As writers, we all know that books are made up of a bunch of scenes strung together to make a chapter, and a bunch of chapters strung together to make a story. But how, exactly, do you plan a scene? How do you make sure that the scene you’re writing is engaging, interesting, and necessary?
Easy – a scene should make the story go.
I’m not talking ‘pedal to the metal’ here, of course. The go-juice doesn’t have to be fast-go. It just needs to be forward-momentum-of-any-sort-go. (Though sometimes fast-go-juice is necessary, equally necessary are moments of go-ing with slow-go-juice, too.)
If you imagine the materials from which you’ll build a scene as a stack of wood and nails, then what you want to be building with each scene is a ladder to the next peak of the plot mountain; not an observation deck that is very pretty but ultimately useless at getting readers to the next moment of the book.
To that end, when you’re writing a scene, ask yourself what go-ing you intend to achieve with it. Does this scene progress one of three things: the plot, the understanding of the reader, or the character journey?
Good scenes will add some go to all three things in one, if you can manage it.
What do I mean by progressing? This is when some circumstance or someone changes within the action and dialogue of the scene, which propels the narrative forward toward the conclusion. So ask yourself:
Does this scene progress the…
-Something is confessed
-Something is lied about
-Something is discovered
-Something is revealed
-Something is established
-Something is hidden or covered up
-Something is retrieved, taken away, stolen, or goes missing
-New information is shared
-An action sequence, disaster, tragedy, physical or verbal fight, etc. forces any of the above
…the character journey?
-Makes a choice
-Makes a confession
-Makes a realization
-Learns new information
-Refuses or denies a truth
-Adjusts world view / beliefs
-Learns something about themselves
…understanding of the reader?
-Character is established
-Secret revealed, or clues for later understanding and revelations planted
-Scene is set
-History, backstory, or necessary information is explained
These are all really big-thought and vague concepts to explain, so let’s break it down with an example, shall we? Let’s say we have a scene where an ace pilot has been shot down by her arch nemesis and captured when her aircraft crashed. She’s wondering where the other person in her aircraft is, and at the same time, wants to find out why her arch nemesis only shoots down craft that are already damaged and close to the ground:
Once she was sure she could speak again without her voice shaking, she said softly, “Let me up.”
“Your mid-flight,” the Coyote replied in near-perfect Saskwyan. It wasn’t a question. His voice was low still. Soft. Almost as if he wished to comfort her, which was ridiculous. She must have hit her head harder than she thought. “You do not want to see him.”
“The hells I don’t!” Robin snarled and got her hands around the Coyote’s foot. She twisted, trying to wrench his ankle and lever him to the ground. But he just shifted forward, putting more pressure on her ribs. Robin spasmed and let go, the agony making stars pop behind her eyes and her fingers twitch. Oh yes, humans can be hurt, all right. And boy did she hurt.
“Trust me, you do not,” the Coyote insisted. “It is not what I would want to keep as the final memory of a trusted colleague.”
Another gasping, panicked gurgling scream echoed through the forest. The Coyote’s silver helmet turned toward it, betraying the direction Al was in.
“What have you done to him?” Robin hissed. She didn’t want to obey his orders, but there was something in the way he’d warned her to not let the other soldiers see her move, hear her speak, something in the way the Coyote was talking through tight lips, as if he didn’t want to be caught either, that worried her.
“I did nothing.”
“You shoot down gliders—you steal the bodies.”
There was a sound that might have been laughter if it hadn’t been distorted by the helmet. “Theft! No, my dear Miss Pilot. Prisoners. Those who live, anyway.”
Prisoners, Robin repeated to herself. She couldn’t hold back the shudder at the thoughts that phrase produced. Every hair on Robin’s body leapt up as a chill settled over her flesh.
Fear curdled in her stomach. “What do you intend to do to me?”
“Do to you?” the Coyote said, and a smile lit what little was visible of his face. “My dear, what do you fear I will do?”
