways and thresholds.

Doesn’t that sound like a writer? I think writers are a lot like Janus, presiding over our fictional worlds.

So what can we learn from Janus?

Past and Future are connected

At any point in the writing of a story we need to be looking into the past and the future simultaneously. Even though action and plot are moving forward into the future, we need to be aware of our characters’ pasts or back story, because that is what drives all our characters’ quirks and traits and shapes the decisions they make.

The distinction between past back story and present, or future action and plot, is a cornerstone for understanding pacing. The plot and action is what moves the story forward and keeps the pace up (and the reader engaged). The moment you indulge in a flashback (back story; the past), your pacing stands still. Sure we learn things about the characters, but the storyline is momentarily halted. Stay in the past too long, and the reader will lose interest.

That’s not to say that backstory is not important. It is. It is the subconscious motivation that drives the characters’ present actions. The future unfolds according to the events of the past, and witnessing some of the past will help the reader understand why a character acts the way he does.

Beginnings and Endings are connected.

We all know that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more than that. Like Janus, we need to be aware of the beginning and end simultaneously wherever we are in the writing of the story. Everything is causal. Nothing happens without a reason.

Plotters write their plot beginnings with plot endings in mind. Pantsers freewheel the plot but know their character arc beginning and ending. At any point in the story the reader should feel that there is change afoot, that there is growth and discovery around the corner. Your reader should sense that at the end, it will have been worth the journey, and that the promise given at the beginning has been kept.

Duality in characters

The two-faced Janus reminds us, too, that our characters also have dual aspects. They are at once good and bad. Readers relate to villains who have redeemable qualities. Readers like heroes with flaws. It makes them rounded and believable, not cardboard.

A character arc is a progression from one condition to another: from shy to confident, from intolerant to tolerant, from angry to calm and so on. Cardboard characters have no arc. They are shallow and act without motivation, act only because the author needs them to. If the writer, like Janus, is aware of the character’s past as she writes the action and change of the future, then the character will be more developed. The reader will care what happens to the character and keep turning the page. And that’s what we all want.

So as we write, let’s remember Janus, this January and all year long. Our readers will thank us.

DID YOU KNOW

You can explore your inner Janus this April at Writescape’s Spring Thaw retreat. This all-inclusive getaway at Fern Resort on Rice Lake, Ontario, offers plenty of time to focus on character arcs, plot developments and flashbacks that don’t drag down your story. Gwynn and Ruth are on hand to give you one-on-one feedback on your work in progress. Registration is open now.