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How to Write Interesting Scenes

interesting scenesHere’s a secret about storytelling that many writers overlook. An interesting plot isn’t what makes an interesting story. Interesting characters aren’t what make an interesting story either. In reality, a story is only as interesting as its scenes.

That sounds almost too obvious to think about.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought about it too specifically myself until reading Matt Bird’s insightful Secrets of Story, in which he points out (in his excellent common-sense chapter on scenes):

At any given point in your story, the audience will be far more interested in the conflict within the current scene than in the overall conflict. If you allow yourself to create weak scenes in service of the larger story, you will sabotage your own work.

The lack of interesting scenes has proven the downfall of many a story. Even the most unique plot and the most sympathetic characters will fall flat if the story isn’t keeping readers’ attention from scene to scene. And on the flip-side, plenty of so-so stories prove wildly entertaining because their authors knew how to keep a reader’s attention on the scene level.

Basically, the art of writing interesting scenes is the art of preventing reader boredom. As I talked about last week, audiences are increasingly jaded when it comes to meh storytelling. The one thing, more than any other, for which they have little patience is boredom.

This is why writers run their brain-hamsters overtime trying to figure out the most-original-plot ever. Or they dig deep in their souls to write characters of tortured complexity.

That’s good.

But it’s not enough.

The only way to write a story that works for the audience is to write one that grabs them on the scene level.

5 Things That Must Happen in Interesting Scenes

In an interesting scene, the prose is snappy, the characters are compelling, and the plot is moving. This requires vigilance from the writer at every moment.

I have experienced so many stories that were great on a macro level, but that bored me on the scene level. Other stories remain entertaining upon countless revisits simply because every scene offers something worth experiencing. The great classic movie White Christmas is like this. No matter how many times we watch it, it’s still interesting. I’ve viewed it once a year for longer than I can count, and I never find myself wanting to fast forward to get to the good stuff. It’s all good stuff.

White Christmas Bing Crosby Danny Kaye Dressing Room

That kind of interest starts with making certain important things happen in each scene. No scene should ever just go through the motions of presenting information that ostensibly moves the plot. Every scene should be a complete story unit unto itself, packed with all the reasons we love fiction in the first place.

Here’s what has to happen to make your scene interesting.

1. Stuff Happens

The one should be the gimme of the bunch. But it has to be said, because too many stories limp through with scenes in which little to literally nothing happens. Artsy moments of contemplation, when the character stares out over the ocean or takes sad walks through the projects, only work as brief moments of contrast.

Even in super-artsy books such as Patrick Rothfuss’s interlude The Slow Regard of Silent Things, the protagonist still does stuff. The stuff she does may be mundane daily tasks, but it’s the poetic unfolding of prosaic details that keep readers paying attention.

Granted, there are super-super-artsy books in which characters may spend whole chapters staring at a leak in the ceiling. But these are rarely considered popular fiction and are even more rarely done well enough to earn attention much less merit. Even then, they remain the exception that proves the rule.

2. Conflict Happens

There’s an old expression that maintains “story equals conflict.” While this is a gross oversimplification, it does point to one of the most basic and important tools for creating an interesting story.

Conflict is the driving engine of plot. Without conflict, plot doesn’t move.

It’s best to understand conflict as something or someone that creates an obstacle to your protagonist’s goal. Conflict begs for goal-driven scenes—whether that goal is blatant, passive-aggressive, reactionary, or even largely subconscious.

Your character’s scene goal might look like John Wayne slamming into a saloon, intent on throwing out some bad guy. Or it might look like Hercule Poirot sussing out a clue. Or it might look like a mom’s and daughter’s contradictory ideas about after-school activities. It might even look like somebody trying to hail a taxi to get to work.

Whatever the case, the path to the goal should encounter complications. Conflict happens. The character must regroup, rethink, perhaps try again, or perhaps abandon an ineffective goal in pursuit of another. Perhaps the character reaches the initial goal after all, but there are difficulties, which prompt the further cycle of plot-moving scene structure.

3. Complexity Happens

Even though most authors instinctively understand the first two “musts” on our list, this still doesn’t guarantee interesting scenes. Indeed, nothing is more mind-numbing than rote scene structure in which the character encounters simplistic obstacle after simplistic obstacle, in an unvarying chain leading straight to the ultimate story goal in the Climax.

What separates by-the-numbers authors dutifully trying to follow the rules from authors who truly understand and inhabit excellent storytelling? The difference is the amount of complexity these authors include on the scene level.

