How to Make the Most of a Scene

by Jami Gold on June 7, 2012

in Writing Stuff

Colorful puzzle pieces half assembed

This post originally ran several months ago at the Girls With Pens blog.  It’s one of my favorites because I’m always looking for checklists to make sure I’m not missing anything while editing and revising.  I hope you find it useful.

Whether we plot our stories ahead of time or write by the seat of our pants, we need to ensure our scenes are working as hard as they could be.

  • If we’re plotters, we consciously decide on the focus of our scenes ahead of time.
  • If we’re pantsers, we make up our scenes as we go along, and the conscious evaluation doesn’t happen until revision time.
  • And if we’re somewhere in the middle, we might have an idea of where the scene is supposed to end up, but we take a rambling path to get there, so our revisions will look more like pantsers.

However we get there, at some point we’ll be taking a hard look at every scene.  Is this scene needed?  Is it too long or too short?  Does it have tension?  Does it avoid information dumps?  Etc., etc.

Great, but that’s all a little vague.  After all, how can we tell if a scene is needed?  Sure, some scenes might be obviously unnecessary as we pantsed our way down a rabbit trail, but other scenes feel like they’re needed.  So how can we tell?

Guidelines for What Makes a Good Scene

Good scenes should have at least three reasons for existing.  Those evil info dump or backstory scenes falter not only because of bad structure, but also because they fail to be relevant to the overall story.  They’re missing those other reasons for existing.

So as we go through our story, we need to make sure every scene has at least three of the following revelations:

  • a plot point
  • a character’s goal
  • action to advance the plot
  • action to increase the tension
  • character development
  • a cause of character conflict
  • an effect of character conflict
  • how stakes are raised
  • a reinforcement of the stakes
  • character motivation
  • character backstory
  • world building
  • story theme
  • foreshadowing
  • the story’s tone or mood

Janice Hardy has a great blog post about how to mix and match these elements in a way to make the scene feel like a full meal.  She points out that some elements, like foreshadowing, world building, or tone should be treated more like appetizers.  In other words, those elements shouldn’t be the main point of the scene.

Edited to Add: I’ve since created an Elements of a Good Scene checklist and worksheet.

Click through to view a larger version

Click through to view a larger version

I Have Three Elements in This Scene, Am I Good Now?

Making sure every scene has three reasons to exist proves the scene needs to be in our story, but we still haven’t checked to make it the best it could be.  When we’re consciously evaluating a scene—whether during initial planning or revisions—we need to be aware of the main reason that scene exists.

In her post, Janet talks about the elements that are legitimate main points for a scene: Is a character pursuing a goal?  Are we revealing important information?  Is the plot advancing?  Those questions ensure we’re not just padding an info dump scene with two other minor elements.

But even those questions don’t get to the heart of a matter.  A story is more than just a collection of plot points.  Stories are meant to evoke emotion.  So the most important question to ask ourselves is:

“What do we want this scene to accomplish from the reader’s perspective?”

Maybe we want the reader to be scared, or worried, or excited, or whatever.  Then we need to look at the actual plot points, dialogue, revelations, character emotions, and whatnot in the scene and decide:

“What’s the best way to show the elements of this scene to accomplish that?”

Once we know what we want to accomplish, maybe we’ll decide the words of the dialogue are revealing the right information, but the tone is wrong.  Or maybe we’ll decide there’s a better way to show the protagonist’s vulnerability.  Or maybe we’ll decide we let the protagonist advance the plot too easily.

This takes hard brainpower and conscious focus.  I’ll admit this deep evaluation doesn’t come easily to me.  But if I take the time to do it, I’ll often see how a sentence here or a reordering of paragraphs there will create stronger emotions in the reader.  And that’s what good storytelling is all about.

Are you able to evaluate your scenes in depth like this?  Does it come easily to you or not?  When you’ve evaluated your scenes, what have you discovered?

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61 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Angela Quarles June 7, 2012 at 7:46 am

I do this too, in fact I have a sheet I print out and place in front of each scene in my WIP notebook and make sure I can fill it out. Some of the other items on there are to make sure I have an opening hook and a closing hook/prompt and that I’ve included other senses besides sight. It’s my revision checklist, and I’ve been itching to make another for polishing (but on a chapter instead of scene scale)…

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Jami Gold June 7, 2012 at 11:21 am

Hi Angela,

I’ll admit I don’t go through all this with every scene, but when I know a scene isn’t working, lists like these help me figure out where I went off-track. Most of the time, I rely on my instincts, which will usually ensure the opening and closing hooks work well and that the scene has a point. 🙂

Like you, I pay attention to other senses when I’m editing though. My revision checklist constantly changes as my strengths and weaknesses evolve. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Buffy Armstrong June 7, 2012 at 8:08 am

Hi Jami,

Another great post and very timely! I am in the process of rewriting a story that I wrote last year during NaNoWriMo. I started the month of November with a handful of characters in mind and a flimsy plot at best. Let’s just say, the story changed a lot from when I started it to when I finished the first draft.

