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