3 Key Tactics for Crafting Powerful Scenes

From Jane Friedman:

It’s one of the things we love most about fiction, the illusion that we’re not just reading a story about this character, we actually are this character.

Brain science tells us that when we read about a character doing or experiencing something, our brains light up in much the same way as if we were doing or experiencing that thing for ourselves—and nowhere is this illusion more complete than in scene.

Scene is where the pace of the story slows to “real time,” and we’re privy to every word, gesture, and sensory detail. Not only does this allow us to inhabit the story in a visceral way, it sends a clear message that what’s happening here is important—important enough that it cannot simply be narrated. Listen, the author is saying. You really just have to experience this for yourself.

Scene is also where the emotions of the story are at their most intense—the place where, to paraphrase Ursula K. Le Guin, the reader leans forward and bites her lip. Scene is the place in the story where we find tears welling up in our eyes, or find ourselves scowling at the antagonist’s unconscionable cruelty.

That’s because, no matter how much the author tells us about the characters, scene is where characters show us who they really are. And in doing so, they’re often unpredictable—which of course only adds to the appeal. When we read scenes where the characters surprise us, we want to keep reading, to see what wild thing they’re going to do next.

Powerful scenes make for powerful stories, and as both a writer and book coach, I’ve found that these are three key tactics for achieving them.

1. Dramatize turning points

To articulate means to give shape or expression to something, such as a theme or concept—it also means to unite by means of a joint. Maybe that’s why dramatizing the turning points of a story, its joints, is one of the strongest ways to give shape and expression to the story as a whole.

Situating scenes at the turning points of your story also ensures that something will actually occur in these scenes, beyond sharing the basic exposition, characterization, and conflicts. Which is to say, situating your scenes this way helps to ensure that there will be a major development within that scene that moves the story forward.

Often, writers have no real intentionality about where they place their scenes, or what work they’ll actually perform for the story. They write scenes to explore a situation or setting, to get a sense for the dynamics between the characters, to explore the conflicts between them—and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially in an early draft.

But powerhouse scenes are made of stronger stuff: they do all of this while also dramatizing the story’s major developments, and articulating its contours as a whole.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

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