She wasn’t going to fall for that. If she told him what she feared, he might make it come true. “If you take them prisoner, why don’t we know? You haven’t ransomed anyone back,” she said instead, wishing desperately for water and forcing herself to speak through the cracking, anyway.
“I have no desire to give them up,” the Coyote replied. “I keep them.”
“For how long?” Robin asked, unable to raise her voice louder than a fearful whisper.
“For as long as I am allowed,” he said, and there was a sad gravity to the pronouncement that was confusing. “Just as I will keep you.”
Fear spiked again in Robin’s chest, throbbing along in time with her ribs. “You’ll never be able to keep me.”
The helmet angled down, and through the visor slits, Robin saw a pair of light gray eyes narrow. The Coyote huffed an annoyed snort. “Persistent and mouthy. Be advised that it is only because you were once a mid-flight that your life has been spared this day. Otherwise, you would be dead as any other Saskwyan pilot I run to ground. It is not their kind that I seek to hold.”
He leaned back slightly, turning his attention to the soldier on the other side of her, and snapped out something in guttural Klonnish. The other man nodded sharply and moved closer to Robin, one hand going to the pistol sheathed on his thigh holster. The Coyote removed his foot, and Robin took that as permission to be seen to be alive. She sat up so slowly, being as gentle as possible with her ribs, breathing shallowly. When she tucked her knees up, her ankle screamed in protest and she had to clamp her lips around a grunt.
Broken? she thought. No. But sprained, at least. And badly. Rudding hells.
Neither the Coyote nor the guard moved against her as she tried to stand, and so, Robin pushed herself to her feet, taking a moment to close her eyes and swallow against the pain. She wasn’t going to show them any weakness.
She lifted her head to squint through the shadows at the others in the distance. “I want to go to him,” she said. “He’s alive.”
The Coyote cocked his head to one side, eyes narrowing. “How compassionate you are. No worry for yourself? You are, after all, surrounded by the enemy.”
She rubbed the place where his heel had dug into her flesh, trying to work some feeling back into the already forming bruises. Carefully, she put weight on her ankle. Knives shot up her calf, but her ankle didn’t buckle beneath her. She forced herself to ignore the pain and rose onto the balls of her feet, preparing to run if need be.
“I’m not scared of you,” she said, puffing up her chest and trying to feel half as calm and assured as she sounded.
“Yet you turned tail before the battle was properly joined and fled.”
Robin grimaced, and decided there was no point in lying to him. After all, she didn’t want him to think her downfall was in any way his doing. She did have some pride. “My steering column was sabotaged. Garrote wire, is my guess.”
The Coyote sighed, like an overindulgent instructor. “I would call it a shame that the Saskwyans are so fond of building their aircraft of canvas and wood, if it did not provide me with such an
“What advantage?” Robin sneered. “You pick off the crippled ships. You would never have downed me otherwise. And my flying style has your men baffled. You get outclassed by a healthy
glider every time.”
“Not for much longer,” the Coyote said lightly. He turned his helmet up to the sky, as if he too yearned for it the way Robin did.
Robin waited for him to explain what he meant by that, but he seemed reluctant to furnish his gloat with any sort of details. When the silence drew ominous, she discreetly brushed her shoulders with crossed fingers, just to be sure. But the Coyote caught the movement from the side of his vision and turned back to her. He reached out with one black-gloved hand, slowly enough that it was clear he didn’t mean to strike her. Robin cringed, but stayed still. All he did was brush the side of one thumb along her cheek and up her temple.
“This has healed nicely,” the Coyote said softly, almost to himself. Ever so slowly, he reached out and grasped her wrist firmly. His fingers were wiry and strong, and Robin would have had to allow him to break her wrist to keep him from turning it palm up. He stripped off his glove with his teeth, and then, black leather dangling from his mouth, brushed his fingers gently across the telltale circular markings that stood out against her palm. They were red and swollen from her fight to control the glider’s doomed nosedive, overlapping the other, deeper cuts and puffy white ridges of scars. “And these, as well. What an interesting new development. Since when are Sealies the pilots of Benne gliders?”
