Chapter by Chapter: What Makes a Good Scene

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Most writers, myself included, can attest to the fact that even once you’ve got a killer plot and great characters, writing a novel can be difficult on a chapter to chapter basis. Sometimes the writing just doesn’t flow, or maybe you know what you want to say but can’t quite find the words to say it. I’ve always found that as complex and time-consuming planning a story can be, the hardest part of fiction writing is actually executing those plans. It’s a combination of good pacing, realistic and compelling dialogue, and ensuring that the events of the chapter further the story in some way. Oftentimes, how you say something is just as important as what you’re saying. So––how to write the perfect scene in a longer work of fiction? Here’s what helps me…

Identify the main problem and / or chapter goals.

Happy characters with a simple, easy life don’t make for a very exciting story. When writing any story, ask yourself, “What’s the main issue here? What is the character trying to acheive?” This is a good way to approach storytelling in general, but it’s especially helpful in writing individual scenes and chapters. You should know before you begin what the point of the chapter is––and every chapter needs to have a “point” with regards to the story in its entirety. The challenges the characters are facing and the overall goal of each section of your novel should be clear to you. This gives you a place to start planning, and a reference point around which you can structure a scene.

Cut any unnecessary info.

Before you write, and at every stage of editing, make sure the chapter either furthers the main plot or a subplot, or provides character development or context. I tend to ask myself when planning a chapter, “If I cut this scene, would the story suffer?” Really be honest with yourself. I can’t tell you how many chapters I’ve written and ultimately cut because they were essentially just fluffy fanfiction of my own work. Just because something is fun to write or even entertaining to read doesn’t mean it should be included. Having a beta reader is really helpful in determining what parts of a story or scene are unneccesary.

Plan every chapter out extensively before writing.

Each scene should read like a full mini story, at least in the sense that there should be a clear beginning, middle, and end. After deciding what the main goal of the scene is, the next decision I make is the mood of the scene, and what kind of scene it is. Is it more of a fun, character focused scene? High tension and climactic? Dark and gloomy? Know going in what kind of “energy” you want to come across in the chapter. For me, this is essential in deciding what to include in the text and how to word it. Before writing every chapter, I also write a basic synopsis, a rough idea of how I’ll incorporate subplots, any character development to include, as well as themes and motifs to touch on. All of this essentially provides a blueprint for actually writing the scene. I personally can’t imagine writing without this level of planning.

Fill in details later.

Somewhere between planning and actually writing––sometimes, when I know what I want to happen in a chapter and roughly want to say, I write down the specific events of the story with the intention of going back later to get the wording right and make the prose really sing. I usually follow the planning stage by writing an extremely detailed play by play of the chapter using very basic language (ie. protagonist gives secondary character advice on their problem, protagonist discovers new information on said problem, protagonist reacts to that information). Having a very specific list of what exactly happens in the story is great because it allows you to address plot and characters and later focus entirely on the writing itself.

No infodumping.

One my writing pet peeves is when an author gives too much information on an event or character in one go. If you find yourself including several key details in a single paragraph, sometimes even just in a single chapter, you may want to cut some out and save them for later in the story. This tends to especially happen with character development. When introducing a character, some writers feel the need to include any key points about the character in question’s personality and appearance right away. It makes the story feel rushed and awkward, like the author is trying to squish as much as they can into one chapter. This especially tends to happen in the beginning of a story. Try to resist the urge to explicitly state a large number of traits or idiosyncrasies when you introduce the character; there will be plenty of time to show readers who the characters are. You also don’t need to give all the background to the plot in one go. It adds intrigue to the story when the reader is left wondering about what led up to the story, or who the people they’re reading about are. In general, I think it’s better to show who a character is or why things are happening the way they are through the developing events of the story, and how the characters behave and react to these events.

An example of infodumping in the extreme, from a Harry Potter fanfiction called My Immortal, widely acknowledged to be the single worst thing ever written. Fun to read, albeit less so when you’re sober. The story starting with a full (and insane) physical description of the protagonist is far from the worst thing about the “story”, if you can call it that. But it certainly doesn’t help.

Hi my name is Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way and I have long ebony black hair (that’s how I got my name) with purple streaks and red tips that reaches my mid-back and icy blue eyes like limpid tears and a lot of people tell me I look like Amy Lee (AN: if u don’t know who she is get da hell out of here!). I’m not related to Gerard Way but I wish I was because he’s a major fucking hottie. I’m a vampire but my teeth are straight and white. I have pale white skin. I’m also a witch, and I go to a magic school called Hogwarts in England where I’m in the seventh year (I’m seventeen). I’m a goth (in case you couldn’t tell) and I wear mostly black. I love Hot Topic and I buy all my clothes from there. For example today I was wearing a black corset with matching lace around it and a black leather miniskirt, pink fishnets and black combat boots. I was wearing black lipstick, white foundation, black eyeliner and red eye shadow. I was walking outside Hogwarts. It was snowing and raining so there was no sun, which I was very happy about. A lot of preps stared at me. I put up my middle finger at them.

My Immortal

Try to avoid having more than two changes of setting in one chapter, or introducing more than three characters.

On the topic of avoiding imparting too much information at once (which in addition to not making for good writing may also confuse the reader), I usually follow the rule of not having more than two distinct scenes or locations in a single chapter. It’s likely that the chapter will start to drag if you do this, and it can leave the writing feeling scattered. I also tend to avoid introducing more than three characters in a chapter. If there are four or five main characters, particularly if they’re part of a cohesive group, I might briefly introduce them all assuming that if the reader is slightly overwhelmed or doesn’t remember all the characters, they’ll have the entire book to get to know them. I would really only do this when those four or five characters are in almost every chapter, and absolutely central to the plot. In general, less is more and it’s better to impart too little information than too much.

