Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lit Corner: Three Things Every Scene Needs

So The Bathroom Monologues is going to have a Sunday feature on the crafts of writing and storytelling. 'Lit Corner' is as temporary a title as it gets. Have an idea for a better permanent title? Please drop it into the comments below!

Recently on Reddit's /r/Writing forum, someone asked what things every scene needs. Not "chapter," not "act," but "scene." It was a wonderful thing to reflect upon because I'm a very scene-specific writer. Some of my scenes are as long as professional short stories.

Yet I try not to ask too many specific things from every scene because something so varied can have so many different appeals. The old Vonengut chestnut that every character ought to want something is fine, but honestly, Mieville's Perdido Street Station has some scenes that are almost all setting and they're splendid.

So here are my petty few. My Magnificent Three. I'd say to shoot for two of these three in any given scene:

1) Something that makes me glad I've read what came before it. Obviously this doesn't work for your opening scene, but pretty much any one after it ought to build, extend, reference, counterpoint, disagree with, or in some other way respond to something earlier, I ought to feel I'm benefiting from having read this far.

Think plot continuity or twists, think revelations, think character development. It can be Alice returning to a cherry tree she planted thirty years ago and seeing how it's changed, or it can George R.R. Martin killing off another parental figure.

2) Something that makes me want to read on. Usually not a cliffhanger, but something in this scene that is a good reason to want to read another scene later.

Will the Romans come back for Jesus?

Will Gatsby reach out to that girl?

What's in JJ Abrams's Mystery Box?

It can be much subtler than all of those, even just something the ominous in the background that I'll hope I'll learn more about or see more of later. This is the reflection of #1; it's making me feel I will be rewarded for reading on.

3) Something that's intrinsically entertaining, important or just worth reading in this damned scene.

Because you can't just rely on what came before and setting up what comes next. It can be some funny Douglas Adams one-liners, or you can have plot payoffs in every single scene. Inconsequential or hugely consequential. Are you one of those conflict-on-every-page guys? That's great if you can make your conflict worthwhile. Just make sure that there's something in this scene that is worth reading for other than it having to be here.

All three of these are exceedingly fuzzy items because storytelling is extremely fuzzy. J.K. Rowling and Jennifer Egan have insanely different strengths; you can't tell them both to write to the same scene-appeals. But if every scene does at least two of the above three things, I'm guaranteed to finish reading the book.


  1. And how I wish every scene did manage two or more of the three. For myself, if a scene manages only one (or less) I will skip. And skipping tends to lead to putting (or throwing) the book down...

    1. I've boiled it down to these three for myself because, like you, if there's only one of them I'm incredibly likely to skim, and if it keeps happening across the scenes, very likely to put it down. Is there anything you'd change?

    2. No. I read this and went away and thought about it before I responded. All of the things which keep me reading (and I am a reader not a writer) are born from these three.

  2. This makes me want to go back and read some of my novel-in-progress to see if any of these scene meet these criteria...

    And I think "Lit Corner" is quaint. Evokes the idea of a table in the corner of the coffe shop where the writers always sit.

    1. It's not a shabby rubric to hold your work against. If you think any don't meet the 2/3 criteria and are still strong and essential, I'd be terribly interested to learn why and what other functions they use.

  3. I usually shoot for numbers 2 and 3 - hadn't actually considered number 1. But I am not sure successive scenes would make that much without reading what comes before.


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