“I’m not a pilot,” Robin said, the lie flowing out immediately, reflexively. That was something else her instructors had drilled into her head—never appear to be as valuable to the enemy as you are. Her capelet was nowhere in sight, and she had a vague recollection of it being ripped from around her throat by the crackling branches she had fallen through.
“I have watched you, my dear. I know your face, and I know your flying style. Your warding against ill-luck betrays you,” he said, in a softly mocking tone that she would have called flirting if it didn’t sound so wrong coming from him, here and now. His fingers continued to stroke her palm. “You are certainly a Sealie. So, I ask again—since when do Sealies pilot Benne gliders?”
“But I’m not!” Robin protested. She’d heard the stories of what happened to glider pilots captured by the enemy. If losing a thumb to a Pyrian guard was horrific, the thought of having both her hands cut off by a crazed Klonn general made her woozy. She yanked her arm back, hard, but the Coyote didn’t let go.
“Please, do not lie to me, my dear,” the Coyote said, gently chiding. “I will not allow you to begin this on a lie. You are the mid-flight who kicked my ’ship in the middle of an areal battle. I know your face, even without the goggles.”
Robin’s heart seemed about ready to stop. She bit her tongue and refused him the pleasure of an answer. She could be a stubborn bastard, too.
“You are an engineering sergeant, or you were, before they promoted you. Do not bother denying it. And you have all the skills of a mid-flight.” It wasn’t a question, but this time, his steely gaze compelled Robin to answer.
“I was. I do.”
“Good,” the Coyote said. “Then you shall be spared.”
“What? Why?” Robin blurted, and then immediately wished the words back.
“Would you prefer that we did not?”
He leaned in close, hauling her body nearly flush against his own, and bent down to her ear. The cold nose of his mask brushed against the fine hair at the nape of her neck, and she shivered. His breath smelled like apples, and made goosebumps pop up all along her skin. His voice, when he spoke, was low and husky with gravel. “Then kindly be silent while I attempt to save your life.”
Okay! So, what has progressed in this scene?
Plot – The plot is clipping along in this scene, which is a bridge between an action sequence (the areal dog fight) and some tense spycraft in the next few chapters. Robin and Al have been shot down, Al is in a bad way, and the Coyote and his soldiers have captured Robin. We’re moving swiftly towards the next part of the plot, where Robin is a POW and has to figure out where the Coyote’s loyalties lay.
Character – Robin has learned some truths, and had some revelations, and has had to adjust her world view: now she knows that the Coyote has been watching her, and that, for some reason, he seems to be behaving tenderly towards her, even though they’re enemies. She’s also worried for Al, and is realizing that she’s not about to be killed by the Coyote, but captured and ‘kept’ by him, whatever that means. This will push against Robin’s stubborn pride. She’s also panicking and admitting things that she shouldn’t be to the enemy, which will absolutely come back and bite her later. In terms of the Coyote’s character, Robin is realizing for the first time that he might not be as horrible as she imagined and might not be as loyal to his cause as she thought – we’ve learned a truth about him.
Reader Understanding – The readers learn some truths and adjusted their understanding of the situation alongside Robin, have learned the truth about what happens to the bodies, and the Coyote’s true character. As well, they’re getting a clearer picture of just how strong and stubborn Robin is.
I hope this makes it clearer. Please feel free to leave me questions and comments if it doesn’t.
Also – remember that if you’re working on a scene and you, the writer are bored, this may be an indication that the scene isn’t progressing anything. Or worse, is superfluous. If it doesn’t progress anything (or if what it does progress can be done more quickly, and more efficiently in another scene earlier or later – like with a throwaway line or a backstory reveal) then you can likely cut the scene and save yourself the trouble of writing it. And of your audience getting bored by reading it.
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Excerpt from The Skylark’s Song, by J.M. Frey (REUTS Publications, 2018)