One of the first things I learned when I became a Seekervillager ten years ago was that the scene is the building block of the book. A writer uses scenes to progress through the story, building tension and raising the stakes along the way.
For my first several books, I used a method for writing scenes that worked very well. But then I started writing in a new genre and a new point of view. Those major changes made me realize that the way I had been writing scenes wasn’t a “one size fits all” method!
Let me explain…
Writing Historical Romance
In my historical romances, I change the point of view character with every scene. In my Love Inspired books, I use two POV characters, and in my longer, trade-length stories I use multiple POVs (the hero, heroine, and two or three secondary characters.)
I structure my scenes like a mini book, with a beginning, middle, and an end. I plot the scene with a Goal, Motivation, and Conflict for the POV character, and create the scene with rising tension that comes to a resolution (although not a complete resolution) at the end of the scene. (You can click on the graphic to enlarge it.)
This works well in a romance. The POV characters grow and change in each of their scenes as they interact with the other characters and encounter conflict.
Writing a Cozy Mystery
When I tried using my scene-building technique in my cozy mystery, I ran up against a brick wall! What was wrong? Why didn’t it work?
I think the main reason was because of the mystery genre. A mystery requires a limited point of view to keep the reader in the sleuth’s mind. For the first time, I decided to write in first person instead of third person.
When we write in first person, the POV character never changes. We are in Emma’s POV all through the book. This limits the amount of information the reader receives, but it also limits the number of characters we can use to tell the story. I was accustomed to letting my POV characters react to each other as I switched scenes, but with a single POV, I only have Emma’s experiences and reactions to work with.
So, I went to my craft books for help.
I decided to try a method that Dwight Swain recommends in his book, “Techniques of the Selling Writer,” the scene/sequence method. According to Swain, the scene contains the conflict, and the sequel is the transition between the scenes.
But then I saw this in Donald Maass’s “The Breakout Novelist:”
“There was a time when aftermath passages were considered essential to a novel. Even today, some fiction instructors preach the pattern of scene-sequel-scene. I do not believe in aftermath…I find that most aftermath is the easiest material in any manuscript to skim. It lacks tension.”
I decided to try it out and see what happens.
The result? I disagree with Maass’s opinion – at least in this case.
The way the scene-sequel-scene pattern works is straight forward.
The Scene is full of action, rising tension, and conflict. It moves the story along with big things happening – things that cause the character to fight for what she believes.
The sequel follows with Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision.
The Reaction is the part that Maass doesn’t like, because he thinks it’s too easy for the tension to sag. Well, I do agree with him on that point, but it doesn’t have to be that way! A clever, talented author (like all of us, right?) can keep the tension high, even in an aftermath.
So, how do we keep the tension high in an aftermath or reaction scene?
Let me show you with this example from my cozy mystery. The setting is a B&B where Emma is working for her Aunt Rose. It is the first day of the season, and the inn is full of guests.
I end one of the early scenes with this disaster:
A man was sleeping on the floor, on his side, facing the wall.
He didn’t move. Was he passed out? Drunk? And why was he in my room?
I circled the sectional thinking I would shake him awake, but when I touched his shoulder he rolled from his side onto his back, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. I leaned over him.
“Are you all right?” I said it again, louder. “Hey, are you all right? Sir?”
That’s when it struck me. He wasn’t asleep.
The challenge is to keep the tension high in the reaction. The next chapter starts with the sequel and Emma’s reaction to the disaster.
“Rose.” I put my hand on her arm. “I have something to tell you.”
As she turned toward me, Sam and Nora came down the stairs dressed as if they were planning to party the night away. Annie and Roger were behind them, their casual clothes a contrast to the other couple’s. Finally, Montgomery descended the stairs, pulling on leather driving gloves.
“Good night, ladies,” he said.
“That’s all of them,” Rose said as Clara joined us. “It was a successful first afternoon, don’t you think?”
“Except for one thing.”
“What’s that, dear?”
I took a deep breath.
“There’s a man in my room. He might be dead. I think.”
The police come, Emma becomes the prime suspect, and the mystery is on its way.
This scene-sequel-scene method won’t work for every genre.
