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Have You Scene It? -- by Alex Sheridan

Pretend you’re a guest at a picnic in a scenic location.  Bright sunshine, a classic checkered cloth for a blanket, and a large and elegant picnic basket at your side.  You lift the lid in anticipation, but see only a packet of crackers.  The kind they serve at a salad bar.  You snap the lid shut, hoping your eyes were wrong.  But a deeper look reveals only a small bottle of water.  It’s a kindergarten-size snack, and you came here hungry. 


Like a picnic basket, readers open our books anticipating good things, hungry for a great read.  But sometimes we miss the mark, and get feedback like this:  “Nothing seems to really happen.” or, “This chapter isn’t working hard enough.” or, “I would cut most of this.”  


If we want readers to enjoy our picnic, we need to ensure there’s something worthwhile in the basket each time they open it.  Every good scene has a point, and every avid reader knows it.  Every great scene has multiple points or impacts, preferably affecting multiple characters in multiple ways.  It’s what makes our scenes memorable


Not every scene has to be memorable, but they all need to be worthy.  How do we determine whether ours makes the cut? 


Here are a few elements that give scenes their heart and lungs – the more of these, the better:


  • A hope, a goal, a fear – commenced, fulfilled, faced, dashed or delayed
  • Raise or answer a story question(s)
  • New and critical story or character information, conveyed in an organic way
  • Turning points – outer and inner
  • Events that measurably move the story forward
  • Tense dialogue
  • Anticipation
  • Jeopardy


Donald Maass gives great tips on making scenes count in his must-read book, The Fire In Fiction.   He suggests that, to re-envision a scene, we take a look at what’s happening to the characters, aside from the action. 


Ask yourself:


  • What changes take place? (physical, emotional, perceptions, etc.)
  • At what precise moment do the changes occur?
  • How is the POV character impacted?  Now, or down the road?
  • How are the supporting characters impacted?


Now that we have meat and cheese in our basket, the question is, are we laying it out in a way that pulls readers in? That makes them stay at our picnic far into the night?  Especially if the scene isn’t heavy on action or peril?  


You can include all the points above, but if the writing is off, readers will still quit early.  Sometimes they can’t put a finger on why it’s off, they just know it is.  So what’s the trick? 


The answer usually comes in one word – Flow.  It’s a key component of our writing style.


Readers love good flow.  They love it so much, they don’t even notice it—they’re too busy consuming what’s in the basket to notice its weave.  Unless it’s bad—then it sticks out. 


Happily, flow can largely be summed up in one word as well – Transitions


Just like skaters riding along a sidewalk, transitioning from one cement section to the next, readers move along sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, scene by scene.  Suddenly hitting a bump jolts a skater out of his thoughts, forcing him to focus on the sidewalk.  In writing, it’s the flow of information leading from one sentence/scene to the next that comprises the reader’s ride.  Each transition makes for potential bumps.


A few tips on keeping things seamless:


Sentence by sentence –


Take a look at what’s going on in the first sentence of your opening.  Does the second sentence contain anything relating to the first one?  If not, find a way to make it so.  Keep going like that until the end of the paragraph.  For example:


  • A gust of wind slammed the doors open, bringing everyone on the dance floor to a halt.  All eyes watched a glittering orange slip of paper swirl its way through the doorframe and up around the massive chandelier.  Once, twice, three times around, the crystals glowing like miniature sunsets where it passed.  A collective breath held as the paper crested to the ceiling then began drifting down to the crowd below. 


Paragraph by paragraph –


Just as with each sentence, readers want a connection, a transition, from the happenings above into the next paragraph.  With the addition of something new coming into play.  For example:


  • The party’s host shot a hand up and snatched the orange missive from the air.  It was an envelope, not a mere piece of paper, everyone in the room recognized it, and dreaded the day theirs would arrive.  Vladimir’s lips flattened to a thin line as he sliced a thumbnail through the wax seal.  Without a doubt, the message inside would bring an immediate end to his gala.


Think of a paragraph as a mini story.  If each line contains only actions, it can read like a list of movements, rather than a story unfolding.  Take another look at the bullet above.  The first line is all action, the second is information with tension, the third is action with emotion behind it, and the fourth a thought that brings a whiff of trouble to come.  It pulls readers in, and makes for an easy segue to the next paragraph.  We also get a quasi beginning, middle and end.


Most readers like piecing things together, much more than absorbing overtly ‘told’ story-world and character facts.  Use descriptive words like mini clue drops, allowing readers to draw conclusions about the story-world and its characters from the unfolding bits of info. Take another look at the bullet point above.  What key words subtly begin to set the scene?


Scene by scene –


Unlike sentences and paragraphs, scenes often are not given in a truly linear way.  Many authors elect to structure their chapters with a flip-flop from the good guys to the bad, or from one MC’s POV to another, and do so throughout the story.  The key to making the on/off structure work is a clear transition from the applicable preceding chapter into the new scene. 


Luckily, we have transition tricks for smoothing the breaks. Aim to succinctly remind readers in the opening line where the last scene left off:


  • Quick time warp phrases -- Ten minutes after Vladimir finished reading the queen’s message to the anxious crowd, the ballroom was as empty as a drunken man’s bottle.


  • Repetitious usage of key words from last sentence -- (Last paragraph in preceding chapter):  He had no choice.  The boat would leave without him, and that wasn’t an option.  The guard had to go.  . . . .  (New chapter’s opening paragraph):  The guard didn’t die easy.  A well-trained soldier never does. 


  • Continue the visuals -- In the last paragraph of a chapter, we see an earthquake begin to take place, the ground is shaking, etc.  In the opening line of the follow-up scene, we see the damage occurring; or the author may use another time leap forward--the quake is over, and the new chapter opens with our MC viewing the destruction left behind.


All great authors work at honing each story’s content and flow.  Our readers’ appreciation is expressed in six beautiful words:  “I enjoy this author’s writing style.”  What bigger compliment can we ask for?


Here’s a link to an article that shows how important good flow and transitions are -- even to a comedian’s material:



Alex Sheridan


Author of Freedom Jungle, Dance of Spies, Treasure Life, Finding Round

Posted by Alex Sheridan 14 Oct 2014 at 00:17
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