8 things you need to know to write a gripping scene (and keep your reader hooked)

 

 

  1. Ground your reader in space and time.

Imagine the reader as this ghostly presence hovering over your story, soon to drift away….if you don’t grab him and ground him in your storyworld. 

If you’re telling a story in first-person, it’s easy to turn too inward and go on about what that character is thinking and feeling and ruminating. While a character’s inner life is important, remember that his outer life is even more so.  Ground the reader in a physical environment that he can taste, touch, smell, and see.  This creates a sense of immediacy – of something happening now — and gets the reader involved. 

No matter how reflective we get, we are still moving through a physical world in a physical body.  Balance your character’s inner life with his ‘snapshot’ life* – the concrete, tangible actions happening in his real world.

  • 2. Get inside your character’s head
  • If you’re telling a story in third-person, it’s easy to turn too outward and describe the scene as if it was something you were watching in a movie.  This leaves the reader too distanced and uninvolved – that reader-ghost floating above the action and unanchored.

    Scenes come alive through the perspective of a character – through what that character is seeing and hearing and feeling, what he has at stake, and whether he’s getting closer to his immediate goal (yay!) or further away  (damn!).  

    So put your reader-ghost inside somebody’s head, and orient him in the landscape of your scene – if he’s at a party, is he watching from a corner, is he moving through the crowd?  Filter your description through that character’s experience of it: imagine your character’s point of view as your movie camera. 

    Your camera sees (and shows the reader) what the character sees.  If it’s not important to that character, it doesn’t make it into the camera.

  • 3.  Make sure the scene has a purpose.
  • A scene is like a story in miniature.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It has an objective.  It builds to its own little climax, in which that objective is achieved…or not.  That objective gives shape and structure to the scene – it informs what the scene is about – which makes it easier for you the writer to know when to begin the scene (as late in the action as possible) and when to get out (as soon as you can).

    Ask yourself, what does your character want in that particular moment?  Sometimes the answer is blatant – perhaps your character is a lawyer who needs to get certain information out of a hostile witness.  Sometimes the answer is quiet and subtle.  The character might be seeking a moment of connection with someone, of true intimacy (and doesn’t consciously know it).  Even if the character doesn’t know his objective, make sure that you do.

    At every moment in the scene, the character is either moving away from his objective, or moving toward it.

    This gives a scene tension — what rockstar literary agent Donald Maass calls micro-tension;– and makes the reader want to read on. 

    Here’s the thing about tension:  there’s an ebb and flow to it.  Keeping things at high pitch all the time IS LIKE WRITING IN NOTHING BUT CAPITAL LETTERS. The reader needs breaks. You maintain tension by heightening it and then relaxing it and then heightening it again.

    You pull the rope tight – then let it go slack.

    You pull the rope tight – then let it go slack.

    By understanding the source of tension within your scene – your character’s objective and the question within the reader’s mind of whether he will achieve it – you also realize where you can drop things like backstory, exposition, description, lyrical language, all those things that (when used judiciously) round out and deepen a narrative, provide texture and resonance. 

    Every time you sidestep into a static element of your narrative– something that doesn’t immediately move the story forward – you’re letting the rope go slack.   But if the timing is right, if there’s that question of the character’s objective hovering in the back of the reader’s mind, a paragraph of description can still be charged with a low, simmering tension, because of what happened before and what the reader anticipates will happen later.

  • 4.  Identify the scene’s turning points.
  • The turning points (using Donald Maass’s term*) are points of change, within the story and within the character.  The external turning point is the “snapshot” event, the concrete tangible action that happens in the real world that leaves the character better off or (hopefully) worse off than when he came into the scene.  It’s the scene’s climax, the moment the scene has been building toward. The internal turning point is how that external turning point impacts the inner life of the character: how he changes, however slightly, as a result.  He learns something.  He realizes something.  He feels something he maybe didn’t expect to feel.

  • 5.  Evoke the senses.
  • Place comes alive through the character’s physical and emotional experience of it.  Bring your scene, your storyworld, to vivid life for the reader through engaging his different senses: the smell in the air, the shadow he throws on the floor, the way his throat turns dry and his heart starts hammering in his chest when the beautiful girl finally starts talking to him, the timbre of her voice.