Think of a suspense novel, where the stakes and tension need to be raised in every scene.
Or a romance, where the stakes need to continue to rise, but there also needs to be a scene here and there where the tension is released, and your characters have a chance to fall in love with each other.
But for the cozy mystery (and other stories with a single main character,) this scene-sequel-scene is perfect. The stakes and tension are raised in the scene, the tension remains high in the sequel, then raise again in the next scene.
What do you think? Let us know your favorite method for writing scenes in the comments!
But if dialogue isn’t used well, it can be a liability to your story. A space-filler. Nothing but a word-count booster. We want to avoid useless conversations in our stories at all costs!
Dialogue can be strong, bringing clarity to our characters and our scenes, but dialogue can also be a pitfall.
What are some of the liabilities of dialogue? 1) Dialogue can take the place of action. 2) Dialogue can take the reader and the characters around in aimless circles. 3) Dialogue can stop story progression in its tracks.
...unless we, as authors, take control of those liabilities and use dialogue to help our stories sing.
How can you make sure your dialogue adds to your scene rather than bogs it down?
The trick is to have your character’s goal in the forefront at all times – but this is easier said than done, right? I find it helpful to write out my character’s goal, conflict, and the disaster for each scene before I start writing it and post it on my computer screen, or my desk, or my planner - someplace that keeps it in front of me while I write..
Here’s an example from my Work in Progress, a cozy mystery. Emma, the main character, and sleuth in the story, has discovered a body in her room at the Sweetbriar Inn B&B where she’s working. Her goal is to clear her name, the conflict is that the evidence is against her, and the disaster is that Deputy Cal ends up accusing her of murder.
The deputy at the door buzzed me right through to Cal’s office.
“You must have been expecting me.” I sat in the brown vinyl upholstered chair across the desk from him.
“Becky texted me with your ETA,” he said, sitting behind his desk with the ever-present toothpick firmly in the corner of his mouth. “Can I get you anything? Coffee?”
“No thanks. I have my water with me.” I always carried a bottle of Evian in my bag, a habit left over from traveling in foreign countries on a regular basis.
“Then we’ll get started.”
Cal shuffled through some papers on his desk. He found a blank tablet and a pen, then looked at me.
“For the record, I need your full name and address.”
“Emma Blackwood.” I hesitated. “Do you want my Chicago address, or the inn?”
“The inn is good enough.” He wrote it down, then glanced at me. “What time did the victim arrive at your suite?”
“Victim? Then he really was murdered? I hoped it had been an accident.”
Leaning his elbows on his desk, Cal looked at me. “Ms Blackwood, this is an interview. I ask the questions and you answer them. Understand?”
“It’s Emma.” I squirmed in my seat. “Am I a suspect?”
“Like I said last night, everyone is a suspect at this point.” He drew a circle on his tablet. “How long have you known the victim?”
“I don’t know him. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Then what was he doing in your suite?”
“I don’t know.” And I wasn’t about to begin speculating.
“What time did you leave your room?”
“At seven in the morning.”
He wrote the time inside the circle and drew lines across it as if he was cutting a pie. “You didn’t return at all during the day?”
“We were busy all day getting ready for the guests to arrive.”
He made a note in another pie shape. “What did that entail, exactly?”
I took a deep breath. “I made sure all the beds were made with freshly laundered sheets, and fresh towels and linens were available in every room. I checked to see if the plumbing was working properly and that every room was clean. Then I made sure the common areas were ready to go. In the afternoon I took an inventory of the storeroom and took Rose’s dog for a walk before the first guests arrived.”
“What time was that?”
“Clara was the first, and she arrived just after three o’clock. Rose had picked her up at the airport and brought her to the inn.”
“What time did Rose leave for the airport?”
I thought back. “It was after lunch. Probably around twelve-thirty.”
“Who else was at the inn before the guests arrived?”
“Just Wil.” I remembered the scones. “And Becky must have come by sometime to deliver the scones for afternoon tea, but I didn’t see her.”
“When did Mr. Brill show up?”
“I never saw him.”
“Right.” Cal made another note. “What about the wine glasses?”
“The wine glasses?” An image of two wine glasses on a tray flashed through my memory. “I didn’t see them before you came and we took you upstairs to see the body.”
