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Helen Hemphill: Five elements you need in every scene

Helen HemphillScenes are what make up the story’s spine, giving it both pacing and tension. In a novel, sequences of scenes that build to conflict and a satisfying conclusion give readers reasons to visualize the setting of the story, turn the page to find out what happens, and love characters who may or may not get what they want! But it’s not always easy to know what goes into a scene, much less to know if the scene stands up to the demands of your story. Here are five things I think are important in every scene.

Desire. Someone has to want something, even if it’s something small or immediate. Your character may be desperate for a date to the prom, wondering where to sit on the first day of school, or hoping for a first home run—but always make sure there is a purpose for your character in every scene, on every page.

Tension. Think in terms of unanswered questions, rejections, misunderstandings, or action. Tension is what keeps readers engaged and reading.

Change. Don’t let your characters get what they want. If they desire something at the beginning of a scene, don’t give it to them right away. Let them figure out a way. Let characters be changed by the action or events scene. Give them new information or insight. Give them increased motivation or fear. Give them new hope or angst.

Emotion. Let your readers experience the characters’ emotions up close by way of physical symptoms and actions. Don’t tell the reader what your characters are feeling. Show them in ways that are new and fresh to the reader. What might it mean for a character who talks too fast or too much?

Cause and Effect. Build scenes into sequences where one action or event leads to increasingly higher stakes for the characters. As one thing leads to another, give readers a reason to worry about the characters and anticipate outcomes.

Pick a random scene in your manuscript. Does it have all five elements?

 

Posted on: August 4, 2014

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