make every scene count

favourite scenes (1/?): you DO NOT mess with a pirate's lemons
Make Every Scene Count: Environment and Pace

Environment should always play an important role when building a scene, but it is particularly crucial when it comes to setting the pace and mood of each scene. The way you structure the environment and how the characters respond to it can indicate a characters’ unspoken emotions can and even hint at circumstances to come. When building an environment, I think many writers struggle with establishing what to include in the details.

This struggle may stem from the fact that most everything can be used to enhance the atmosphere of a story. Merely describing a warm, sandy beach allows the reader to picture the place. Showing the effects the weather has can make that picture even clearer. But having your characters react to that environment and describing intricate details about the space can really bring the environment to life. So here are some things you can focus your attention on.

Lighting. It’s easy to establish whether it’s day or night during a scene. However, writers often forget some of the other effects that time of day can bring. For instance, if it’s night, is there a full moon, a partial moon, or no moon visible at all? Different moon phases affect the light reflected off it, thereby altering shadows as well. Certainty of what one can see in the surrounding area depends strongly on lighting, and characters’ (as well as readers’) speculations about it can change when an environment is dark or dimly lit. Keep in mind how the lighting of any given scene might affect surrounding objects and characters, and use it to your advantage; describe physical features of characters and/or objects using these changes.

Time of day/Day of the week. Time isn’t something writers always focus on in great detail for scenes, but it does have a direct effect on the environment and can help establish one. During rush hour on a weekday, for example, there would be much more traffic (and background noise) on a main street than there would be on the weekend. On the other hand, a place like a mall might experience more crowds on the weekend rather than a weekday, especially if it’s a holiday. Take time of day and day of the week into consideration when it comes to the surroundings during a particular scene. You might be surprised how it can change the outcome of your characters’ actions or responses to one another. It might even introduce unforeseen conflict.

Reaction of the characters. Believe it or not, even dialogue and body language can help build the environment and pace of a scene. How you respond to the things around you can indicate quite a bit about what is going on. Shivering for instance, indicates the temperature might be chilly. Fidgeting and darting eyes show nervousness, a clear sign that something bad has happened or is about to happen. And short, choppy dialogue can indicate action, conflict, and emergency situations, adding to the pace already established by body language. If you’re not sure what body language to use to convey specific emotions, check out the book The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It gives a wide range of actions that characters can perform to express emotions without dialogue.

Senses. In any given environment, there will be smells, sounds, textures, tastes, and a sense of temperature. You don’t need to describe every one of these for every scene you write, but providing as much detail as you can, particularly for new or unfamiliar objects/places, can really enhance the scene. An old building holds far different features than a new one, and a busy city has a far different kind of background noise than your typical suburb does.

Nature. For the most part, writing in a few descriptions about the weather is easy. It’s one of the first things a writer learns to incorporate into his/her writing as part of the environment. What is easy to forget is the rest of nature, especially the living parts. If you’re writing a story that takes place in an existing geographic location, research the plant and animal life in the area. Find out what types of plants grow there and during what time of year. Find out what animals are natural inhabitants of the land (and water). One of the biggest complaints I hear from people when a book is written about a city they are familiar with is that the writer got the environment wrong. They mention animals, plants, and sounds that aren’t really prominent there, or they get the overall sense of culture wrong. If you’re picking a place you’re unfamiliar with, make sure you know what you’re talking before tackling the project of its environment.

Foreign objects or material. New and unusual objects are sure things to take note of. The technique of describing an object in detail is also effective for noting red herrings giving hints about later plot points. If the object is something a character comes in contact with, describe the texture and temperature of the object as well as its shape, size, and color.

My overall advice about establishing environment and pace is to include as much detail as possible in your first draft. It’s much easier to remove things later than it is to add them in.

  • me: the skam team really knows how to make every second of an episode count. every scene was so calculated and every visual and audio made perfect sense. they were able to convey so much in 18 minutes. i've never seen something so precisely executed. all the admiration. well done, skam.
Make Every Scene Count: The Magician's Rule and Narration

If you’ve ever dabbled in magic tricks or have a friend who has, you might have heard about the simple magician’s rule, “Only let them see what you want them to see.” The truth is, that rule is not limited to magic tricks. Writers use that tool daily. To write a good book, the author must tell a specific story without revealing the secrets of the developing plot. In other words, they must pick the point of view and narration that best conveys the story they want told. The best method for telling the story depends on the genre of the story and the point the author is trying to make. You can have two identical copies of the same plot, characters, and setting, but the second you choose a different point of view or narrative style, a new story is born. So what is the deal with all these different methods, and how are they best utilized?