This list will really come in handy as I’m trying to decide what scenes stay and which ones go. Thanks!

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Jami Gold June 7, 2012 at 11:23 am

Hi Buffy,

LOL! Yes, that’s how I started my pantsed novel too. I hope this helps. 🙂 Good luck with your revisions and thanks for the comment!

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Karen Lynn Klink June 7, 2012 at 8:27 am

Tracked you from Operation Awesome, and am I glad I did!

Great post and perfect timing for me, as I’m in the third draft of a YA novel and have to eliminate a huge chunk–probably the entire first half.
Your post will help so much!

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Jami Gold June 7, 2012 at 11:34 am

Hi Karen,

Operation Awesome? You mean the blog? Or are you referring to The Bookshelf Muse? (I have a terrible internet connection this week, so I’m just wondering if I missed something. 🙂 )

Ouch! You might have to cut the first half of your novel? *hugs* That’s never fun. I hope this helps. Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Chihuahua0 June 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

It would be nifty if someone converted the above bullet list into a checklist! It might be the thing I need to make sure my opening scene is stellar and in tip-top shape.

Well, the most important thing to do with it right now is to actually get to re-writing it, but I don’t want Chapter One to be weak.

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Jami Gold June 7, 2012 at 11:38 am

Hi Chihuahua0,

I have iffy internet connection this week, but if I get a checklist made up, I’ll post it next week and let you know. 🙂

And I know what you mean. I have the most trouble with my opening scenes. 🙂 I often have to do heavy rewriting with them. Good luck with yours and thanks for the comment!

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Carradee June 7, 2012 at 9:19 am

I’m torn between wanting to fiddle and produce a checklist for this and just leaving it alone until I’m at a point where a scene’s nagging me and I can’t figure out why.

Considering how much I have on my plate to get done, I think I’ll do the latter, unless I get some extra time this weekend while I’m out of town, but that’s unlikely.

Anyway, I can analyze character goals, but big-picture stuff? Ulgh.

I don’t even understand symbolism. (Though I’ve discovered that I evidently understand it on a subconscious level. I have one particular short story that is chock-full of color symbolism that I’d plugged in as “filler”, planning to go back and adjust after I did some research—only to discover when I researched that I’d plugged in exactly what I wanted to convey, and added another symbol besides. >_>)

The more I’ve made myself focus on the “big picture” stuff, the more I’ve realized that my subconscious mind is far better at it than my conscious mind, so I’ve started backing off and letting my subconscious handle it. As I work with it, I’ll eventually get enough better to get a conscious handle on it, but I’m not there yet.

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Jami Gold June 7, 2012 at 11:43 am

Hi Carradee,

As I mentioned to Chihuahua0 above, I’ll see about putting together a checklist and posting it when I have a better internet connection. If so, I’ll let you know. 🙂

And I’m with you. Most of the time I hope my subconscious and natural plotting/pacing instincts get all the big stuff in line automatically. 🙂 I can do this big picture analysis, but it’s brain twisting stuff for me. LOL! However, when I know I’m having problems with a scene, lists like this are great for trying to figure out why. Thanks for the comment!

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Marcy Kennedy June 7, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I smiled when I saw this post arrive in my inbox because I’d just pulled it up on the GWP website this weekend to use as a bit of a “checklist” for the scenes in the novel Lisa and I are doing another re-write on. Perfect timing 🙂

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Jami Gold June 7, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Hi Marcy,

Yes, I have very limited internet connection this week, so it was time to pull out two posts I knew I wanted to re-run. I’m glad this article has been helpful for people. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Mryellen June 7, 2012 at 2:16 pm

Great post, very helpful! Thank you 🙂

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 7:31 am

Hi Mryellen (or should that be Maryellen? 🙂 ),

I’m happy to help. Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc June 7, 2012 at 5:22 pm