Complexity on a scene level indicates a scene that is tightly packed with all the realistic nuances of true-to-life exchanges and desires. More than just one or even two ideas, goals, or consequences are at play. The questions asked within these scenes want more than just simple yes/no answers, such as Will he tell her he loves her? Will she get the job? Will he defeat the villain?

Rather, the questions at the heart of interesting scenes are rarely, if ever, zero-sum equations. They introduce faceted consequences—e.g., Will he tell her he loves her at the risk of endangering the mission? Will she accept the job even though her husband doesn’t want her to? Will he defeat the villain even though it means risking his own humanity by killing someone in cold blood?

Your character’s inner conflict between Want and Need, between lose-lose choices, between one set of consequences over another, is the first type of pertinent complexity you can add to create interest. But don’t stop there. What inner conflicts are happening for the other characters in the scene? What are some competing (and perhaps equally valid) goals your different characters are pursuing? What are the different layers of their relationships (e.g., perhaps they’re romantic, but also rivals)?

Ultimately, what you’re trying to create is subtext. When a scene’s subtext says something different from the context (e.g., Spider-Man 2‘s “I love you, but I can’t tell you because my primary goal is to keep you safe”), the interest level is magnified ten-fold.

Spider-Man 2 Peter Parker Tobey Maguire

The key here is to keep it all pertinent. Adding a three-ring circus just for the heck of it won’t work. If your moving pieces get to be too many, you risk both confusing readers and outpacing your own ability to juggle everything all the way through to a satisfying ending.

4. The Unexpected Happens

One of the easiest ways to add complexity on the scene level is to add something unexpected. This rarely (if ever) means throwing in some random catastrophe. This is the art of creating characters who will act is realistic but surprising ways.

You thought that guy was going to tell her he loved her at the expense of the mission? Nope. He submarines any chance of being with her by choosing to kick her off the mission altogether so she won’t distract him.

You thought the unhappy husband was going to blow up at his wife because of her new job? Nope. He frames his protest by up and quitting his own job.

You thought the good guy was going to defeat the villain? Nope. He chokes—and the villain kidnaps his family.

This exercise can, of course, grow to outrageous proportions. But used with wise awareness it is perhaps the single greatest trick for grabbing readers’ attention. Whether or not you can keep their attention depends on how organically these unexpected events play out. It doesn’t count if the characters do something shocking only to turn around in the next scene and undo it before they really have to suffer the consequences.

There are two keys to making this work:

1. Stay in touch with your character’s desires.

I’m not talking about vague desires for world peace. I’m talking about deeply primal desires for the one thing that will motivate them to do almost anything.

2. Look past the first option for achieving that desire.

In any given scene, your characters will have multiple options for how they pursue their goals and/or how they react to another character’s goals. After you’ve rejected the possibilities that make your characters look unintelligent (unless, of course, they are unintelligent), nose out the options readers won’t initially see coming. From there, look for the ideas that will not only create great scenes, but which will spawn many equally unexpected and great scenes to follow.

5. Change Happens

This is the litmus test for how well the previous four steps are working. A scene is not a scene, much less an interesting scene, if it doesn’t create change. How are your character’s options different at the end of the scene from what they were at the beginning?

Good scene structure is all about moving your character either closer to or farther away from the ultimate story goal. This movement can be effected in many ways. Perhaps the character gains helpful (or incorrect) information. Perhaps the character befriends (or alienates) someone who can help her. Perhaps the character gains (or loses) something important. Perhaps the character is impacted internally to such a degree that what he wants or his reasons for wanting it change altogether. Or perhaps it’s another character, or the world of the story, that changes in ways that will impact the protagonist’s journey toward the story goal.

Regardless what changes, every scene should mirror the larger story—an arcing journey that begins in one place or state of being and ends in another.

If you look at the end of a scene and realize nothing much has changed, you can pretty sure of two things:

  1. This scene doesn’t move the plot.
  2. This scene probably isn’t very interesting.

The 5-Step Checklist for How to Write Interesting Scenes

The above list of five “musts” is the best guideline for writing interesting scenes. But because all the “musts” are pretty abstract, it can sometimes be difficult to know how well you’ve aced them on a practical level. The following five questions are quick ways to check in with how well you’re doing on any given scene.

1. Are You Bored?

This is the single best gut-check. You can use it in two ways.

