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June 7, 2012

How to Make the Most of a Scene

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

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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66 Comments on "How to Make the Most of a Scene"

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Angela Quarles

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)…

Buffy Armstrong

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!

Karen Lynn Klink

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!

Chihuahua0

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.

Carradee

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.

Marcy Kennedy

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 🙂

Mryellen

Great post, very helpful! Thank you 🙂

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

Andrew Mocete

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!

Melinda Collins

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*

Lisa Gail Green

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.

Leslie S. Rose

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.

Sue Roebuck

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 talks about How To Make the Most of a Scene. […]

August McLaughlin

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.

Reetta Raitanen

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

Nancy S. Thompson

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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[…] Gold had another fabulous post on How to Make the Most of a Scene. She also linked to the Rule of Three, No the Other One from the amazing Janice […]

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[…] How To Make The Most Of A Scene by Jami Gold […]

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[…] Gold tells us how to make the most of a scene; Karen Schravemade explores the four types of dramatic tension; and Mary Kole explains that while […]

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[…] you remember a few weeks back when I posted about how to make the most of a scene? I talked about how we should include at least three elements in each scene to ensure we’re […]

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[…] How To Make the Most of a Scene by Jami Gold […]

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[…] we get an idea for a scene, we can make sure that scene has multiple reasons for existing—including illuminating the theme in some way. If the conflict follows the previous plot point […]

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[…] in Writing Stuff Whether we’re a plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between, we all eventually have to take the time and make our scenes the best they can be.  This week I have a guest post at the Girls With Pens blog on how to do that. […]

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[…] as with any other type of scene, know why this scene exists. What changes? What are the turning points? What’s being revealed about the plot or […]

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[…] In our first draft, our scenes might include all sorts of boring trips to the grocery store or what-have-you. But once we’re in editing mode, we need to be ruthless and make sure every scene has at least three reasons for existing. […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
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[…] But there are many ways to make a situation worse. As Serena Yung asked in a comment: […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
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[…] ihr euch noch die Details für diese Liste ansehen wollen, findet ihr hier und hier noch nähere Erklärungen […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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.

Kara Zwiers
Kara Zwiers

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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[…] particular worksheet is based on a couple of articles. One by Jami Gold, How to Make the Most of a Scene; and another by Janice Hardy, Rule of Three: No, the Other One. Either of which you might find […]

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[…] How to Make the Most of a Scene – Jami Gold, Paranormal Author […]

Melissa Maygrove

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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[…] Does it contain enough elements of a good scene? […]

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[…] Not enough going on […]

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[…] tempting to blame the scene and get rid of it. Sometimes, that’s for the best. Maybe the scene doesn’t have a point or isn’t needed for the story arc. But if the scene has a purpose in the story, we can often find a different […]

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[…] how we can use the Elements of a Good Scene worksheet—either during drafting or revisions—to ensure our scene is working hard enough. And we wrapped up with what it means to have “tension on every […]

trackback

[…] as with any other type of scene, know why this scene exists. What changes? What are the turning points? What’s being revealed about the plot or […]

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