Confessions of a Ghostwriter: Scene-Craft

My favorite clients are the ones that ask questions, because it means they’re curious enough about the process of writing that they want to understand it. Those questions may be specific: ”On page 50 of my manuscript, why did you have the hero hesitate?” Or they may be general questions of craft that indicate to me that this person really wants to learn how to write well.

Recently, I was involved in an editing pass for one of my ghost writing clients when he emailed to ask a single question:

“How would you define scene development and what is the key to making it consistently good throughout a novel?”

It was something that has become organic enough for me that I’ve ceased to think about what goes into it; it’s a process I engage in because it’s become ingrained over the years. What follows is pretty much how I answered my client’s question except for the examples I used, which were from his manuscript.

For me, scene development is like painting with words. You start with a sketch, then work with it, adding color and texture, until it literally takes shape and contributes to filling the entire canvas. The important thing is that, as you’re working, you have a clear idea of where you’re going. I don’t mean that you know every color you’re going to use ahead of time or even all of the elements that are going to be in the finished piece, but you know the basic shape of the picture.

A story is a series of scenes that are all working toward an over-arching goal. Within that over-arching goal, there may be a set of internal goals—character arcs within the overall story that all contribute to the whole. For example, in my novel THE MERI (a Crawford Fantasy Award nominee), though the overarching goal is to tell the story of Meredydd-a-Lagan, doing that required writing scenes that built up the story arcs of other characters such that they contribute to her story.

Part of making scenes consistently good, then, is being aware of your overall story arc and of the story arcs of the individual characters and of their relationships—being aware of them to the point that you craft each scene leading up to your final chapter with those elements in mind. The challenge is in being able to build your character arcs in such a way that, when they intersect in a scene, your characters have something to do and say that then advances the plot to the next level.

For example, the point in a story where your protagonist meets his love interest for the first time requires that in prior scenes, his character be fleshed out enough that his scenes with this new character are not being used to tell his core backstory. Why? Because trying to tell chunks of a character’s backstory in a scene with a crucial piece of emotional story arc makes for a cluttered, ineffective scene. It pulls the reader’s attention in different directions and detracts from the emotional core of a scene.

The Meri by Maya Kaathryn BohnhoffGood scenes can possess different qualities, it depends on what effect you want them to have on the reader—whether you want to provoke heart-pumping excitement, emotional resonance, thought, concern, curiosity. Good scenes often answer one question, only to pose another. The scene in THE MERI in which Meredydd’s nemesis, Wyth Arundel, follows her to the ruins of her family home answers a number of questions about Meredydd, but poses as many questions about Wyth. That’s good, because when I craft a scene, I want the reader to be asking, ”What does this mean? What’s next? ”

I write scenes with the awareness that every scene builds upon the ones that come before and contribute to the reader’s understanding of the scenes the come after. So, when I enter a scene, in the back of my mind is where the characters in it have been and where I need them to go, what we know about them and what we don’t, what needs to be in the scene in order for it to get the story to the next stepping stone, and what emotions I want to evoke in the reader. My question going in is:

What do I want this scene to tell the reader about the characters—not just the ones who are in the scene, but possibly folks who are off stage as well?

The secret—if there is such a thing—is to hold all that in mind, but not insert it mechanically into the scene. The ideal, for me, is to have all that in the back of my mind so I can put the characters together in the scene with their agenda (what they want, fear, hope, love, hate, etc.) and let them talk and act. If I know the characters well enough, I don’t have to manufacture dialogue—they do it. I don’t have to tell the reader about the characters—I let their words and actions and reactions do the telling.

Which brings me to another point about effective scenes: they have a sense of organic spontaneity about them. They feel like life, not a play. The characters don’t act, they interact.

pensive woman with quill penAn important element in shaping a scene is using the right words to make the reader envision and feel what you want them to feel. I’m editing a manuscript right now in which the author often uses the wrong words for things or uses them in such stilted convoluted ways that it’s hard to picture what she’s trying to say. In one very crucial scene, she wrote:

Now, here above under the secluded under cliff of the edge of the bluff below, she was out of control.

Did you catch that? It took me three tries. As you might imagine, that sentence structure derailed the entire emotional train of the scene.

So, developing a scene is, in part, knowing what you need to accomplish and what elements will accomplish it and what words to use that will enhance the reader’s appreciation of your stories, not detract from it.

A couple of important points:

  1. The state of your characters at the end of a scene should be different in some way from their state at the beginning. In other words, there should be some advancement of the character along their arc.
  2. Be aware that every scene sets up for one to come, and connects to the scenes that came before.

So, if you finish writing a scene and have no idea where to take your characters next, check the scenes you’ve written so far. You may find there are some elements missing.



Confessions of a Ghostwriter: Scene-Craft — 1 Comment

  1. Thanks, Maya, for more writing insights. It’s interesting that you use a painting metaphor for creating your scenes. Since I’m very visual, I imagine my stories unspooling as a film and try to flesh it out, with of course the added bonus of thoughts and history available without awkward voice-overs that film may have to add.