How to write scenes (NaNoWriMo Week 1)

Last week I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Yesterday I talked about the five building blocks of a story. Today I’m giving you three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

Every scene needs a goal (the beginning), conflict (the middle), and sequel (the end).

Goal

Your character needs to have overarching goals to push the story forward (download my free goal and backstory worksheet). At the midpoint, he or she will adapt, change, or redirect the Big Goal.

But each scene needs to have a minor goal, a step-stone goal.

These goals need to be external and active to drive the story forward and keep the reader reading.

Introspection is neither external nor active; it’s internal and passive. It belongs at the end of each scene.

Running away from something requires movement and action. However, it’s still passive. Pair it with another, active goal. The character needs to run away from a threat while also running toward something else, or while needing to protect someone else.

The longer your story is, the more of these stepping-stone goals you’ll need.

Conflict

Conflict is the reason your character has to keep making all of these smaller goals.

Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort (external goal) and to have a family of his own (ultimate goal and motivation). So he needs to learn Defense of the Dark Arts. Unfortunately, the Defense of the Dark Arts professors…(this changes per book.)

Ways to come up with new conflicts for each scene

  • Use a template like the above. Main character wants _____, so MC must [scene goal]. Unfortunately, [conflict].
  • Ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it really suck right now if _______?”
  • Someone or something needs to get in the way of your MC’s goal. Pick from the following list.

Types of antagonists

  1. Self—the character’s own fears, problems, or past
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Love interest
  5. Forces of nature
  6. Creatures—e.g. real or fantastical
  7. Society/Circles—e.g. your MC’s neighbors, co-workers, boss, fellow citizens
  8. Establishment—e.g. religion, government, political party, school
  9. Technology
  10. Objects or obstacles
  11. Supernatural or paranormal forces—e.g. fate, gods, or ghosts
  12. Nemeses, villains or bullies

Each move your MC and antagonists make drive the scene.

Sequel

Sequel is the MC’s reaction to an antagonist’s move.

This is where your character gets introspective, faces a dilemma, makes a decision, or learns something new. This is where you can include that passivity.

Knowing your genre will tell you how much time to spend in the sequel. Beta readers and editors will tell you how much is too much.

Think of conflict, goals, and action as pedaling a bike. Sequel is coasting. If your story is going downhill, you’ll coast more than pedaling. Tragedy will include more sequel. The gloom period of your novel (in Act Two, after the Midpoint) will also include more sequel than the Preparation and Problems section.

Ending your scenes

Summary isn’t scene. You can summarize actions of the character over time or location in a paragraph or sentence—in fact, you’ll do that with your entire book when crafting a synopsis—but that doesn’t constitute a scene break.

An example of summary, from the first chapter of The Hunger Games:

We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day when easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have a dozen fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of strawberries. I found the patch a few weeks ago, but Gale had the idea to string up mesh nets around it to keep out the animals.

On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space.

The first twenty pages of The Hunger Games spans places and hours, but Collins doesn’t include a scene break* until the end of the chapter. She finally ends the chapter with a reversal.

A reversal is whenever the direction of your scene changes. If the projection of your book is positive, the overall movement of scene progression will be positive, and reversals will be negative. If you’re writing a tragedy, reversals are positive.

In Chapter One, we have a foreboding sense that The Reaping is going to be an unfortunate event, but Katniss’s progress through the scene is fairly positive.

Then Prim, her sister, is picked to be tribute.

End of chapter.

Include a scene break* whenever your character is going to chase a new stepping-stone goal in a new place or after time has passed.

*an extra line break at the end of the final paragraph, denoted with a # in manuscript format

End your chapter after a new problem or antagonist move, but before the sequel. The reader will start the next chapter to find out the character’s reaction. That’s what a cliffhanger is—an ending that begs for sequel.

The Hunger Games’ first chapter ends with the inciting incident. When Prim gets picked, the chapter ends. Chapter Two starts with Katniss’ reaction. Then her sequel ends, and she acts:

But the scene doesn’t stop there. Peeta is picked. Then Katniss reacts to that. Chapter Two ends referring to a Capital-imposed dilemma that won’t be solved until the end: Would she kill Peeta to save herself? We keep reading until Collins will answer, will sequel, that question.

What will keep your reader reading? Think about that question while writing and revising your story.

Scenes-bike

6 thoughts on “How to write scenes (NaNoWriMo Week 1)

  1. Adventures in YA Publishing says:

    Excellent breakdown. Love the simple suggestions of ensuring a Goal, Conflict, and Sequel for each scene, and paying careful attention to reversals that change the direction of both the scenes and the story. I also like the advice I’ve heard elsewhere, about studying the emotion arc for each scene. The emotions should end in a different place, as well as the action. Otherwise, what’s changed?

    –Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

  2. Lara says:

    Reblogged this on MS Editors and commented:

    In this throwback post from last year’s NaNoWriMo, you’ll learn how to write scenes that make your reader crave more—and will get you excited about writing more!

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