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Learn the Proper Scene Elements and Create Unforgettable Scenes

What is a scene?

A scene is a unit of fiction. If you line up related units together, they form a story. If you spend time making sure every element of a scene is present then you’ll write great fiction. Great fiction has something new. It’s the debut thriller you can’t put down. It’s the seasoned pro shoveling loads of tension and originality onto each page. Great fiction is the dream of every writer, which leaves only one truth.

There is no place for waste in a thriller. Every page must push the story forward and keep the reader interested. Readers today are not willing to read through pages of setup and backstory before getting to the suspense of a great thriller. Every scene from page one until the end needs to capture the reader with lots of conflict, dramatic action, and intrigue.

Scan the internet for search terms like, “scene elements” or “how to create a fictional scene” and you’ll find somewhere in the neighborhood of 161,000,000 search results. Amazon has around 1,000 search results for the same search terms.

To save us all some time, I’ve narrowed the list down considerably 😉

The majority of teachings today involving scenes focus on around five to seven elements that need to be present to create an unforgettable scene.

Those being:

  • Time and Place
  • Character Emotional Development
  • Goal
  • Dramatic action
  • Conflict or Suspense
  • Thematic significance

My favorite teaching of how to create a scene is taught by Mike Klaassen in his book Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction.

I’ll paraphrase the elements Klaassen defines, but if you’re struggling with scenes, his book Scenes and Sequels: How to Write Page-Turning Fiction is not only a great book, but it’s easy to understand as well.

Elements of a Scene

Setup  a scene’s setup much like the setup of a novel establishes everything a reader needs to know about that point of the story. There is no filler and only the information critical to that point in time is explained.

The set-up establishes the POV character, setting, including time, the nature of the situation and the defining circumstances the character finds themselves at the point in the story.

An important tip here about the setup of a scene. Klaassen says, when a scene follows a passage with the same setting, character, and situation, no setup may be needed.

Character – obviously a scene needs a character and most importantly a lead character, usually the POV character and the person who is attempting to accomplish a goal. This doesn’t always need to be the hero or villain. It could be a minor character.

Crucible – a crucible is a situation that limits the focal characters options. It can be physical, mental, social, and temporal. It can be a big deal or not so big.

In my experience, thriller crucible’s often carry for more than one scene. For example, if a detective is on a murder case, they may only have one lead. That lead is the crucible because it limits the detective’s options from moving the story forward and solving the crime. You’ll often see the lead takes more than one scene to track down as well.

Goal – scene goals are different than the story goal. A scene goal represents the goal of the focal character for that scene or a series of scenes.

When plotting scene’s, an easy way to determine if a particular scene is needed, is to see how the scene goal fits within the story. Does it move the story forward or can it be removed?

Stakes  whatever may be gained or lost as a result of a particular effort is known as stakes. The higher the stakes, the more interesting the scene.

Motivation  in a thriller, often times you’ll see the stakes and focal character motivation run along the same line. That’s because motivation is something that comes from within a character. Much like writers are motivated to keep slogging along in a rough draft they know is crap (face it, they usually are), your focal character has to be motivated to continue pushing. It’s an internal need or emotion that drives the action forward.

Multiple Attempts – how annoying would it be if the focal character achieved their scene goal on the first try? Snoozer!

In the last police procedural I read, I kept track of how many times the focal character which was almost always the hero, in that case, tried to accomplish a particular scene goal only to fail. Not once did the author allow the character to achieve their goal on the first try. Heck, once the author had the detective stuck in the men’s bathroom, and it took him several attempts to get the door open.

Here’s another thing I noticed, and Klaassen points this out in his book. Scenes often follow another scene with the same setting, goal, stakes, and motivation, so the beginning of the first scene is the character making a plan to achieve his goal, and the very next scene is the character actually taking steps to attain his goal. Thrillers do this all the time, whether it’s searching a house for evidence, or catching a suspect in a foot chase. Both may run more than one scene, and both usually suffer setbacks along the way.

Resistance – speaking of setbacks. In my previous example, during a foot chase, a detective is not going to catch the perp without suffering some sort of resistance. They might trip and fall, or have to climb a fence, etc. but there is always going to be some resistance in that scene that will slow the focal character from achieving their scene goal.

Now, sometimes a character is successful. If the character is and the story moves forward, great! However, as I mentioned before in multiple attempts, if the focal character achieves their goal every time with or without resistance, your story loses the readers interest, so make your character fail from time to time to keep readers reading.

Tension  tension is the result of multiple attempts and resistance in a scene. The more the character struggles, the more uncertainty is felt by that character and the reader and that builds tension.

Suspense  I hope you can see the trend here. We’re building on each element as we go piling on more and more obstacles for the focal character within the scene. If you’ve done your job right and the character has made several attempts to reach the story goal only to suffer some resistance at each effort that creates tension in the reader, you have the perfect formula for suspense.

At this point in a scene, the reader is unsure if the focal character is going to achieve their goal. Time has been drawn out, and the anxiety within the reader is heightened to the point where they aren’t sure if the character will succeed.

Climax – of course no good scene or story can be told without a climax. As we’ve described, the focal character began the scene with only one option. The crucible. As the character continued, their choices have diminished in the form of multiple attempts and resistance. In the last effort of the scene, and with only one option left, the focal character exerts all of their energy toward accomplishing their scene goal. Win or lose the conflict and suspense is at its peak.

Resolution  the climax leads to the scene resolution, which can be either a success or failure or some sort of partial success or failure.

Questions or Comments?

When you write a scene, do you include everything? Let us know in the comments section below.

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