First, check in with how interested and engaged you are in writing this scene. If you’re not enjoying yourself, that’s likely a sign your readers won’t either.

Second, zoom out a bit and pretend you’re an objective reader encountering this scene for the first time. On a scale of 1-10, how much would you enjoy reading it if someone else had written it?

2. Are the Characters Dynamic?

In part, this means characters who are moving the plot through their own desires and actions. But on a simpler level, it also just means characters who are fun to watch. Those unexpected actions we talked about originate with characters who are capable of the unexpected. These characters may span the gamut from Wolverine to Emma Woodhouse to Jack Aubrey to Lorelei Gilmore. The only thing they all have in common is that audiences can consistently count on them to be entertaining no matter what they do or say.

Emma Jane Austen BBC 2009 Romola Garai

3. Is There Humor?

Not every interesting scene will make readers laugh. But every scene that makes them laugh will be entertaining.

4. Is There Relational Tension?

Tension is the threat of conflict. Nothing happens to change the scene’s status quo, but the threat of forced change hangs heavy and humid like a thundercloud. Inevitably, the most interesting type of tension occurs between people. Sexual tension is one of the most obvious and effective. But relational tension of any type—between friends, enemies, family, professionals—will almost instantly up a reader’s interest in your scene. We usually care much more about characters in their relationships to each other than we do any one character by himself.

5. Is There Cause for Empathy?

Susan Sontag wrote:

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.

Getting your readers involved intellectually is one thing. But there is no substitute for involving their emotions. Get them to empathize with your characters—to feel that they are involved in this same desperate human struggle—and they will sit rapt through every scene.

How do you measure empathy on a scene level? Ask yourself whether or not you’ve given readers a reason to care about what happens to your character in any given scene. However much they may love the character on general principles, they probably won’t care so much whether your character has to wait five minutes to use a public restroom—unless she’s about to be horribly sick.

Empathy arises when a character experiences realistic consequences.

***

Although interesting scenes certainly aren’t the only measure of a story’s worth, they are the gateway through which readers enter your amusement park. If they look around and realize none of the good rides are running today, they aren’t likely to stay long enough to appreciate your fine craftsmanship or deep messaging. But if you can write a story in which the majority of scenes are worth reading on their own merits, you can bet you’ve got a book readers will want to read.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the most potent aspect of writing interesting scenes? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Mary George says:

    An excellent checklist! Another gem of an article, loaded with great stuff. Just printed it out and added it to my file of “Good Story Must-Haves.” Thank You, Kate!

    (Of course this requires deleting entire scenes. So, let me quote: “There was nothing a first which could be called a novel…….it was not really a book but a skeleton of a book…..Cutting had always been the most difficult and distasteful part of writing to me; my tendency had always been to write rather than to cut….it is very difficult suddenly to become coldly surgical, ruthlessly detached…..But what I had to face, the very bitter lesson that every one who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thin may in itself be the finest piece of writing that one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish……

    …..My spirit quivered a the bloody execution. My soul recoiled before the carnage of so many lovely things cut out upon which my heart was set…..”

    –Thomas Wolfe, “The Story of a Novel.” 1936

    • Dennis Michael Montgomery says:

      What I have done when writing a scene or a dialog or just a sentence that I like, yet does not work for the scene or even the plot is cut it out and paste in a blank document.

      That way if it is really good I can use it later somewhere else in the story or for another book. In fact, you may find it as an inspiration for another story or character idea. This way you won’t find yourself later on kicking yourself in the butt for losing a good idea.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think my idea of heaven is never having to cut anything. :p

      • Adrian Danut Lazar says:

        Hello, I am an indie video game developer. I have created a game and I have to make a description for it, is the only thing left for it to get published. I am scared to make it myself because I am not a writer, it would be awesome if someone like you with much more experience could help me to do it, the description of the game must be less than 3000 characters.
        Thank you very much!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Congrats on your game! I don’t hire out for services like this. You might check on Fiverr.

  2. Magnificent!

    Leave it to you to put your finger right on the heart of what makes a story work. Of course it’s the tension in the scene– and that’s more than just “will he live?” in some predictable conflicts

    It’s having more than one factor involved, beyond of course the hero’s stronger, of course the boy actually loves the girl. And it’s having each factor mean something more for the character and the story’s future.

    It’s forcing characters to *choose* between one goal and another, or a plan that affects one part of their lives and one that affects another.