Be careful with pacing.

Pacing is everything, and for me, it’s been the thing that several editors / clients have asked me to change before publishing my work. It took me a long time to figure out how to do this right…because it’s fucking hard!! You have to consider, before and as you write, how to parse out the different points of a scene and ensure the entire chapter is meaningful. You don’t want to have everything important happen in the first few pages, followed by several pages of filler. It’s partially a matter of only including what you need to include to tell the story, and partially about monitoring the “speed” and flow of the writing. I find it really helpful to think of writing fiction as part art and part science. As much as writing a story is the ultimate creative process, there’s a formula to it. While many authors would probably disagree with me on this, I believe in finding a formula that works for you and sticking to it. I like to write chapters (or short stories) in an almost mathematical way. When planning out the major events of a chapter, I literally assign a number to each plot point––a percentage representing roughly how much of the chapter any particular section or piece of information should take up.

Alternate between pure imagery, commentary on that imagery, and providing context.

This is important as far as making the writing flow––this is one of the things that makes the difference between a decent writer and a great one. Back to the idea of having a formula, which naturally makes the actual process of writing much easier; every writer has a different style and may rely more on one type of writing than the other, but all are important in crafting a great scene. What I call “pure imagery” is kind of what it sounds like––visual, visceral, often beautiful description. It’s also the action of the story; events playing out. I might even include dialogue in this category. Think of “pure imagery” as the part of a chapter that could easily be translated to a screenplay. And if imagery is the backbone of your story, commentary on that imagery is the heart. While I actually think that most of any given chapter should be pretty visual, I also think it’s incredibly important to have your narrator (and other characters) react to the events of the story and offer insight in a way that makes sense for them. I’m usually pretty contemplative and theme heavy in my writing, so I have a tendency to wax poetic and flesh out each plot point such that it connects to a larger idea. You don’t have to do that, but you should be using the more introspective moments of a scene to give the visual parts of it meaning. Lastly, providing context is what ties pure imagery and commentary on that pure imagery together. It’s the “tell don’t show” part of the chapter. Sometimes, it’s okay to let the reader know (in an eloquent way) what bearing the chapter has on the plot. Being an author requires a certain understanding that most readers are smart enough that you don’t need to spell everything out, but dumb enough that you should spell some things out. Straightforwardly make connections between the imagery / action of the chapter and the associated character or plot development. Make sure you go back and forth between these three “types” of writing in every scene. Otherwise the chapter will feel monotonous.

An example of how this looks when done right:

That he died so alone is more than I can think of; that he died thinking that he owed us an apology is worse; that he died still stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself – after you, after me, after all of us who loved him – makes me think that my life has been a failure after all, that I have failed at the one thing that counted. It is then that I talk to you the most, that I go downstairs late at night and stand before Willem Listening to Jude Tell a Story, which now hangs above our dining room table: “Willem,“ I ask you, “do you feel like I do? Do you think he was happy with me?“Because he deserved happiness. We aren’t guaranteed it, none of us are, but he deserved it. But you only smile, not at me but just past me, and you never have an answer. It is also then that I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, that in another universe, maybe on a small red planet where we have not legs but tails, where we paddle through the atmosphere like seals, where the air itself is sustenance, composed of trillions of molecules of protein and sugar and all one has to do is open one’s mouth and inhale in order to remain alive and healthy, maybe you two are there together, floating through the climate.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Tie subplots in very carefully.

I looovvve subplots, and usually include at least a few in any longer work of fiction. But when including a subplot in your novel, it should be relevent and tie into other elements of the story in some way. It’s one thing to plot out events to further your subplot, but it’s a bit more difficult to take those events and make them make sense within the larger story. In each chapter, you’ll need to have a good idea of how what happens furthers the subplot, and how that subplot furthers the story, whether it’s through character development, or increasing the impact of the main plot.

When writing your first scene, write with the primary purpose of drawing the reader in.

I’ll probably do an entire post on this at some point, but as far as how to hook readers, there are pretty concrete things you should and should not do. I think it’s usually a good idea to start in the middle of the action. Start a story with pure imagery, and don’t overexplain. Leave your readers wanting more. I would also heavily advise against starting your story with a flashback. I’ve been told this multiple times, and read this in multiple places, so I’ve always heeded the general rule; when you start a story with a flashback, you orient the reader in the past, rather than in the actual story. Whether your story is told in the past tense or not (most stories are), whatever happened before the story begins should serve to emphasize or develop the plot, not the other way around. I would also advise against starting your first scene with a dream, or a character waking up.

In general, be mindful of how you begin any chapter, not just the first one. You’ll want to set up the “purpose” of the scene right away.

I usually start chapters in one of four ways: in the middle of the action, with setting information (make sure you’re not over-describing), dialogue, or character information. As usual, try to show rather than tell.

Just write.

Much of the agita writers feel about actually putting pen to paper and writing, one chapter at a time, is due to perfectionism. I say this all the time and end up including it in most of my posts on writing, but your first draft doesn’t have to be anywhere near perfect. The most important thing in writing a good story is writing a story period. Plan each chapter carefully, but also don’t get too worked up about the quality of your writing the first time around. You’ll iron out the kinks later.

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