First Person
First person is probably the easiest point of view to write and is common with stories relying heavily on emotion. In this point of view, a character in the story becomes the narrator, and everything is seen through his/her eyes. The reader is shown the character’s emotions, opinions, and life events, making the story rather subjective. As such, using this type of narration leaves the author open to purposely lead the reader astray. For this reason, first person narrators are not always trustworthy. This point of view is handy for writing intimate stories, such as mysteries or romance novels.

Keep reading

Make Every Scene Count: Action and Conflict

Action scenes are a crucial part of narration in a story. They aren’t always sword fights or full-fledged battles, but regardless, the nuts and bolts matter. Whether the scene is a small plot point in the story arc or a large one, the craft of writing one should be done with care; action scenes can be tricky. So my advice is to focus on two main areas when getting down to the nitty-gritty: the writing structure itself and the minute details that make up the structure. Each contributes to the scene to make it more intense and realistic.

Writing Structure
First, pick up the pace. Use shorter dialogue and sentences to move things along. However, try to harmonize this with natural flow and keep things in “real time.” By that, I mean describe the actions of each passing minute. A greater abundance of details in those short sentences lets the reader know that this scene is an important one that will likely have a long-term affect on the plot. Another trick to speeding things up is to make your characters react with their gut more than their brain; the act of deciding quickly without dwelling on future consequences brings a sense of urgency to the scene.

Action scenes are one of the few places where readers really expect and appreciate extra tension and big reactions. In other words, drama. Drama is one of those touchy elements that I’m not overly fond of personally. Too much drama throughout a book can be rather annoying, and it tends to make the book less believable. However, when paired with a specific action scene, drama has the power to intensify the situation and increase the reaction of both characters and readers. Adding unexpected consequences or extra conflict will heighten the drama in the scene and can increase the stakes, making the impending actions of the characters involved pertinent to the outcome of the plot.

Close calls will enhance that drama. They cause characters (and readers) to hold their breath and hope for the best. They can be used to build tension or to introduce new conflict. For instance, if one character is running from another and both have guns, a few near misses will likely be exchanged before someone is hit. But once one of the characters is wounded, the whole dynamic of the chase changes. If the pursuer is injured, the person he is chasing might very well get away, amplifying the stress of the situation and developing the plot further. If the character fleeing is the one injured, the reader will suddenly become tense alongside the character.

Details help polish a well-written action scene. They are the last-minute touch that really dresses up good writing. Strong verbs are one of those details. The stronger the verb, the stronger the action that is conveyed. If you see a weak verb anywhere in an action scene (i.e. went), replace it with a stronger one (i.e. strutted).

The five senses are another great asset. They increase tension and urgency. When a description of those senses comes into play during an action scene, a short wave of slow motion can be perceived. This type of effect is quite simple to achieve in movies but is a bit trickier in writing. Adjectives as well as a few well-placed lengthy sentences can be used to achieve slow motion.

General Tips
If you’re still struggling with perfecting that action scene, try these tips:
1. Act out the scene to get a handle on body movements before writing them.
2. Research any weapons being used in the scene and how they are used.
3. Study other writers, particularly ones that are known for their craft of writing great action scenes.

Overall, use action scenes sparingly and balance them out with other types of scenes. A nice balance of scene descriptions and effective pacing throughout the story can bring an intensity and power to the action scenes.

Make Every Scene Count: Is It a Keeper or a Write Out?

Many times during the writing and editing process, you will find yourself facing the question, “Should I keep this scene or toss it?” It’s important to first determine whether the scene is crucial to a plot. As a professional editor, my advice is generally to cross out any scene that does not propel the plot forward, develop a character, or create further conflict. However, we all have our scenes that hold sentimental value. When confronted with this type of scenario, there are two main options: write out the scene, or adapt it to the plot. The best choice depends on the particular scene.

The following are some questions you can ask yourself when deciding whether to rewrite a scene or scrap it:

1. Does this scene in any way significantly alter the outcome of the plot?
2. Does this scene strain a relationship between two or more characters?
3. Is this scene in line with the personalities of the characters and the overall feel of the book?
4. If there is dialogue involved, does it serve a purpose, and is it in character of those speaking it?
5. Does the scene contain extraneous information that could not be derived from surrounding events alone?
6. Does this scene change the mindset of one or more characters involved in any way?
7. Does this scene resolve any previous conflicts?
8. Does this scene further the complexity of the plot?

“Yes” answers to any of these questions indicates there might be need for the scene and that adaptation of the scene might be best. The more “No” answers you have, the more likely it is that the scene is truly unnecessary and probably should not be kept. The only question that is completely under the discretion of the writer is number eight. While complex plots are intriguing, you will eventually have to draw the line somewhere so you can start solving the issues you’ve introduced. However, it’s totally up to you where to draw that line.

