We don’t put scenes into a story because ‘something happens’ and we need to make it visible. Well, we do, but that isn’t the primary purpose of a scene.
And until there is a clear reason for a scene, just putting dialogue, description, and interior monologue around something that happens (Joe meets Sally; they kiss) isn’t enough. All fluff, no substance.
The template entries that help me organize a scene in my head are like anchor pieces in a puzzle: once I have them in place, the scene becomes a living entity in my mind, instead of a list of point to hit. All the bits interact, and out comes something new – but connected. It is the raw material the Muse needs. The entries are:
1) Action: What happens in scene
2) Purpose: Why scene is in book
3) [Question: Main question to be answered by scene – see Scene Template Part 1]
4) Reader emotion: Emotion to be evoked in reader
5) Setup – How scene starts
6) FOCUS: PLOT, CHARACTER, or THEME [Description of focus]
7) REVEAL: What of me is in this scene
Action: What happens in this scene? is basic. And usually obvious: there is some nugget of information the reader has to get to move the story forward. Maybe several. The action is paired with the Scene Title, explaining and expanding for me what is the ‘box’ I’m putting around this event. It is pure plot. A list of Scene Actions would be a bare-bones summary of the plot, in sequential order: this happens, and then this happens, and then the other happens.
By labeling it ‘action,’ I also remind myself that people sitting together and quietly talking are risking boring the reader. No matter how well written and how well described it is, a scene where nothing happens is not my aim. Some people might say that literary values would rescue such a scene – and they may be right – but it would bore me to read, and isn’t my style to write.
Purpose: is where I make a deliberate choice: why this scene to advance the goal of the scene’s point of view character? My purpose in choosing this scene – and not some other with the same characters – is that I’ve considered other ways to accomplish the character’s goal, and that the scene I’m electing to write is somehow ‘best.’ I may not articulate the details, but there is a richness and a rightness I hope for when including a particular scene in the book, almost as if I were including a particular story in a given anthology. It FITS. It has connections to the rest of the book. It has RESONANCES.
Reader emotion: is MY goal in the writing: what do I want a reader to FEEL by the end of the scene? What reaction do I want? Do I want the reader to pity the characters – or blame them? Am I trying to create anxiety or peace? I figure I have half a chance to evoke an emotion in a reader IF I know specifically what I’m aiming for – and almost none if I’m writing at random. It makes my word choices – words have nuances, and synonyms are never equivalent – easier. Making my goal explicit instead of fuzzy ultimately means less rewriting: my Muse is given a tool with which to cull the desirable from the generic, to set a tone, to select the right synonym from the Thesaurus (if I can’t find it in my brain). I get the correct word up front – or know it isn’t right yet.
We read fiction, essentially, to have our emotions exercised vicariously. We read to be scared or warmed, worried or self-righteous, to feel pity or disgust or romance, and above all to take risks we wouldn’t dare take in real life – they might get us killed! If taking the reader on a wild ride is the equivalent of entertainment, and I discover that I have six scenes in a row where the best ‘goal’ emotion I can list for the reader is ‘intrigued,’ I’m in big trouble: I am certainly not creating an emotional ride.
And if all I can manage is ‘intrigued’ for how a reader should feel when the scene has been read, I’m not trying hard enough, and I need to get off the soft little emotions and make the reader truly believe bad consequences are in store for my characters. Otherwise, I’m not doing my job.
Setup: there are a large number of ways to start scenes and I need to sort through them and PICK one to ease the reader into this scene. Something logical for a beginning, and different types of beginnings for different scenes. Dialogue? Description? Interior monologue – superficial or deep? What is the first impression I want to give, the hook, that which makes the reader continue on into the rest of the words? Do I need to set the physical scene? Or indicate time has passed? Comedians do this all the time (they are great at giving us tiny stories): “Three men walk into a bar – a priest, a rabbi, and a Scientologist…” and we’re off, expectations high. What is the reader going to need to orient and not feel lost? That’s my setup.
Focus: for the scene, on Plot, Character, or Theme, is not exclusive; a scene can have bits that develop a character at the same time some of the action exposes how the character (or the author) feels about one of the themes evident or intended in the book, but selecting one primary focus – and then alternating them in different scenes – makes sure the finished product isn’t all plot, or the book as a whole isn’t a panegyric to one of its themes. Choosing the focus with awareness can either lead to balance – or The Fountainhead – author’s choice. But it should be deliberate. Writing it down makes me think about it. And gives me a touchstone for when the scene is completed or revised.
Reveal: the final entry in this section of the template, is my own contribution, both to the template and to the story: if writing exposes our deepest secrets and fears, and that makes us better writers, if sitting at the keyboard requires us to ‘open a vein,’ this is where I choose the vein. I may go through later and delete all record of the reveals; in any case, all our stories come from somewhere within ourselves, and not to acknowledge that – and USE it – is leaving in the subconscious something of great power. The Reveal WILL be there – anyone who thinks she can write without telling the world who she is, is fooling herself – but if I write it down, I at least have some chance of controlling HOW the exposure happens.
I’m not sure you could call all of the above necessarily being a plotter vs. a pantser – it doesn’t matter ultimately whether I do this thinking before or after I actually write a scene – but it works for me to do this kind of thinking at SOME point in the process.