Cal stared at me, bouncing the end of his pen on his tablet. “They weren’t there when you first discovered the body?”
I shut my eyes. I saw the shoes, the dim room, Tim meowing…
“No, I didn’t see them then. Only when you came back to the room with us, after Wil called you.”
“And how much time passed between finding the body and when Wil called?”
“It was at least half an hour. Maybe closer to forty-five minutes. It seemed like it was forever. I waited until all the guests had left for the evening before I told Rose about the man in my room.”
Cal bounced his pen again.
I shifted in my seat. “Is there something you haven’t told me?”
“After further examination, the coroner determined that Dick Brill’s body was moved post-mortem.”
My head swirled. “What?”
“Somebody moved him after he was dead. Perhaps someone planted his body in your room to throw suspicion on you.” He leaned back in his chair, watching me. “Unless, of course, you’re the one who moved him.”
“Why would I do that?”
“To cover up the fact that a man died in your suite. Maybe you intended to get rid of the body later.”
“But then why would I tell Rose? Why would I have Wil call you?”
He shrugged. “Maybe you got cold feet.”
My stomach churned. I began to wish I hadn’t eaten a second peach muffin.
Cal leaned on his desk again, his dark brown eyes boring into mine.
“Emma, did you murder Dick Brill?”
The biggest advantage to using dialogue is that it adds movement to your scenes – a give and take between the characters that can highlight personalities.
The style of dialogue can add something else to your scene. In the example above, I used a back and forth style with short sentences like bullets. Very little introspection. Tension that rises and falls. This (I hope) keeps the reader involved in the action, present with Emma as she experiences the interview.
I wanted to keep this interview casual, more like a conversation between friends than an interrogation. If I wanted Cal to be an antagonist, I could have made his questions even shorter and have him pound each statement in like a rivet.
In a romance, I tend to use dialogue with more tags, descriptors, and introspection. Here’s an example from “Softly Blows the Bugle,” my October release from Revell. In this genre I use a different kind of scene structure – one that reveals Aaron’s goal (to leave Weaver’s Creek as soon as he can,) his motivation (to escape the memories of the war,) and his conflict (fighting against his own Amish background.) The conflict doesn’t appear until the end of the scene, left out of this excerpt.
Footsteps in the grass behind him. Aaron turned to see Jonas. Ever since they had met in the hospital after one of the many battles in the Siege of Petersburg in October, Jonas had been the one to keep Aaron’s path straight. But it wouldn’t be long before they would go their separate ways. How did he ever come to be friends with a Yankee?
“Are you feeling all right?” Jonas rested his arms on the fence rail next to him.
“You aren’t a medic anymore.”
Jonas gave a soft chuckle. “It has become a habit.” He rolled his shoulders. “It feels good to be home, but . . .”
Aaron let the silence grow between them.
He sighed. “It isn’t what you remembered?”
“It’s still home, but not much has changed. It is as if the war didn’t happen at all.”
“But the war changed you.” Aaron let his mind go back to the angry, fiery young man he had been, hot to kill any Yankee he could find after a scouting party shot Grandpop and left him to die with his blood seeping into the Tennessee land he had loved. “Both of us. War will do that.”
Jonas looked out over the meadow. “You’re right. We’ve both seen things that Katie and my family can’t fathom. And I don’t want to tell them. I don’t want Katie to know how terribly cruel men can be.”
“Do you still think war is wrong?” Aaron looked at his friend. “Your side won. The Confederacy is dead.”
“And the slaves are free.” Jonas bowed his head. “But the cost . . . The cost is so great. I was willing to give my life so others could be free, but when I think of how many others paid the ultimate price, it grieves me.” He passed a hand over his face. “Yes, I believe war is wrong. I pray that our country will never be in another one.”
After a few minutes of silence, Jonas changed the subject.
“What do you think of my family?”
Aaron let a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. “You described each one perfectly. Except your sister Elizabeth. I wouldn’t have been able to choose her out of a crowded hog wallow if I didn’t hear your mama say her name.”
“Elizabeth is different than I remember, but she didn’t spend much time with the family when her husband was alive.”