  • 6.  Give the scene some attitude.
  • The world comes at us filtered through our own opinions and attitudes.  Give the scene some ‘voice’  — don’t have the character just go through the motions, getting from point A to point B.  Like any of us, he’s going to interpret the world around him through the prism of what he thinks and believes, of whether he’s in a good mood, or a bad mood, whether he’s edgy because he hasn’t had his coffee yet.  Give the scene some ‘spin’ – some color and intensity – through your character’s mood and attitude, and how that affects his (and thus the reader’s) experience of people and places and things.

  • 7.  Answer questions, raise new questions
  • Plot involves the writer’s manipulation of information: what she lets the reader know and when she lets the reader know it.  Just as with tension, there’s an ebb and flow:  withhold too much for too long, the reader gets frustrated and bored and goes to surf the Internet instead.  Give too much information too quickly, and the reader doesn’t see the point of reading on and goes to surf the Internet instead.  Storytelling is about raising a series of big and little questions and then answering them while raising even more questions.   The reader has the satisfaction of steadily accumulating information – the feeling that he is getting somewhere – and the curiosity and drive to read on.

  • 8.  End strong
  • The last line of any scene should have a snap and power to it.   Don’t end your scene by trailing off into mild nothingness…Close with a line, an image, a piece of dialogue that stirs the reader in some way and makes her want to read on.  Read contemporary poetry and notice how poems end with a line that gives force to everything that came before it.  Aim to do that with the final line of every scene.

    What do you think makes for a powerful scene?  What would you add to this list?  Is there anything in it you disagree with?

    * “snapshot” idea taken from Les Edgerton. Thank you Les.

    ** in his book The Fire in Fiction

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    Feb 27, 2010
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    8 comments · Add Yours

    Very good points to keep in mind. I’m printing out a crib sheet to post on the wall behind my monitor.

    Especially liked this: “Your camera sees (and shows the reader) what the character sees. If it’s not important to that character, it doesn’t make it into the camera.”

    How many times have I read a scene description that goes on and on about every little irrelevant detail the author seems fascinated with but the character certainly wouldn’t have had time to notice?

    Sage advice as always. Thanks.

    Reply

    Great advice – and I particularly like your descriptions of tension. Even the fastest-paced thriller needs breaks and lulls. That’s why the romantic interlude is placed just before everything really kicks off for the climax ;)

    Reply

    Thanks for this, it’s really useful to see it all pulled together in this way. I’ll also print it off as a crib to refer to.

    More please!

    Reply

    Great advice, very clearly expressed. The concept of the reader ghost really appealed to me. I’d never thought about why it’s so important to ground the reader in both inner and outer lives.
    Thanks,

    Reply

    Powerful check list, Justine! As I read through it, I thought back to my own work, trying to remember scenes where I didn’t apply every rule. And if I left a few out, did the tension weaken. It’s hard to tell. These writing tools are flexible. But one thing is clear, I suspect that when one consistantly uses these guides without thinking about them, one is on his way to become an accomplished author.

    I think you covered almost everything. I would add only one more tool – firmly establishing the jeopardy factor. WHAT, and HOW MUCH, will the character win or lose by achieving or not achieving his goal. Raise the stakes of the loss. And adding to that, making that win or loss, universal, so that the reader is invested in a personal way. For example, losing a job, or a friend, or falling into a grave illness, or descending into dark loneliness and depression; these kinds of situations most people have either experienced or fear they will. So establishing common fears and frustrations within the plot, creates powerful connections as well.

    Reply

    Great advice…so many strings to control, sometimes, I wonder why I thought I could do this writing thing! One thing I do, which you don’t spell out specifically as “motivation,” is that I constantly ask myself in a scene, “What does my character want/need and what will that character do to get it?” It helps me focus and usually keeps things interesting. I love the point you made about inner and outer details, depending on the p.o.v. you choose. I tend to make the mistake of leaving a lot of that “inner” dialogue to the reader’s interpretation, but a friend pointed out that she already knows how she feels about a situation, she wants to know how my character feels in that situation.

    Reply

    Great post – something that I need to keep in mind :)

    Reply

    Great advice. I love the image of holding a rope, maybe doing a little mountain climbing, then letting off slack every so often as I reach a small plateau. It’s a good visual that will hopefully stick with me.

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