What makes a good scene? For some writers, the answer to this question comes naturally while others struggle to make a scene come to life. If you fall in the latter category, don’t fret. Scenes have a lot of moving components, and it takes practice, an open mind, and a lot of reworking to make them really shine. But even before we get into practicing the development of a scene, we have to understand what makes a good one.
I personally like to imagine a chess board, with each piece representing a different component of a good scene. On this imaginary board, characters represent the queen as they are arguably the most dynamic part of a scene, especially since they are often driving it (albeit setting can be driving force in its own right). Characters in their uniqueness shape a scene often in unforeseen ways much like the queen, which can move in pretty much every direction on the chess board. However, characters can’t hold together a scene by themselves. Relying solely on characters, particularly on characters’ dialogue, can lead to a bland scene filled solely with talking heads. Whatever you do, avoid having talking heads or hobos in outer space.
To avoid those pitfalls, you need to wisely employ your other pieces on the board, namely your knights and bishops. In this analogy, knights, with their odd “L” shape maneuvers, and bishops, with their diagonal movements, are further extensions of your characters. Respectively, they stand in for characters’ actions and emotions, and they should be deployed when you begin to see paragraphs of dialogue one right after another. Paragraphs of dialogue without anything else will leave your readers bored, maybe even to the point of closing the book. Mixing in action and emotions (both visible and inward) not only breaks up dialogue but adds meaning (sometimes many layers of meaning) and human connection.
We’ll start first with knights/action. Character action is invaluable for spicing up dialogue and adding life to any scene. Like knights, humans are seldom still. We are twitching, gesturing with our hands, wheezing, tapping our feet, you name it. Action can punctuate what is being said in the dialogue, either reinforcing the emotions behind it or adding layers of mixed meaning where a character is saying one thing, but their actions are suggesting they feel somewhat differently. Actions interwove with dialogue can also forecast characters’ future actions either later in the scene or much further future, preventing readers from being blindsided or marking up an action as illogical for the character. By using action skillfully, you are also further developing your queen, your characters.
Another reason I equate character actions with knights is because knights can move around other pieces on the chess board. Which brings us to another important thing to do when incorporating actions: Have your characters interact with their environment! So many writers do not take advantage of this; instead, they often settle for dumping paragraphs of description at the very beginning of a scene and then consider that part of their work done. This is a big failure. Something as simple as a character lifting up a lamp, fumbling through a cluttered, hoarder-esque room, or resting against a brick building’s facade can spread out descriptions while also grounding your scene in a place, preventing the hobos in outer space feeling.
Now lets transition to bishops/emotions. Bishops move in an orderly diagonal fashion, and for whatever reason in a game of chess, they can be forgotten or not noticed until they are taking one of your pieces. In fiction when you are not properly relaying emotions, you can frustrate readers since some characters’ actions might appear to happen without reason (however, an emotional explosion is acceptable when done right). For that reason be orderly with your bishops and convey emotion within your scenes. This, however, doesn’t mean telling readers that a character is sad or angry. Rather chose to show their emotions most of the time. Showing can be done in a variety of ways: how characters are viewing or interacting with their setting, how they are talking, what they are outwardly doing, or even what is happening physically or mentally on the inside of your characters. Thoughts are another way to do this, but use them in moderation because like dialogue, or any other component used too much, it can become cumbersome.
We’ve already touched on the pawns, or setting, in both the action and emotion section; however, I cannot stress enough the importance of propagating your settings in order to ground a scene. Setting might seem like a back burner component of a scene (much like a pawn), but it can become a character in its own right, and if done right, your book will figuratively breathe for your readers. Develop setting not only through sight, but through touch, sound, smell, and taste. Just like with pawns, use setting strategically. Spread setting elements throughout a scene rather than clumping them at the beginning and/or end. Don’t develop tunnel vision with your setting, remember the greater world outside of your character, especially if the scene is taking part in a large setting like a city where your character will be surrounded by all sorts of sensory information. Finally, use setting to your advantage and have it influence your character or vice versa — do not have characters and setting neatly separated with a neat “no crossover” fence between them.
As for castles or rooks, they are a more technical aspect of scene construction. Rooks with their straight-line movements–along the rank or file–are a combination of plot, order, and flow. Scenes need to have logic with a solid flow from point A to point B. Actions within a scene need to be inline with a character and their emotions. I have read countless scenes from fledgling writers where actions (often very extreme) make absolutely no sense within the context of a scene. Particularly, I will see disconnects between what a character is saying or thinking and then what they are actually doing. This disconnect is often a result of pieces being missing, or a writer depending too much on telling rather than showing.
Another aspect of the rooks of scene building is plot. Your scenes need to have some value to the overarching story or plot. This requires honesty with yourself because sometimes a scene just needs to be cut because it brings nothing to the table. Additionally, a scene might be framed wrong. By this I mean, a writer might be summarizing something that should actually be a scene while elaborating on something that would be better off as a brief paragraph or two of exposition. This can be a tough call as writers are often too close to their work. For this reason, find alpha or beta readers and then find an editor.
And the king? The king is cohesion, that moment when all the parts of a scene come together in perfect or pretty darn close. By using all of your pieces effectively, you are protecting the cohesion of the overall scene and story, your king. If cohesion is off in your scene, retool it, play around with it, or scrap it and start from scratch. Whatever you do, don’t leave your king in check because no one is going to want to read your book if you do.
Next week I will be diving further into the actual process of using all of these “pieces,” using bits of my work. If you have a trouble scene that you would like to have workshopped at no charge (and you aren’t shy), I hope show a further breakdown on scene building right here on my blog the week of Jan. 1. Plans might be pushed back as I have an impending gallbladder surgery.