What is a scene? It is a part of the story that contains action. Each scene in your novel should set up a conflict, preferably one that builds on the previous one, like a series of steps. Step one is the basic story problem. The second step builds on that and ups the ante. The third builds on those two, and so on until you reach the highest step – or climax – of the story.
A scene puts the reader in the here and now. The action unfolds as they read, not in the past, where backstory takes place. Scenes contain setting details so the reader knows where he or she is as well as what is happening. They also contain action that is usually shown through dialogue between two or more characters. A scene contains three parts: goal (something the main character needs or wants), conflict (why s/he can’t have it), and disaster (a new problem as a result of the conflict). Each of these elements is important to a scene. And it’s important to keep upping the ante (the disaster), but remember to give your reader some breathing room too – a sequel.
A sequel also contains three parts – reaction (to something that happened), dilemma, and decision(what to do next). You can think of sequels as standing on the step of the staircase just before you take the next step up. You build the tension and action up, then give the characters a little rest. Let them catch their breaths for a couple of pages, then go back into the action. Sequels contain emotions, retrospection, or analysis. They are where the character has to step back, look at what has happened, and make a decision what to do next.
One thing you don’t want to do is overdo the narration part of a sequel. Though it is introspective, it should not be long or boring. Often authors go into what’s called an “info dump” where they tell the reader what’s going on, what has happened in the past, or what is going to happen. Narration slows the action down, but you don’t want to slow it down so much the reader gets bored and stops reading.
By utilizing scene and sequel, you control the pace of your story. Pacing is the rate at which the story proceeds. In a romance, your hero and heroine need to occasionally get out of bed; in a murder mystery, the detective needs time to look at the clues and figure out his or her next step. Even the characters in an action/adventure novel need a little time to regroup and reload.
There are two important aspects to check when looking at your pacing. One is the use of flashbacks, the second is called an information dump.
A flashback, also known as backstory, is simply the character thinking or talking about something that happened previously, either before the book started or in a previous section of the work. Usually, it is a bit of background information that is necessary either to understand the character or situation. If it shows up on the first page, or even in the first chapter, you may find yourself losing readers. Backstory rarely contains any action or tension. It is information, period.
The transition between the “now” time of the story and the flashback needs to flow smoothly so that the reader isn’t jarred. If possible, use dialogue to introduce or present backstory information. Dialogue keeps the passage more immediate. But be careful you don’t “info dump”.
An information dump is when you’re using dialogue or prose to present information the reader should have in order to understand the character or action. Yes, giving vital information is good. Giving it all at once, in large gulps, isn’t. Go through your story. Do you have long paragraphs of nothing more than explanations? Get rid of them. Break the info up into smaller bites and scatter it through the scene(s). In that way, you’re still giving the reader the information but not a lecture.
Try answering the following questions to see if you’ve got your scene and sequels heading in the right direction:
- What is the event that sets off the rest of the action in the book?
- Where does the story start? Try to start in the middle of the action or with “ordinary world”, but with something happening. If you start too soon with filler, you’ve lost your readers before you’ve hooked them.
- Have you started the first chapter with a bang – something interesting and important that draws the reader on?
- Have you avoided overloading the beginning with back story?
- Will the reader care what happens to the hero/heroine? Why or why not? If the reader doesn’t care, s/he won’t read the book.
- Do the events in each scene lead logically from one to the next, like a chain?
- Is there variety to the scenes?
- What complications have you thrown in to make reaching their goals difficult?
- Where in the book does the reader know the hero/heroine will reach his or her goal? If too soon, you lose readers, if too late, scenes may need to be cut.
- Do you have something important happen every three or four chapters?
- Have you allowed for areas of downtime?
- Have you ended any chapters with someone going to sleep? (not a good thing)
- Have you used enough detail to let the reader know setting, character, events, etc. but not so much as to bore him?
- Do you establish the main character of each scene at the beginning of the scene?
- Have you wrapped up all loose ends by the end of the book without being too predictable?
- If a mystery or suspense, do the clues you’ve given throughout the story support the ending?
- Do you have a catchy or unique title that is appropriate for the story?
- What makes your story unique? What gives it an edge over other stories?
- Do you have more dialogue than narration? Dialogue keeps the reader with the characters.
- When you read your story out loud, are there areas you tend to skip over? If you find them boring, so will your readers.
- Have you varied the length of your sentences? Too many long ones slow down the action and too many short ones lead to choppy reading.
- How much “white space” do you have? If you have areas where paragraphs run a half page or longer, can you break them up? There needs to be a balance between short and long.
- Have your characters played Hamlet? If they are prone to long, windy speeches, break them up. Have something happen while they’re talking.
- Have you devoted the right amount of space relevant to the character’s importance? Major characters get more page space, minor characters get less.
- Does the opening introduce the main characters and setting without being an information dump?
- Are transitions from “now” to “then” (flashbacks) as smooth as possible? Do you make them feel as if they are happening now