Aaron leaned on the fence post, easing the weight pressing on his good leg. “She’s a widow?”
“Mamm said Reuben was killed at Vicksburg.”
“I thought you said that the Amish don’t fight.”
“Reuben wasn’t Amish.”
Aaron shifted again to ease his aching leg. Elizabeth was a puzzle, but he wouldn’t be around long enough to sort it out.
In this scene the dialogue is drawn out. Longer sentences, a lot of introspection. This kind of dialogue helps to set the tone for the story.
Even though this dialogue is very different from the scene in my cozy mystery, it still moves the story along. But notice how the dialogue tags and actions make a difference in how the scene reads. As authors, we can use dialogue styles to control the pacing of the story, the mood of the story, and even the genre.
Another use for dialogue in your story is to convey the theme. Not sure what the theme of your book is? Listen to your characters as they speak. Sometimes they'll surprise you by revealing the theme.
One of the best examples of this happening is in this scene from The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien. Even in the movie version, the theme comes through powerfully.
Now it's your turn. Do you enjoy writing dialogue, or does the idea of it turn your brain into oatmeal? How have you used dialogue to your advantage - or how have you seen dialogue used well in a book you've read?
And by the way, "Softly Blows the Bugle" is available for preorder!
Even if you aren't able to order the book at this time, would you do me a favor and put it on your "want to read" list at Goodreads? Here's the link: Goodreads
When Elizabeth Kaufman received the news of her husband's death at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, she felt only relief. She determined that she would never be at the mercy of any man again, even if it meant she would never have a family of her own. Then Aaron Zook comes home with her brother when the war ends two years later. Despite the severity of his injuries, Aaron resolves to move West and leave the pain of the past behind him. He never imagined that the Amish way of life his grandfather had rejected long ago would be so enticing. That, and a certain widow he can't get out of his mind. Yet, even in a simple community, life has a way of getting complicated. Aaron soon finds that while he may have left the battlefield behind, there is another fight he must win--the one for the heart of the woman he loves.Welcome back to the Amish community at Weaver's Creek, where the bonds of family and faith bind up the brokenhearted.
Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here. As part of our Back To Basics series, I’m reprising a post I did here on Seekerville over 10 years ago as a guest - the importance and construction of story scenes
The workhorse of a story is not words, or sentences or even paragraphs – rather it’s the scene. It’s in a scene that we see the key element of any good story - namely relevant change. It is the elements of both relevance and change that makes a scene a scene.
So with that in mind I’d like to discuss eight elements I believe comprise the checklist for an effective scene:
For purposes of this discussion, let’s imagine we’re working on a scene where our heroine, Deanna Deeva, is recently divorced. She’s struggling with what impact the label of divorcée will have on her social standing. She’s been invited to a party hosted by a longtime acquaintance and the scene opens when Deanna arrives and parks her car.
1. In an effective scene - something happens The ‘something’ doesn’t have to be remarkable - it can be as simple as a single activity or as complex as several dozen story beats rolled together.
For instance, in our scene with Deanna Deeva, if the scene revolves around her fear of going out in public again, the ‘beats’ to this scene might stop with her making the decision to leave her car and walk up to the front door. The party itself may be transitioned over entirely since in this case it was her decision to actually join the party that was important to the story and to showing some aspect of her character.
On the other hand, if the thrust of the scene is to show how she handles being out among her friends, the scene could be composed of a number of beats - arriving at the party, a few awkward conversations, perhaps an overheard catty comment, catching the eye of an intriguing-looking gentleman, and the unexpected arrival of the ‘other woman’.
2. An effective scene should have a focus or goal In other words, our character(s) will strive to achieve something. Note, the author needs to look at this on two very different levels: One, is to view it from the character’s perspective - what does the character hope to accomplish during the course of this scene? The second is the reader perspective. What do you as the author want the reader to come away from this scene with? In our scene with Deanna Deeva, the character’s goal might be to prove to herself that her social standing was not adversely affected by the divorce. The author’s goal for the reader, however, may be to deepen her understanding of some aspect of Deanna’s character, either a strength or a weakness.
