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
- 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.
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?Pin It