Don’t Go Nowhere Fast

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.

16 Responses to “Don’t Go Nowhere Fast”

  1. Judy Teel May 2, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    This is an excellent article. I remind myself of these principles often, frequently checking against them as I write. Also, conflict, conflict, conflict.

  2. Michelle Sutton May 2, 2012 at 5:58 am #

    You always have such interesting things to say.

  3. Nancy M.Popovich May 2, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    This is an interesting way to explain it. Another nugget of information. Thanks.

  4. Khaalidah May 2, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    I like the idea that each scene is a mini novel. Keeping this in mind will help me as I outline my WIP. I agree that relevance is paramount. Scenes that seem to have no point are an annoyance and a waste of space and time. That said, I never considered it the way you so succinctly addressed it though…hmmm…mini novel. I like that idea a lot.

  5. Paula Tiberius May 2, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    This is such a great reminder – my screenwriting teacher used to call going nowhere fast “marching in place” and it was so helpful to put that test to each scene. Now that I’m writing novels, I feel liberated in so many ways (being allowed to go inside people’s heads and actually describe furniture) but that doesn’t give me license to be a bore!

  6. cslakin May 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    I’m really astounded by how many scenes I critique and edit that don’t have a point to them and have no obvious structure. I know it’s hard to write a novel, but many just jump into constructing scenes without a clue as to what they are trying to accomplish. I find that if I write out a brief description of the scene on an index card and put the “point” or moment down in one sentence, that helps me think of a way to construct the scene to lead to that moment. If the scene isn’t revealing an important plot element or something important about character, it has no place in the novel.

  7. Lillian May 2, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    Thanks for this insightful article. I’m working on my second ebook, and I’ll certainly check for these points.

  8. Raeev Pundir May 3, 2012 at 4:34 am #

    Dear CS Lakin,

    Your inputs are very much valuable in developing a captivating story.


  9. LK Watts May 4, 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Hi Susanne,

    Thanks for your take on how to write a great scene, it’s most helpful.

  10. Sheila Deeth May 5, 2012 at 8:34 pm #

    This is great. Thank you. I think I’ll walk around the green a few more times with my characters before writing my next scene.

  11. Jess Schira May 13, 2012 at 5:19 am #

    What a great post. I can usually pick up on useless scenes when I’m reading books others have written (it’s one of my pet peeves with all the authors currently self-publishing) or watching television, but I find it much more difficult to identify the same problem in my own work. I think some of your tips will help. Thank you.

  12. linda a janssen May 20, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    Yet another article that shows why you are such a good source of instruction for those of us toiling on our beloved novel WIPs. I find myself recommending your site to others, and especially this series to wide-eyed writers who have a burning desire to write and something to say, but just aren’t sure how. Thanks for sharing; this series is excellent.

  13. cslakin May 20, 2012 at 5:01 am #

    Thanks so much for the kind words. I will be compiling this year’s worth of material, adding more chapters, and making it available as an ebook at the end of the year. Then will put it out as a print book. I hope it will help a lot of writers really get the feel for putting the whole novel together in a cohesive and powerful way.

  14. R Drescher May 20, 2012 at 10:12 am #

    This article has given me a lot to think about. I am going over my opening sequence again. I look forward to the next article.


  15. cslakin May 20, 2012 at 11:56 am #

    Thanks. There ahave been a couple of more posts on scenes already up on the blog so be sure to take a look!

  16. aniket December 28, 2013 at 12:19 am #

    Every time i read this article, it enlightens me more. Thanks CS for this wonderful article. I am hoping to get your book on this part soon.

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