This post is relevant in so many ways, but to me, right now, it’s beyond helpful.
As I mentioned last post, I recently finished my WIP and I just began edits. I have my critique groups notes, and it’s been months since I’ve read the novel from front to back. basically I’ve let it rest for a while and I’m enjoying the process (and my story, I might add) immensely.
Now that I’m into it I’ve found loads of extranious words and I’ve quickly deleted them. I tend to be wordy, so its necessary to trim gobs of fat.
But, your list of elements every scene must touch on is an added bonus for me. Something extra I can check to make sure my manuscript is as strong and sellable as it can possibly be.
Thank you, thank you for sharing this post. It’s an invaluable resource I will refer to often:)
Have a nice evening!!!
Tamara

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 7:38 am

Hi Tamara,

Critique notes and checklists? Sounds like you’re off to a great start. 🙂 Good luck with your editing and thanks for the comment! *hugs*

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Andrew Mocete June 7, 2012 at 5:23 pm

A while back, Susan Bischoff sent me a video of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators/writers of South Park) teaching a class on story. In the clip, they broke down a scene very simply: Each one should end with “therefore” or “because of.” If they end with “and then” something’s wrong. When I get to the end of a scene, I give it that test. Now I can add your checklist to my troubleshooting toolbox. Thanks!

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 7:42 am

Hi Andrew,

Ooo, yes, Janice Hardy had a post about that advice just a week or so ago. That’s a great way to make sure everything is a cause and effect rather than just a series of events. Thanks for the comment!

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Melinda Collins June 7, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Hi Jami!

We must be working on the same wavelength this week. I just posted on scenes as well, especially after some insightful notes I received. 😉

Thank you for posting this again! I’ve printed the checklist and can’t wait to use it this weekend.

Congratulations, again, on your nod as a Writing Hero! 🙂 *hugs*

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 7:57 am

Hi Melinda,

Ooo, I just checked out your post about scenes. Great insight. 🙂

And thanks for the congratulations. It was a wonderful surprise! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Lisa Gail Green June 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm

I missed you! I haven’t stopped by in a while. 🙁 You always have such great craft posts. Hope you’re doing well! I think I’ll use this checklist while doing my current revisions.

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 7:58 am

Hi Lisa,

Don’t worry, I understand. 🙂 I have more favorites and must-read blogs than I actually have time for as well. *sigh* Good luck with your revisions and thanks for the comment!

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Leslie S. Rose June 7, 2012 at 10:14 pm

Popped over from Bookshelf Muse, and boy am I glad I did. This is the bullet point list of my dreams. I’m off to make an excel doc of it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 7:59 am

Hi Leslie,

Thanks for visiting! I love The Bookshelf Muse, and I can’t tell you how honored I am by their recognition. 🙂

I’m glad this post will be helpful to you. Thanks for the comment!

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Sue Roebuck June 8, 2012 at 3:30 am

Hi Jami, I’m popping in for the first time and so glad I did, there’s a mass of valuable information for me. I’ve taken notes and pondered on my scenes and it’s amazing to think that, mostly (I hope), much of this has come unconsciously to me. I’d never have been able to articulate “what makes a good scene” but now, thank goodness, I can. Many thanks.

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 8:03 am

Hi Sue,

Welcome! Yes, much of this comes unconsciously to me too. But for those times when we think a scene is needed but it’s not quite working, lists like this can help figure out where the problem lies. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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August McLaughlin June 8, 2012 at 9:38 am

Great tips, Jami! I’ve learned a lot about analyzing scenes over the past few months. When I’m struggling with the ability to do so, I find taking breaks and coming back with a fresh mind and eyes super helpful.

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Hi August,

Oh yes, fresh eyes are great for helping us look at our scenes from a different angle. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Reetta Raitanen June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm

A great list of scene functions. This post will be invaluable in the editing phase. Thank you, Jami.

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Jami Gold June 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Hi Reetta,

Yes, like many of my posts, this one came about because I wanted the resource too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Nancy S. Thompson June 9, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Love this post! I’ve taken a screen shot to download & print. I’m pretty good at making sure I have at least 3 of those elements. In fact, I probably go a little overboard & include too many of those elements. But I want jam-packed excitement & tension all the time & to always be relevant to the story.

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Jami Gold June 9, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Hi Nancy,

I know what you mean. I often have about five elements in my scenes, but I guess it depends on where I say one scene ends and the next begins. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 5, 2014 at 7:25 am

Hey Jami, it’s me again!

This time I have questions about stakes.

I SORT OF understand what a stake is, but I’m not 100% sure. Would you define a “stake” as “a threat to the main character’s life or well-being”? E.g. a war will be a threat to these characters’ lives, Mr Freeze will be a threat to Batman’s life. Very handsome character X will be a threat to Suzie and Anthony’s relationship, especially as Suzie already finds X charming. (All these threats are examples of “stakes”?)

