Book Scenes: Four Key Things To Establish

Unless you’re a super-organized planner who stuck to your writing outline religiously, there will come a point during editing when you’ll re-read a scene and have to make sure it includes everything you wanted.

This is my dilemma as I work on my current work in progress. I wrote the draft back in 2017, so opening it again in 2020 meant that not only did I have to familiarize myself with the storyline, but also make changes. My writing style has changed in that time (for what I’m hoping is the better), and as this WIP is the third book in my Blackbirch series, I had to make sure the characters and events line up with the first two now published books.

I’ll admit, having to go through a 63,000 MS which needed a higher word count and a close look at everything had me overwhelmed. It’s such a big job, especially as I knew I’d also be rewriting every paragraph.

That is when being a kind-of-organized-after-everything-is-written planner comes in handy. I’m taking it one scene at a time and making sure my first step is to have the following basics established…

Book Scenes: Four Key Things To Establish

The Character Point Of View

If you’re working with a first-person, single character, this doesn’t really apply. If you’re working with multiple character POVs and/or in third-person, then it does. One of the first things your scene should establish is whose POV it’s coming from.

You might have read books where the author puts the name of the character at the top of the chapter, or you could do what I do, which is to make sure it’s obvious in the opening sentence of the paragraph who the MC/POV of the scene is. This can be achieved through either dialogue or description.

Examples (taken from Blackbirch: The Dark Half):

Description


Kallie fell sideways, her shoulder taking the brunt as the stony surface pressed into her flesh. The rocks also did a number on her temple, the whiplash splintering across her forehead.
    She rolled onto her back, wincing as the ice water filled her clothes. Her head twisted to the side; her view tainted by brunette waves moist with a warm redness that stuck to her skin. She raised chilled fingers to push the strands away.


Dialogue

“That’s him.” Kallie tapped her finger against the foggy glass of the van windshield. “That’s the guy I saw.”
    She kept her eyes on Kered Wheeler as he left the Curvers Rock Security office and there was no doubt in her mind. This was the man her vision showed had energy capable of pulling off an attack like the one in the woods.


In these examples, the POV character, Kallie, is mentioned in the very first sentence of the scene.

The Place/Setting

This basic won’t be relevant for scenes where the setting or place is already known, but if your scene has switched location and is taking place somewhere that hasn’t already been established, then that detail needs to be included.

Again, you could do this with description, dialogue, or even an action beat. One thing I’ve learned from beta feedback is to try and add this info early in the scene to avoid confusion for the reader.

Example (taken from Blackbirch: The Beginning):

Emerging from the dead trees was like shifting from night to day, only it wasn’t the sun’s rays greeting them. What is this? Eve blinked, trying to force her eyes to adjust. She found herself bathed in a light unlike anything she’d seen before. It settled over the illuminated area like a mist, yet showered the dirt and branches it touched with a muted dullness.

In this example, the POV character (Eve) has started the scene by entering a dead section of forest in the Blackbirch woods. The first line establishes that with a simple “dead trees” reference. You can be as detailed or as sparse about the place/setting as you need to be, just as long as it’s clear to the reader where the characters are in the scene.

The Time/Day/Night

Another basic that needs to be addressed if it’s not already known and is relevant to the story is time. This could be if it’s been hours, days, weeks, or years since the last scene, or if it’s day or night.

Example (taken from Blackbirch: The Dark Half):

It’d been hours since he’d gone to meet Kallie. Sarah twisted her bottom lip with her free hand, her gaze flickering between the grandfather clock in the reading area of the store and the bay window. Each ray of orange sunlight imprinting in the pink sunset sky added to her paranoia.

In this example, it’s established that hours had passed from the previous scene and that it’s the end of the day with the nod to the pink sunset. These little details can easily be added with a few words, or a longer descriptive paragraph if it suits.

Not every scene needs to establish the time or if it’s day or night, but it’s a good idea to include these details somewhere in the book to make it realistic and to help the reader work out/keep track of when things are happening.

The Characters

This is probably the easiest key thing to check because it’ll be obvious from character interactions and dialogue.

Knowing which characters are in a scene doesn’t need to be established right away, but try to make it a natural revelation in any given scene. There’s nothing to gain by pulling a reader out of a story because a line of dialogue from side character #3 pops up and it wasn’t properly signaled that they were in the scene.

Example (taken from Blackbirch: The Dark Half):

Josh stepped aside, allowing Kallie to move ahead of him into the lamp-lit living room.
    “Sarah must be home.” He pointed to the brighter lights of the kitchen.
As they got closer to the wide doorway, a murmur of voices floated toward them, carried on the scent of herbs and a burst of hot steam.
    Josh felt the temperature shift as soon as they stepped into the room and sighed. Finally, the chill of the clearing left his bones.
    Grace stood at the stove, dropping pasta into a pot of bubbling water, and it made him question what time it was. She was rarely home early enough to cook.


In this example, we’ve got Josh, Kallie, Sarah, and Grace. Josh is the POV character and Kallie is signaled in the scene by him allowing her to move ahead. Sarah is established by Josh’s dialogue mention of her, and Grace is made known when Josh and Kallie see her in the kitchen. It doesn’t take much to let the reader know which characters to expect in a scene and the info can be slotted in effortlessly.

After establishing these key basics are in your scenes, you can then build on the elements. Take a look at my previous blog post, The Basic Scene Checklist, to give you an idea of what else to look for. It covers things like the five senses, internal thoughts, staging, repeats, dialogue, and punctuation.

Combine it with these four key things when you start to outline a scene, as a revision when you’re stuck, or at the end when you’re editing, and you should write the kinds of scenes that give the reader everything they need to enjoy your book.

— K.M. Allan

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