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Monday, November 9, 2015

Starting a Scene: Two Important Questions

One of the most important questions I've learned to ask myself when brainstorming/writing a new scene is,

What am I bringing to this scene?

And then the next important question is,

How can I take advantage of that?

You see, I think all of us consider this on some level, maybe even a subconscious level, because unless you're writing the first scene of your story, your scene is building off the scenes that came before it. You're guiding the reader through a narrative.

But it wasn't until the last year or so that I consciously and actively started asking and considering these questions.

And holy cow, the scenes I've been writing are so much better for it!

I started looking at what emotions, attitudes, opinions, and physical states my characters were bringing to my particular scene. And when I say "bringing" I mean both how they come into the scene and "bringing" as in what they have to add or offer--what they as a character can put on the table. What is it that is interesting about them that I can take advantage of to make the scene more interesting?

I looked at what my setting was bringing to the scene. What did it have to offer?

What was in my setting that could influence my characters or the tone? Where is my plot right now, and what dynamics is it bringing to the story that I can take advantage of for added oomph? How do my characters feel about each other as they are coming into this scene?

You see, scenes don't start out of nowhere, in a void, but I think that's how many new writers approach them. Sure, they think about what's going to happen in a scene, how it plays into the plot, but they don't fully consider all the elements that are being brought to the scene. They don't fully consider all the things laid out on the table.

Every character was doing something before that scene started. He or she is in a particular mood. The setting isn't just a background piece to a conversation, it can be used.

This all started coming into focus for me when I read the book How to Write Fight Scenes. In it, the author talks about how you should use the setting to your advantage, brainstorming how it can influence the fight. How can the setting make the fight more dangerous? Can it start raining so the ground is slick? The author, Rayne Hall, talked about how usually in a fight scene, the participants move to more and more dangerous parts of the setting. And they take advantage of the setting in the fight. For example, they might knock down a bookcase to hinder their enemy.

The author also talks about looking at what your characters bring to the fight, physically and emotionally. Do they have fighting experience? Are they tired already? etc.

In short, she made me start thinking about what was being brought to the scene, instead of just what was in the scene, the here and now.

When we think of what is being brought to the scene, we usually think of things that are important to the main plot, but we should consider multiple elements. We should sometimes consider trivial things.

So now, when I start to brainstorm a scene, not only do I look at the main goals this scene needs to accomplish, but I look at less-important aspects. I ask myself, what is the content of this scene? What kind of dynamics does it allow me to play with? What moods are the character's in? How do they feel about each other right now? What is the setting like? How can it play a role? What minor plots are in play right now? Is there something that happened or was mentioned in a previous scene that I can build off or follow-up now in this scene?

All of these questions will give you ideas on how you can amp up the entertainment or emotional factor of your scene, and in turn, glue your reader to your page.

On Page and Off Page

You can pull what your characters bring to the scene from what has happened in a previous scene, but you can also pull it from something that has happened off page. For example, maybe my protagonist is bringing fatigue into this scene. He could be exhausted from a fight he just had in the last scene, a fight that was important to the story. And showing him to be exhausted in this scene is a follow-up on that.

But, I could also make him exhausted because he stayed up all night binge-watching Netflix, and it's not important to the story, so it happened off page. Off-page things make the story and character feel more real. This character has a life outside the main story line that is effecting an on-page scene.

Usually, you want some of a both. Follow-ups to what happened on and off page.

Maybe the fact he is fatigued in this scene is vital to the plot. Or maybe it isn't. Either way, he's bringing it with him to this scene.

Using What is Brought Appropriately

Now, personally, I don't want to just generate a bunch of information that's worthless for what I'm writing. I don't want a bunch of superfluous stuff clogging up my main story. Things that are generated in this sort of exercise aren't the focus of the scene, they are just a part of the scene. They give us fodder to play with, to make the scene more interesting and entertaining. They are there to help use write great micro-concepts (like I talked about in a post months ago). Less-important and trivial things shouldn't take over the scene's main goals.

Okay, so I generate some ideas for what I'm bringing to the scene. But I don't want them to be thrown into the writing superfluously. So I have to ask, "How can I take advantage of that?"

How can the fact that my character is coming into this scene tired play an interesting part? Can he be so tired that he messes up an important task? Can he be so tired that he falls asleep when he's supposed to be on lookout duty? What about so tired that he says something stupid (for a moment of comedy)?

See, by just having my character bring his fatigue with him to this scene, I've opened up a lot more interesting and entertaining possibilities for that scene. I have more stuff to play with. I can create better micro-concepts. I can create better scenes, on that micro level.

Opening with Summary is not Required

Now, it's important to note that just because my characters, plot, setting, or whatever is bringing something to the scene, doesn't mean I need to start every scene with a summary of what happened before. I don't need to start my scene with a paragraph or two explaining that my character is tired because he stayed up all night watching Netflix. Instead, I make it a part of the scene, and if needed, explain it in passing, briefly. For this example, I would probably only use part of a sentence to say my character was tired from watching a t.v. show. It influences the scene, gives me stuff to play with, but doesn't bog the scene down.

I don't know if I'm stressing this enough, but basically what I'm saying is that these ideas should be helping your pacing by either 1-making the minor parts interesting or 2-making the major parts more dynamic and therefore more interesting. These ideas should never kill your pacing.

A Note on the First Scene

At the starting of this post, I talked about how every scene is building off what came before it, except maybe the first scene. Well, I lied. Kind of. The first scene is building off what came before it too--it's just that what came before it wasn't on the page.

Remember, this tactic isn't just to look at what came before our scene, but what's going to be there that we can use to our advantage. So it totally applies to the first scene.

For example, we might not know what our setting, say a park, was "doing" before our scene, but we know what it brings to the table: slides, grass, swing-sets, splash pads, monkey bars. Can you take advantage of any of those items in your scene? To make your scene stronger or more entertaining?

Even with the meat of the story that you are bringing to the scene, try to explore how you can really take advantage of it to take your scene to the next level. Make every beat interesting.


SO several days ago I got an email from none other than Grammar Girl asking me if she could use one of my blog posts on her podcast. I was super excited! And now it's up. You can check it out here.

Don't forget about my Comic Con giveaway I have going on, along with my blog tour. Please visit the blogs who are having me on as their guest. You can see the schedule on the same post as the giveaway.


  1. Great Ideas. I've gotten better at sitting back and thinking "What is my scene supposed to accomplish?" which has certainly helped my scene writing, but I think I'll be adding your suggestions to my scene analysis too. thanks.

    1. Thanks! Yes, I agree--always important to look at what the scene needs to accomplish, but looking at the other parts at work has helped me a ton. Hope it helps you too!


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