    It’s being in a position where there are more consequences than “story goes on” vs “story gets cut off,” and then taking the time to see what those mean.

    It’s having a scene that *changes* the story, and then another, every time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The journey of life is nothing but a string of choices. When we ask characters to live that same journey, that’s where we find true empathy in our readers.

  3. You have a marvelous talent for extracting knowledge from data. It will take a bit to unpack but this one is a gem. Thank you 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! I also recommend checking out Matt Bird’s book, quoted at the beginning of the article. He has an excellent chapter on scenes that offers a lot of very specific, counter-intuitive advice.

  4. I zoomed in on the part about if you enjoy it, your readers will, too. I’m final-editing a novel I absolutely loved writing, and my critique group consequently loves reading it every single week, chapter by chapter! If you don’t love what you’ve written, you might want to take it down a different road. I’m a pantser, so I love it when my characters surprise me. I always read your podcasts and emails because you always present a fresh perspective or new angle on something I thought I already knew. Keep on keepin’ me humble, Kate!
    Caden St. Claire

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writing’s hard work, even on the best days. But if we’re not here for the joy, what are we here for? 🙂

    • Hi Caden, Just out of curiosity, what critique group do you use? Something informal or a website?

  5. I like this point you make: “Getting your readers involved intellectually is one thing. But there is no substitute for involving their emotions.” So true!
    Thanks for all the tips.

  6. I was unfamiliar with the term “nose out” that you used in the article. I assumed it meant “seek out”, or “uncover”, or “search for”, or something similar. Not really any point to my comment, other than I was surprised I didn’t already know what it meant.

  7. A cracklin’ good post and a podcast without any froggy sounds. Well done. 😉

  8. Nehemiah Feliciano says:

    Thank You! This was a very helpful article! I have just started studying scene structure. Understanding how to captivate audiences is something I have been looking forward to learning!

  9. Excellent article. Thank you.

  10. Joan Kessler says:

    This was a case of looking at this topic as obvious until I realized how easily over-looked the obvious can be. I was especially drawn to #4; it seems like you can really open up the storytelling by giving characters more than two choices. Thank you for shining a light on this! These are great tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, ironically, sometimes the most difficult things to remember about good storytelling are, in fact, the most obvious.

  11. Great analysis of what makes a scene, and a story, work. Reading this reminded me of what author Samuel R. Delany said years ago that scenes are like pearls, each one a little story in itself, that when strung together contribute to a larger story. That’s not an exact quote, but that’s the gist of it, and ever since I read it I’ve tried to build my main stories through the individual scenes.

  12. ingmarhek says:

    So many takeaways. I never thought much about scenes except for advancing the plot.
    Excellent post, K.M.!

    ~Ingmar Albizu

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As they say in decorating, the details aren’t the details, they’re the design. 😉

  13. David Snyder says:

    Katie,

    This is my favorite post yet. Really mind-boggling in its breadth. Wow.

    I will start to sound like a broken record, but I tie all of this back to the Scrivener’s Template you built, which I use daily in my current project. My expanding knowledge of scenes referencing your work, Larry Brooks, and Donald Maass links everything in every scene back to the major theme I established early on.

    I try and keep my eye on the ball and put it in the bleachers in every scene. (Each scene could actually stand on its own as a miniature story.) I could write anything “entertaining” I wanted to—but I don’t. If it doesn’t deepen or advance the theme that emerges in the opening ten pages, I won’t touch it, no matter how clever the idea might be.

    There would be no way on God’s green earth I could do this without outlining, by the way. The outlining makes it all seem organic and spontaneous. If I were winging it pantser style it would all come out stiff, forced and unbelievable.

    It’s weird the way this is happening. You would think it would be the opposite but it’s not.

    Thanks for another masterpiece.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Writing is weird. It’s completely sensible on one hand and completely and inexplicably magical on the other!

  14. Rudy Fisher says:

    “Empathy arises when a character experiences realistic consequences.” This single sentence gave me that “aha!” moment that I’ve been needing for the topic of reader empathy! I’ve been thinking ALOT about how to get readers to empathize with my characters for months, never being able to internalize the concept until now! Thanks! Now back to outlining!

  15. Really useful post. Love the checklist. Thanks!

  16. Casandra Merritt says:

    Thanks! This is a timely post. I was just writing a scene where my Antagonist gives a speech. It’s a short one, but I was wondering if I should break it up every now and then by including the main character’s thoughts. Would this be too distracting for readers?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This can definitely be a good approach, especially if the character’s thoughts are pertinent. It’s even better if you can give the character something to do physically or someone else to whisper to during the speech.