Or would a stake be “an obstacle to an important goal” the main character has? So rival X is a threat to the top-of-the-class nerd Y, because rival X has been consistently getting better grades than nerd Y, where nerd Y’s goal is to maintain his/her position and reputation as the best in the class.

But I’m not very sure about those definitions…

Also, what would be the difference between “how stakes are raised” and “reinforcement of the stakes”?

When people say “raising the stakes”, do they mean erecting more and more (and usually harder and harder) OBSTACLES to the character’s goals? Or more and more THREATS to the character’s life or well-being? E.g. in a romance, the heroine can’t get the hero’s love because he is obviously friendzoning her (stake 1), and later even family zones her “Let’s be brother and sister!” (stake 2), and later another girl falls in love with him too, i.e. the heroine now has a rival (stake 3), and even later the heroine finds out that the hero’s parents really dislike the heroine (e.g. she’s too poor, or from a much lower social class.) (stake 4). Would these 1-4 count as “stakes” ? (They both threaten the heroine’s well-being/ happiness, AND are obstacles to the heroine’s goal of winning the hero’s love.)

And “reinforcement of the stakes” means we REMIND the reader HOW IMPORTANT a particular life goal is to the character, or how much their life/ well-being is threatened? So we see how deeply the heroine is in love with the hero and how compatible they are, and that if she doesn’t win his love (and eventually hand in marriage), she will be very unhappy for the rest of her life? (An exaggeration, of course, but you get the picture.)

In other words, “how stakes are raised” is what NEW stakes (obstacles/ threats) are being raised, e.g. in this scene, we SUDDENLY LEARN that girl A has fallen in love with the hero too, constituting a new threat/ obstacle to the heroine’s romantic goal. But for “reinforcement of the stakes”, we are REMINDED or GIVEN AN EVEN STRONGER SENSE that the thing/ goal being threatened is very important to the protagonist, e.g. we are reminded in the heroine’s monologue that if this business venture doesn’t work, then the heroine would lose almost all her money, which would make it almost impossible for her to support her family. (Life/ well-being greatly threatened by the possible failure of the business venture.)

Sorry that I’m so hung up on definitions. Just want to make sure I understand, lol.

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Jami Gold May 5, 2014 at 5:28 pm

Hi Serena,

Simply put, the stakes are usually best thought of as consequences. They’re what (bad) will happen if the characters don’t reach their goal(s).

I’ll do a post about this question with examples for how stakes are raised. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung May 5, 2014 at 9:28 pm

I see. Yay that I’ll get a whole post as an answer! 😀 Stakes are one of those things where everybody talks about them, you kind of know what they are, but you’re not completely sure. Lol!

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Jami Gold May 5, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Hi Serena,

Yep, I understand. Look for the post tomorrow. 🙂

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Serena Yung June 1, 2014 at 8:50 am

Hey Jami, I have a few questions again!

For character motivation, do trivial motivations count? E.g. The narration suggests why character X had that facial expression, or why she glanced at him in that way. (However this trivial thing does connect to something larger. The boy here misinterprets her glance to be her wish for him to do z for her. He guesses wrong and is frustrated, and the narrator reveals that in their relationship (they’re lovers), he often doesn’t know/ misunderstands what she wants him to do for her, and wishes she would be clearer and more transparent.) But in general, do unimportant motivations count as a scene element?

Similarly, do trivial conflicts count? I.e. conflicts not very important or even irrelevant to the plot, and that last for only a short time, with little or no consequences. What about trivial stakes?

Can a disagreement count as a conflict? e.g, he always distrusts x. She’s kind of annoyed that he so stubbornly distrusts x, because she thinks x SHOULD be given a little bit more trust. This doesn’t lead to either of them trying to stop the other from doing anything, yet it’s an unpleasant, unideal part of their relationship. (A conflict in their relationship. But I don’t know if this kind of conflict counts as a scene element conflict.)

Is “action to advance plot” always present when “plot point” is present? E.g. x tells y important info, so that y can now do z. Does “imparting important information necessary for the progression of the plot” count as action to advance plot?

Action to increase tension: I know there’s romantic and sexual tension, but what about friendship tension? Right now they’re enemies but we anticipate that they’ll become friends. Or right now they’re casual friends, but we anticipate that they’ll become close or even best friends?

Thanks!

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Jami Gold June 2, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Hi Serena,

Trivial stuff that doesn’t drive the story forward wouldn’t count. Some things that might be trivial (i.e., just a facial expression) might be interpreted as important by the POV character, and they might change their behavior or do something to react to that interpretation.

