If the thought of writing a novel freaks you out, first, know you’re not alone. Second, this seemingly huge task is not as overwhelming as you think it is.
Sure, you have to come up with characters, plot lines, unique ideas, master show, don’t tell, and learn how to use commas properly. And it could take months or even years to write all the words you’ll need to tell the story, but it can be done. How? By writing scene-by-scene.
Breaking your novel into smaller sections of work is Productivity 101 and will allow you to concentrate on just one specific scene and not think about what else you have to do to get your book written. That’s my first tip for a great scene. For the rest, keep reading…
Writing Tips For Great Scenes
Know What Kind Of Scene It Needs To Be
As a general rule:
- The opening scenes need to introduce the world and the main characters.
- The middle scenes need to raise the stakes.
- The end scenes need to be climactic and offer resolutions.
Obviously, there are exceptions, but these rules will serve you well for a basis of where to start. As for tying up loose ends or ending your book neatly or on a cliffhanger, this depends on the genre and if your book is a stand-alone or a series.
Knowing the opening scenes are for introductions, the middle for setting the stakes, and the end for everything coming to a head/resolution will help you plan what you need to write.
Advance The Plot
If you’ve studied writing or read any How To Write books, you’ll recognize this piece of key-yet-vague advice.
Every scene you write needs to advance the plot by keeping the story moving and getting your characters where they need to be for the climax. If you have a scene that doesn’t do that, no matter how beautifully written it is, cut it. Kill the darling and rewrite the scene so it advances your story. The only exception is the next tip…
Reveal Character Insights
Delving deeper than the character intros are scenes that reveal insights about them.
What motivates your characters? Why do they act the way they do? What makes them tick? Scenes that reveal these nuggets of info and more will give your characters depth and a way for the reader to connect. You can write scenes just on character insights/developments by themselves, or combine them with plot-advancing scenes to give the reader a real one-two punch.
Start. Middle. End
Just like the story structure you were taught in school, try to give each scene a start, middle, and end. That start could be right in the middle of a battle with the swing of an axe at the MC’s head, escalating to a middle of back and forth fighting, before hitting the end where the attacker is defeated. It could also be a character waking up, getting ready for their day, and walking out the door (or something more creative than what I can come up with right now). Start. Middle. End.
This can be an inner conflict, such as a character at war with themselves, or outer conflict when forces are against them. Conflict can also be as big as the MC being betrayed, or as small as trying to decide between tea or coffee (#TeamTea). But if you go with a small conflict, combine it with a character insight or plot advancement, such as the MC being conflicted about their choice of hot beverage because coffee reminds them of a lost loved one (and coffee is gross). A small conflict should still mean something for either your plot or your character or else it won’t add anything to your scene.
Tension goes hand in hand with conflict and introduces whatever will create worry, anxiety, fear or stress. It’s stringing out a conversation between characters that hints at secrets but doesn’t reveal them until one final line of dialogue leaves your MC reeling and the reader on edge. Pair it with your character insights and advancing plot.
What can the character see, hear, smell, touch, taste? Give the readers a sense of time and place. If the character is in a coffee shop, fill the scene with rich aromas, the bustle of customers, the hiss of steaming froth, the whirl of blenders. Is it morning? Is it a cold night and the MC is shivering at the thought of going outside in the dark without a warm cup in their hand? Wherever your scene is set, make it feel real by using the five senses, time, and place.
Some scenes, such as a brief setting description or a lone character and their internal thoughts, don’t require dialogue. If it’s a long scene or involves multiple characters you’ll want to add some in. Dialogue that is distinct, snappy, advances the plot or shows character insight is worth having in as many scenes as you can. Use it for tension and conflict and don’t forget to add in action beats so the scene isn’t just sentences and sentences of talking.
Another one of those “golden rules” of writing is to make sure your character has a goal. It’s important to the overall story, but it can also work in your scenes. Even if all your character is trying to achieve is a simple goal of getting a sandwich for lunch, it will give the scene purpose, take them to different locations, and have them interact with other characters. If each scene has one small or large goal, you’re giving the reader something to root for.
This is my favorite way to end a scene or chapter. You can go full-on big cliffhanger (it was the evil twin! Or if you’ve seen A Simple Favor (spoiler alert)—they were triplets!). Your cliffhanger could be a single line of dialogue or the dramatic shutting of a door. Whatever it is, make it something that will force the reader to turn the page. That’s how you write a book someone can’t put down.
So there you have some tips for writing great scenes. Mix them together, spread them out across your book, get them down to a fine art. You won’t add every single tip into every single scene (unless you like a challenge and are particularly skilled) but even just one or two can craft a passage worth reading. Before you know it, you’ll have that book written and will see it wasn’t as overwhelming as you thought. That comes later—when you start to edit.
Are you #TeamCoffee or #TeamTea? Let me know in the comments.
— K.M. Allan