It’s Getting Tense in Here
Turning Plot Points into Scenes
Now that you know your characters and have a sense of what’s going to happen in the story, you may want to start turning plot points into actual scenes. What do you need to accomplish in each scene? How do you know where one scene ends and the next begins? Below are the basics of crafting scenes. A few guidelines to remember:
1) Scenes always do more than one thing in the story; and
2) Each and every one must have some element of tension.
Make ‘em Work For You
Each scene, like your overall story, will have a beginning, middle, and end - meaning your character is going to start in one place, and then will be changed somehow, or the plot will be advanced in some way the character can’t go back from, by the end. With rare exceptions, every scene should do both of these things (advance the plot and move the character’s inner struggle in relation to their goal), and more.
If you’re ready to write scenes, you probably have a list of plot points you know are going to happen, and a sense of your protagonist’s emotional arc - these are the moments you turn into scenes. How can you tell if possible plot point deserves a scene? Here is a quick test you can use to find out.
Let’s assume your plot points are: While at school, your character learns that their sibling stole their cell phone; they walk home from school; they confront their sibling to get the phone back. The three potential scenes are:
1) At school, Protagonist learns siblings stole phone
2) Walking home
3) At home, confronts sibling to get phone back.
Do we need all three scenes?
Potential Scene 1: At school, Protagonist learns siblings stole phone
Advances plot/Action? Yes - learns sibling stole phone.
Moves Protagonist Closer/Farther from Goal? Yes - Needed phone to call ____(boss at work? Girlfriend/boyfriend? Maybe to break up? Maybe to reconcile?) Can’t do that without the phone = farther from goal.
Develops Emotional Journey? Yes if dealing with anger toward sibling is something Protag must confront/change.
Potential Scene 2: Walking home
Advances Plot/Action? No - just walking home. No obstacle to overcome. Maybe runs into neighbor? Learns their sibling stole the cell phone because they’re being bullied by another kid and wanted to use the phone to videotape the abuse so they’d have leverage over the bully?
Moves Protagonist Closer/Farther From Goal? No - Any movement happened in scene 1. Nothing new here.
Develops Emotional Journey? Possibly yes - If learning to handle anger toward sibling is main element, this could be a chance for Protag to calm down (if this is moment of change, when they finally handle anger differently) or get more angry (if still establishing tendency to lash out/overreact).
Potential Scene 3: At home, confronts sibling to get phone back.
Advances Plot/Action? Yes. Confrontation with sibling.
Moves Protagonist Closer/Farther From Goal? Yes - gets phone back; can make important phone call.
Develops Emotional Journey? Probably yes. Either acts reasonably (signaling change) or explodes in anger (establishing problematic behavior that needs to change).
Scenes 1 and 3 make the cut, but scene 2 doesn’t for two reasons. First, there is no tension in the walk home. Second, everything that could potentially happen in the scene can happen elsewhere. For example, if the Protagonist must know the information learned in scene 2 (why their sibling needed the phone), it could be bundled into scene 1, or come out during the confrontation in scene 3.
If you go through this process for each of your potential scenes, adjusting the list when you discover one like scene 2 above, at the end of the process you’ll have a fairly solid roadmap of what scenes you want to include, and what you need to accomplish in each one.
You might have noticed that scenes should advance plot and character arcs “and more." What’s the “more”? It’s going to depend on where each scene falls in the story, and what business you’ve already taken care of. In each scene you’ll need to “ground” the setting for the reader - give a sense of time and place. You also might need to introduce new secondary characters, leave breadcrumbs to set up what’s coming later, or reveal a piece of backstory.
Using the potential scene examples above, in scene 1 at the school, if this is the first time something has happened at the school, you’ll need to briefly describe it. If you haven’t introduced the person your Protagonist is talking to, you’ll have to include that, too. Scene 3 may be just the place for some backstory having to do with the relationship between your Protagonist and their sibling.
Let’s Talk Tension
Every scene must have tension. Every single one, no exceptions. But tension can come in many forms. It can be mental worry or emotional strain, or a state of wariness, mistrust, hostility or fear of hostility from others. It could be active confrontation, like a clash between opposing elements or characters. It could even be a buildup of suspense. Some scenes are going to have tension start to finish, like a high-speed car chase ending in a fiery crash. Others are going to be subtle, involving slightly suspicious behavior or unexpected admissions during a spoken exchange with another character. Whether it’s large or small, each scene has to have something that the reader doesn’t see coming, or is intrigued by. The main reason scene 2 in the example above had to go? There was nothing tense or suspenseful about the walk home. The Protagonist left school and ended up at home, just as the reader expected them to. There was no conflict, problem, or additional obstacle they faced along the way. The complete lack of tension means that moment isn’t scene worthy.
Exposition: The NyQuil of the Writing World
Once you have your rough outline of scenes, it’s just a matter of sitting down an writing them. Your scenes will vary in type - some heavy on dialogue, some involving a huge plot twist, some more emotionally raw. As you work though the process of drafting each scene, you may find yourself including rather long segments of exposition. Exposition is when a large chunk of information is dumped in the middle of a scene. Info dumps are great when you’re in the first draft stage - they serve as road maps, reminding the author where things are going, or what breadcrumbs/backstory haven’t been woven in yet. Once you have a complete first draft of your story, go back and highlight all the exposition, and look for ways the information can be revealed in a more natural way. Most of the time, you’ll discover you already have included what you needed to in the story, and those paragraphs of pure exposition can be deleted.
If you need more guidance on scenes specifically, the craft book “Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time” by Jordan Rosenfeld is a great resource. In terms of developing plot and crafting tension-filled scenes, any craft books by Donald Maass, such as “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” or “Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling” will help you. Lastly, “The Plot Whisperer Workbook” by Martha Alderson has some handy tools for charting out scenes. If you have specific questions or need more references, you can always email TipsForTeenAuthors@gmail.com.
About The Author: Andrea Custer has been working with teens and tweens for the last several years - first as an Odyssey of the Mind coach, then teaching creative writing to middle graders and young adults at the local community center. She mainly writes YA in both the contemporary and historical fiction veins. Andrea divides her time between writing, exploring Los Angeles in search of odd happenings she can use in her novels, and getting lost in the aisles of her local bookstore. Find out more at andreacusterwrites.com, WriteTogether.Today, and TipsForTeenAuthors.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @ACwritesinMB, Instagram at andreamcuster or tips4teenauthors, and Facebook at Andrea Custer, Author.