In other words, if an element causes an effect that keeps the cause-effect chain moving forward on the story, that counts. If an element is just noted as a “hmm, that’s interesting/weird/etc.” but doesn’t change anything–it doesn’t cause an effect in the overall story–then it’s not part of the story’s narrative drive. It’s not contributing to the story moving forward. Those wouldn’t count.

Does that answer your question about motivations and conflicts? Think about whether it has an effect on the story. 🙂

Yes, putting clues together to know what to do next counts as “action to advance plot.” As far as tension, it would depend on how much of a question is in the reader’s mind and how much a new situation between the characters would affect the story. If it’s just a minor curiosity or wouldn’t affect the story, that’s not tension. If the reader suspects that the next level must happen to “solve” the story, that is tension. Make sense? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung June 3, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Thanks for your answers, Jami! 🙂

Hmm conflict, stakes, and motivations that drive the story forward or change a character in some way…Got it! This makes sense too. “Causing an effect in the overall story” is a good way to put it. 🙂

The tension thing: Interesting. So I take it that, for instance, if I feel that this person and that person MUST become friends (not enemies anymore) for them to work together and defeat the bad guys, then that would be tension. Yeah, again it’s often about advancing the plot! :D. And I guess if two people who start off as enemies or indifferent acquaintances end up as best friends by the end of the story, AND this indifference/ antagonism to best friendship is THE POINT of the story, then that would count. Okay, I’ll see if my character x and character y’s “enemies to friends” relationship development ACTUALLY matters to the plot later. I can’t tell whether it matters yet at the moment, lol.

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Jami Gold June 3, 2014 at 1:35 pm

Hi Serena,

Yep, that all makes sense as far as your various tension scenarios. 🙂 Good luck!

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Serena Yung July 1, 2014 at 8:35 am

Just thought of another question! How would you define “tension” in “action to increase tension”? I’ve simply been interpreting it as generating a feeling of tension/ worry/ nervousness/ tightness in my heart, but I’m not sure that definition is enough, haha.

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Jami Gold July 1, 2014 at 9:32 am

Hi Serena,

That’s a great question! I’ve seen definitions along the lines of what you stated.

The definition I’ve seen most often says that it’s creating or widening a “gap” between what the characters (or the readers) want and what they have. It might be a focus on what’s “wrong” with a situation. So with “action to increase tension,” I’d ask myself whether anything in the scene created, widened, or increased our understanding of a gap between what the characters (or the reader) want and what they have.

For example, think of a setback, thwarting, or failure in a scene–or even just a recognition of how far they are from their goals. In many respects, the Black Moment is simply a problem so big that it seems insurmountable, and the characters temporarily give up.

This “action” can be as subtle as a misunderstanding between characters that doesn’t get resolved in that scene. And the gap can be experienced by the characters (they can’t defeat the bad guy) or by the reader (we want the hero and heroine to realize they’re perfect for each other but they currently hate each other) or both.

I hope that helps! 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung July 1, 2014 at 10:21 am

Thanks for your detailed answer! 😀

Lol, that also sounds like frustration. XD I want this girl and guy to get together, but the girl’s annoying older brother really doesn’t like the guy so he’s getting in the way, lol. Something like that.

Or: this very evil villain is on the loose, and the main characters are discussing plans on how to beat him/ her. This implies that the villain is still out there (the undesired thing), but they are still nowhere near stopping that villain (gap between what they want and what they currently have.)

So yeah, I can see how this definition you described ties in with feeling nervous/ anxious/ tight, and also frustrated, haha.

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Jami Gold July 1, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yep, frustration can apply too. I’m glad that helped! 🙂 Good luck with it and thanks for the comment!

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Kara Zwiers April 9, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Hi Jami
Opening scene: girl accidentally breaks a seal, releasing a dragon. Is this an example of a plot point or advancing the plot? Would it be too troublesome for you to write your definitions of your elements or examples of your elements of a good scene?
Kara

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Jami Gold April 9, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Hi Kara,

If either the seal or the dragon is important to the rest of the story, then it would absolutely be at least advancing the plot–and probably a plot point too. 🙂 (Plot point here would mean a turning point of some kind.

If it’s just part of the action-reaction chain of the story, it would qualify for “advancing the plot.” If it creates new goals, stakes, conflicts, etc., it would also qualify as a “plot point.”

Does that help? 🙂 Thanks for the question!

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Melissa Maygrove July 29, 2016 at 10:16 am

Just to prove that even seasoned writers ask dumb questions…
Could you please give an example of ‘A cause of character conflict’ vs. ‘An effect of character conflict’? I want to be sure I understand what you mean by the second one.

Great checklist, by the way.

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