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The Story in the Scene


The Mini-Story that Builds Your Novel

Each scene is a building block to your story. And, each scene is a mini-story with the same components as the main story.

  • A central character
  • An obstacle
  • A setting
  • An emotional arc
  • A beginning, middle, and end

But the scene has one more function:

  • Move the story forward

Pantser or Planner, It Doesn’t Matter
If you are a planner, you can plan out the basic storyline of the scene. As a writer, you know characters do and say unexpected things. You have a basic structure to keep them from going too far from the scene and disrupting the story plan. I’m not saying characters shouldn’t be disruptive within the story, just make sure actions are moving the story forward and not drama for drama’s sake.

Are you a pantser? Then don’t despair. You can review your scene after you write it to check that you have covered the basic scene elements. Some pantsers wait until the first edit to check each scene. Others check the scene and then go on to the next scene.

How to Check Your Scene
As you review the scene check each element to keep your story from going adrift.

Central Character
The central character of the scene doesn’t have to be the protagonist. But you write the scene from the scene’s main character point of view. If you found you have jumped characters you need to edit to keep the scene centered on that main character.

The Obstacle
The obstacle can be as physical as a fight to the death or as mental as trying to solve a problem. At the beginning of the scene the character confronts a problem. By the end of the scene, the character has either solved the problem–won the fight, figured it out–or is defeated. Every scene needs a challenge.

The Setting
The reader needs to know where the character is. Who is in the room? On the field? On the street?

The setting can contribute to the obstacle by challenging the scene’s central character physically or adding and emotion overlay to the action and dialogue.

Worldbuilders need to add the special details around the characters as they speak and act.

The Emotional Arc
As the central character interacts with others through dialogue and action his emotional position changes. Whether she overcomes the obstacle or is defeated, she’ll have an emotional response to the consequences. The emotional arc is the key to keeping readers engaged and turning the page.
The Structure – Beginning, Middle, EndIf you have your central character in a setting that adds to the story faced by a challenge, you’re on your way. By the time the character has wrestled the challenge (middle) and either won or lost (end), you walked your scene through the structure.

The Final Evaluation – Move The Story Forward
Once your scene is complete, you need to take a look at how it fits into the overall story. If it’s an info-dump about the story world you’ll need to lighten up by integrating the information into other parts of the story. If it’s a cute scene or a big fight you still need to review how the scene moves the story forward.

If the scene is the best writing you’ve ever done it still needs to move the story along. Every writer learns to put their darlings aside if not outright kill them. You can save expository information to sprinkle in other scenes. Save that adorable scene for another story or give it an impetus to move the overall story toward the conclusion. You’ll need your editor’s hat to make sure the scene is doing the job–moving the story forward.

Want to practice scene writing? What’s happening with that duck in the dark?

Zara Altair

Zara Altair writes mysteries set in Italy under the Ostrogoth King Theodoric. Enter a world in ancient Italy when Roman and Ostrogoth laws made murder a private matter. In a time when murder was not a crime, Argolicus and his tutor Nikolaos help solve crimes when politics and murder collide in a provice far from the King’s court.

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