Scenes must have a point to them or they shouldn’t be in your novel. I’ll repeat that. Scenes must have a point to them or they shouldn’t be in your novel. I discussed in last week’s post the need to find your “moment” and build to it, and the first scene really needs a kicker of a moment to hook the reader. Too many scenes are poorly structured, but there’s really an easy way to look at them.
Each Scene Is a Mini Novel
There it is—the basic structure. If you think about each scene as a mini novel, you can plan them out accordingly. Each scene, like a novel, needs a beginning, middle, and end. A scene needs to have a point. It needs to build to a high moment, and then resolve in some way (although with a scene, you can leave the reader hanging. Okay, a lot of writers do this at the end of their novels too, to make you run out and buy the next installment, but I find that a bit annoying. I want a novel to end satisfactorily and wrap up the story). What you then have with your novel is a string of mini novels that all work as nice, tidy capsules put together to paint a big picture.
Going Nowhere Fast
Here’s what literary agent Donald Maass says: “You would be surprised in how many middle scenes in how many manuscripts there seems to be no particular reason for a character to go somewhere, see someone, learn something, or avoid something.” (And at his week-long workshop he really grumbled about the plethora of scenes where two people are sitting around drinking tea.) You don’t want this to happen in your novel.
The Burden of the Beginning
Scene beginnings have a tremendous burden. In every opening paragraph of every scene you present to you reader you are making a promise or offering an invitation. You are promising to deliver—to entertain, impart enthralling information, move them emotionally. They have bought (or free-downloaded or borrowed) your book out of the hundreds of thousands of other novels available and are devoting their precious hours to reading your novel, so they are expecting that commitment on their part to pay off. If you open a scene with a promise to deliver and you fail to deliver, they are not going to be happy. Avid fans of a particular author may stick with a boring scene, and maybe read even all the way to the end in hopes the novel will pull through and come out shining. But most readers are not that gracious and forgiving. So you want to make sure that you deliver. Here are a few points about scene beginnings:
- They don’t have to start at a “beginning,” such as the start of a day (too many characters waking up when the alarm clock goes off). The beginning can and often should be in the middle of something already happening.
- They need a hook. Not just your opening scene but every scene needs a hook to draw the reader in, chapter after chapter. If you start off with boring narrative, you’re not going to hook them.
- Each scene launch is a reintroduction. Ask—where did I last leave those characters and what were they doing? You need to make the passing of time clear, and if it’s been a few scenes since we’ve seen those characters, you’ll need a bit of a reminder in the beginning of the scene to connect to that last moment.
- Just as with the first scene in your novel, you want to get your POV character into the scene ASAP (and in real time). The points that apply to your book’s opening scene mostly apply to every scene.
- Start an action without explaining anything.
- Give a nod to setting (a nod, not a treatise).
Next week I’ll go into middles and endings of scenes.
This week, choose a random scene in your WIP (work in progress) and check to see if you have all you need in your opening paragraphs as noted above. If you are missing some things, put them in. If you need to rework the entire scene so you can have a terrific beginning, then do that. And don’t forget to keep the “moment” in mind so you will build up to it.