Scenes are a fundamental unit of fiction, and each scene has a job to do to keep the story moving forward. A scene-quality map can help you identify when and where things might not be at perfect pitch.
When you read a book, some scenes just fly by. You don’t think about it. You are absorbed to the point you forget you are reading.
The story is singing along, there are no distractions, and clarity reigns. This is what you want to achieve in your writing: cracking good scenes.
How can you tell how you are faring? Judge for yourself and then ask for an external read. What you are asking for is a “Scene-quality Map.”
Your scene-quality map
Scenes are a fundamental unit of fiction. There can be one or more scenes to a chapter, but the scene is where the core action takes place. Each scene is a stand-alone unit but is also inextricably linked to the scene before and after. Think in terms of chains of scenes.
Each scene should be carefully shaped to advance the story, engage the reader, and never offer anything that will cause your reader to want to put your book down.
How can you tell how you are faring? Ask a reader to tell you. You want your reader to judge how enticing each scene was. Yes, every single scene.
Enticing scenes whiz by. Or they suck you in and keep you there. You want to linger. These scenes succeed in doing what they are there to do, the reader is immersed because the mechanics are smooth and the story is progressing.
Cracking good scenes don’t always have to be the “big bangs” — you need some to be the downs to match the highs, the calms before the storms, but they should all advance the story.
Every scene, once the full story comes together, should serve its intended function, based on what’s occurred previously, and deliver the reader at the doorstep of the next scene. The role of all good scenes is to pick up the baton and continue the relay.
Many elements go into crafting such wonderful scenes, so there is no formula, except to say it needs emotional depth and to keep all your ducks in a row.
Fixing a hole
Even in a great book, you might subjectively take to some scenes more than others. Perhaps you like a certain character or storyline more than the rest, or love it when the lead character pilots his plane and describes aviation life, or when the two characters in a romance are getting along well. Such preferences are natural.
But then there are scenes that don’t live up to the quality of the bulk of the book. These are the scenes that need a fix to bring them up to standard. We can place sub-optimal scenes into three broad categories: passable, slow, or skip.
Passable scenes are okay, but just seem lacking compared to the pace and enjoyment produced by previous scenes. It just doesn’t stack up the same way. It’s like the wind went out of the flag.
You don’t really mind reading a passable scene, but you are wishing there were more flavor and you are looking forward to seeing if the next one is better.
A slow scene is one where you question if the writer has gone off-track and your head is starting to fill with questions about story construction and direction instead of being immersed in the story itself. A slow scene might introduce things that don’t seem to fit, doesn’t deliver on previous power moments, or just seem out-of-place in terms of tone, content, or delivery. A slow scene is hard to get through, but you do, though you are more wary of the next scene and the rest of the book.
A skip is when you flip ahead to see if more fertile ground lies ahead. If not, you likely put the book down.
We skip pages because we get bored, or we lose our bearings, or the writing has gotten too dense or off-topic. Perhaps it’s an info-dump or its too technical.
Scenes should be indispensable
In a polished draft, every scene should crack like lightning and feel complete, justified, and indispensable.
Go through your draft scene by scene and assess the relative quality for yourself. You aren’t writing or editing, just picking out the main purpose of each scene and putting it into one of the four categories based on quality: enticing, passable, slow, or skip.
Quality of a scene will be determined by many factors. What are its main points? Are they significant enough? Have you left out any key details? Could the emotional impact or significance of the scene be heightened?
What of pieces of information does the reader absolutely need? Are these must-haves spotlighted? Will readers pick them up as intended? Should there be more dialogue when you have exposition? Do you involve the right characters? Is the setting working? Is the scene too long or too short?
Ideally, you will then study your list of scenes as a whole. Which are your favorites? Where do they lie in the story? Which scenes are the weakest and why? If you had to cut five, which would they be and why?
Once you are satisfied that all your scenes are of the highest quality you can muster, you draft is ready for a reader or editor.
Your scene-quality map
Highlighting your indispensable scenes is a superb form of red pen praising: you can learn a lot from your major successes.
Sometimes, you might think a scene is indispensable and enticing, but it scores as “slow” or “skip” to your reader. How can this be? Perhaps something earlier in the story has not translated as you intended and readers are missing some key information to really understand the significance of the scene.
Analyzing your scene-quality map, especially if built with input from multiple readers, will help you scrub all muddy writing and replace it with writing that pops off the page and scenes that excite and delight your readers.
Dawn Field (July 20, 1969 – May 2, 2020)
In late 2015, Dawn Field submitted her first post to the BookBaby Blog. A molecular biologist, Senior Research Fellow of the NERC Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, guest professor at the University of Goeteborg in Sweden, and co-author of the book, Biocode: The New Age of Genomics, Dr. Field came to us hoping to find a forum to share her experience and love of language with an audience of writers. While many unsolicited submissions don’t quite meet the needs (or standards) of our readers, something about Dawn’s writing stood out. I posted the article, and to my grateful amazement that initial contribution flourished into a five-year collaboration resulting in nearly 100 posts published on the BookBaby Blog. Sadly, on May 2nd, a voice that was an inspiration to so many of us in the self-publishing community was lost when Dr. Field suddenly and tragically passed away at the age of 50. We will continue to publish the pieces Dawn had submitted (she was always months ahead of schedule) in honor of her commitment to teaching and to the craft of writing. Rest in peace, Dawn.
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