So, is your scene a keeper, or is it a write out?

Make Every Scene Count: Beginning with a Bang

Writing the First Draft
When planning the opening scene for a story, there are two approaches you can take: a direct approach and a subtle approach. The direct approach is the option most writers take. The so-called action of a story begins immediately, and the reader is submersed in the world created by the author, usually alongside the center character(s). The subtle approach, though less often used, can actually be just as effective if executed well. It involves starting with a seemingly normal scene that soon reveals unusual circumstances, objects, etc. A story of this nature is often told in limited omniscient point of view (though not always), starting big and zooming in on a scene.

One you’ve chosen your method, it’s best to get right to the action. And no, that doesn’t mean that you have to start with the stereotypical action scene. As I stated previously, you can choose a rather normal scene with some oddities. The key is to start with a place where the plot is progressing and not with backstory; you can weave backstory in later. Movement should be your focus; as long as the plot is developing, your readers will be interested.

The other thing you want to avoid is commonly occurring scenes for the particular genre you’re writing. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery, don’t feel that you have to riddle the opening scene with death. You could have an investigator studying an almost-closed case where he realizes something is wrong. You could have a convicted felon escape from prison with some inside help. You could have an investigator stumble on to what he thinks is a case only to have it be a bust. The point is, there are numerous ways to tackle a common genre without giving it a typical opening.

If you know the method you want to use and have an idea for a developing plot, there is only one thing left to do: write. The initial writing process is different for everyone. My personal take is to simply write and not overthink things. After all, what is written can always be erased or altered, but what isn’t written won’t always come back to mind later. The downside is that this makes for more editing later. Another technique is to write only what you feel is necessary in the scope of the whole book. This is certainly more difficult to do but reduces the amount of time you’ll have to spend editing later on. Both strategies have their pros and cons.

The Editing Process
Once the first draft of your opening scene is staring you in the face and you’re ready to tackle editing, be prepared to get down to the nitty-gritty. Here are some suggestions you might want to follow as you push through the editing process:

1. Keep an open mind. Yes, your story is your baby, and you probably don’t want anyone bashing it or tearing it apart; however, if you’re really eager to improve your book, know that editing is a must.

2. Get a second (and third or fourth) opinion if you can. Look to someone you trust to be honest. Getting an outsider’s view on your book can prove really useful in catering to your targeted audience.

3. It’s all about details. Details make or break a scene. Quite honestly, they make or break a book. The trick is to provide enough detail to paint a vivid picture but avoid excessive detail that might bore your reader or cause them to discover important plot points prematurely.

4. Only include what is essential to the plot. If a line, paragraph, or scene doesn’t alter the plot or cause it to advance in any way, cut it. A good story is a natural progression of events that are told in a specific and methodical manner. The point of telling each scene should be to propel the plot forward.

5. Cut out any extraneous words. “That” is one of those words that I am guilty of overusing myself. It’s the first word that I look for when weeding through unnecessary parts of my story. Here’s a good rule of thumb about using it: only keep it if it’s essential to the meaning of the sentence. Another example is actions similar to sitting down. It’s obvious that you’re lowering your body when you sit, rending the word down unnecessary.

6. Replace adjective/verb couplings and weak verbs with stronger verbs. Doing so makes for stronger writing and more compelling text.

7. Set goals and deadlines for yourself when editing. Editing is the part of the process that writers typically hate the most. So treat it like you would a deadline at work or school. Set a reasonable goal for what you want to accomplish in a certain time period and stick with it. Have someone hold you accountable if need be. Reward yourself when you meet your goals.

Once you’ve gone through the stages of writing the first draft and editing it, go through the editing process again. And again. And again. And again. Perfecting a book takes time and practice. It’s very unlikely that you’ll end up with the end product you want after only a few edits. A friend of mine (a fantastic writer by the way) is on at least round thirty of edits, and she’s still ironing out kinks. But after reading the revisions she made, I can tell you it was worth it. Her story was transformed from great to phenomenal.

Make Every Scene Count: Introduction

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be making posts for a new series blog of mine, “Make Every Scene Count.” It will cover tips on making each scene you write a better one. The tips are meant to be tools to help you focus on which scenes are important, both in initial drafts and during the editing process. I’ll cover beginning and ending scenes, action scenes, love scenes, and more. The articles will be geared toward fiction writing.

If you have any suggestions for topics to include on scene development, or want to share any helpful articles for writing scenes, please submit them; I’d be glad to share, and of course, include the source. :)