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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. Thank you so much for this scene-saving article!
    The White Christmas scene you have pictured is my all-time favorite scene of any movie. My daughter and I watch it every Christmas, and she’s 25 now!
    I will keep it in mind as I write!

  2. Are going to write about Avengers Endgame? What are you going to do when Apple officially ends iTunes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I finally was able to view it this week. I’m planning to have its post up on the 17th. As for the end of iTunes, podcasts will just switch over to Apple Podcast. I’m also wanting to make the podcast available on Android platforms soon.

  3. David Butler-Groome says

    Thanks Katie, I have bought Matt’s book on your recommendation here: great so far. I bought it because I have been trying to understand what novels I like and why I like them (from another of your posts) and one of the things I have written in my notepad is “set pieces”. Best, David.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That’s great! Understanding our own reactions to fiction is definitely the best way to learn, IMO. Glad you’re enjoying Matt’s book! He has lots of good stuff to say that you don’t always heard said from other outlets.

  4. Relational tension. Yes yes yes. I’ve just started reading a murder mystery and ostensibly the scene is all about two men finding their dead brother and sharing any details which might shed light on how he ended up a corpse. But really it’s all about the tension between the eldest brother and the youngest brother. Is one a little brusque, is one ineffectual? It’s about how the middle brother, now dead, was the conduit between them, so…what now for these two?

    Thanks for an excellent post. Have taken notes.

  5. Using the Scene structure, as in large “S” scene = (scene + sequel) does every small “s” scene” ( goal/conflict/disaster) have to end in a disaster? What about funny scenes? Your books have helped me a lot and the answer is probably in one, but we moved and 98% of my books are in boxes in the basement or garage.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The idea of ending a scene in “Disaster” isn’t so much a hard and fast rule as it is a reminder that the character should always be engaging with conflict that at least pushes him sideways from a straightforward achievement of his overall story goal.

  6. Nadia Syeda says

    I’m actually printing out your articles, and outlining my story step by step. It’s definititely helpful and I’m actually getting somewhere.

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