  17. SharynBL says:

    Love this post – it’s so helpful – and the amusement analogy brought it home perfectly. Thank you!

  18. Casandra Merritt says:

    Yes! I kind of figured that. But there’s one thing I should ask about interrupting speeches with actions or thoughts. Should I keep them short, so it doesn’t seem like the speech stopped in mid sentence for however long it took to, say, fidget with that chain? Or should I write something like,”as he spoke,” to indicate that the person giving the speech hasn’t stopped talking? Maybe readers just fill in the blanks on this one, I’m not sure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It really depends on the flow of the scene. Usually, you won’t need to insert “as he spoke” if the other character’s actions or thoughts are short. Again, it’s hard to lay down a blanket rule. You just have to fiddle with it to make it flow.

  19. Gary Myers says:

    It’s probably no coincidence that this post (excellent as always) follows last week’s on the challenges of writing for a modern audience. There’s certainly never been a time when our hold on the reader’s attention has been more slippery. Every word we write must keep the reader’s eyes stuck to the page so they won’t be whisked away to see why their smart phone chimed.

    I saw a great example of the care that can be taken with a single scene almost the instant I finished reading your post. By chance, “I Love Lucy” was on and it was the episode where Lucy thinks she’s lost her wedding ring and dismantles a barbecue pit Ricky has just built.

    The episode opens with Ricky coming down the stairs like a zombie. As he moves mechanically along as if in in a sleepy daze, Lucy gets him ready for work. He’s like a product moving along an assembly line and she’s like a factory worker. She wraps it up by sticking his newspaper under his arm and plopping his hat on his head as he goes out the door. Then, just as she sighs in satisfaction, Ethel walks in and says, “How’s Ricky enjoying his vacation?” causing Lucy to have to run out to retrieve Ricky.

    From a plot standpoint, all they had to do was show the audience Ricky was on vacation, setting up his decision to build the barbecue and putting the plot in motion. But instead they developed it into a very entertaining and thematically nuanced scene.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The whole point of comedy is that every scene is funny–it’s a string of gags, one after the other. When well done, it presents a great example of how entertainment has to happen on the scene level, rather than the macro level.

  20. Thank you for this! I’ve been working on making my scenes more interesting and plot driven, as I have a tendency to slip into huge detailed extravagant setting descriptions. I love my settings (I work in movie sets in my mind and so I usually have huge settings) but I don’t think the reader wants a chapters worth of settings…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a good realization. But it’s great you have such detailed settings to fall back on in choosing which details to share with readers!

  21. Reading this was an odd experience for me because on the one hand it feels like you’re stating the obvious – of course stories need interesting scenes – but on the other hand I can’t necessarily say that I usually actually think about it in these terms. It’s so easy to get caught up in the overall structure of a story and forget to pay attention to whether or not the individual scenes are interesting. Good stuff, KM!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      If you think about it when watching or reading someone else’s story, it becomes a very interesting and useful study to note when you’re losing attention versus when you’re glued. Poor scene work is almost inevitably the reason the audience wanders away. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  22. This is very much my experience. I’ve read too many books with big important plots where lives and worlds were at stake, but that forget to care so much about the steps of the journey in between the big moments.

    Anecdata : I read through most of LE Modesitt’s Jr.’s work as a teen. A whole lot of it follows the “young adult male discovers he has powers and this upsets the status quo so plot ensues” classic fantasy tropes, but what’s specific to this author, is that there is often like 1/4 of the book that is the hero learning/practicing a craft (woodwork, scrivener, cooper and the like).

    So everytime I read the new book, dad would ask
    “how’s the story going?”
    and I would answer “well, he’s been making cabinets for 100 pages, it’s great”

    Because those scenes were interesting and entertaining (and obviously, there was plot and all interwoven). I learned so much vocabulary around various artisanal jobs in those books^^.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s a certain joy to books like that, but it’s an acquired taste. I admit I read one of Modesitt’s books and never went back.

  23. Casandra Merritt says:

    Thanks.

Trackbacks

  1. […] entire book is built with scenes, so we’d better get them right. K.M. Weiland tells us how to write interesting scenes, Nathan Bransford lays out how to organize a chapter (which also can work for a scene), and Janice […]

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