3. An effective scene should elicit a reaction A well-crafted scene will evoke emotion of some sort, both in the characters on the page and in the reader. Note, these won’t necessarily be the same emotions. Again, in our previous scene with Deanna Deeva, depending on how the author plays it out, the reaction of our focal character could be one of mortification, determination, depression, irritation, or even victory. On the other hand, the reaction of the reader might be one of sympathy, amusement or even annoyance. A good writer will choreograph her scene to tease the emotions she wants from both the characters and the readers.
4. An effective scene will have a story purpose The whole crux of your scene’s reason for being is to move the story forward in some fashion. There are many different kinds of scenes - fight scenes, flashbacks, love scenes, opening scenes, turning points, climactic scenes - but no matter the type, a scene must have some effect on the focal character or overall storyline . Something necessary to the story as a whole must be contained within the scene to warrant its existence, otherwise it should be rewritten or ruthlessly cut. In order to pull its weight effectively your scene should Ideally perform at least two story functions - three or four would be better.
5. An effective scene should have structure • As in a full-blown story, each scene must have a well-defined beginning, middle and end. It’s a mini-story of sorts - there is an inciting incident, a series of actions or beats, and then a resolution that tells us we’ve extracted everything we can from this particular scene. However, with the exception of the final scenes, the scene resolution does leave some unanswered questions, some loose ends that nudge the reader into the subsequent scenes to try to find the answers.
6. A scene should show logical, believable progression The scenes should flow one from the other, sculpting and shaping your story in an aesthetically satisfying way that is entertaining and relevant. Since scenes are the building blocks of your story, they must be carefully placed and arranged with every other scene in order to construct a pleasing, functional whole. Each scene builds on the one that came before and leads to the next - enhancing, changing, or redirecting your through line in some way, either subtly or forcefully - always pushing inexorably forward to the story’s resolution.
CAUTION: Logical doesn’t mean predictable, but given what the reader knows about the characters and the situation, it must be a believable next step.
7. A scene should have a mood or attitude This is the underlying emotion in your story. Is it comedic, solemn, dark, light? Are there underlying urges or desires that drive your characters? These will play into your scene in subtle or overt ways, coloring the actions and goals, informing the responses of both the characters and the reader. Again, using our scene with Deanna Deeva at the party, even using the same action beats in the scene, they will play out very differently in a romantic comedy than they would in a romantic suspense or women’s fiction work
8. The final element an effective scene must have is the one I’ve mentioned before, the all-important element of change. The change can be big or small, but you should be able to both identify it and see how it moves your storyline forward. This forward motion can come either through revelation or a relevant honing of character, world or plot. Deanna Deeva, or her situation, must be different at the end of the scene than she/it was at the beginning.
Again, if something doesn’t change, then no matter how lyrical and elegantly crafted, no matter how invested you as a writer are in it, the scene must be ruthlessly deleted.
One final thought - the clearest test of a scene’s effectiveness is to use what Raymond Obstfeld, in his book “Crafting Scenes”, calls the so-what factor. When you finish reading over your scene, ask yourself “so what?” Is this scene necessary? If you remove it will it actually affect the outcome of the story ? Does it fit with the scene before and the one after? Did something change? Was it significant enough for its own scene or could the key points be folded in one of the neighboring scenes? If you answer those questions it will become obvious whether or not you've nailed the scene.
For a chance to win a copy of any book from my backlist, Including the new 2-in-1 re-release below, please leave a comment.
Regina Nash must marry one of the men her grandfather has chosen for her or lose custody of her nephew. But Reggie knows marriage is not for her, so she must persuade them—and Adam Barr, her grandfather’s envoy—that she’d make a thoroughly unsuitable wife. Adam is drawn to the free-spirited photographer, but his job was to make sure Regina chose from the men he escorted to Texas—not marry her himself!
The Bride Next Door
Daisy Johnson is ready to settle in Turnabout, Texas, open a restaurant and perhaps find a husband. Of course, she’d envisioned a man who actually likes her, not someone who offers a marriage of convenience to avoid scandal. Newspaper reporter Everett Fulton may find himself suddenly married, but his dreams of leaving haven’t changed. What Daisy wants—home, family, tenderness—he can’t provide… BOOK LINK