What Every Scene Needs

The book Writing a Killer Thriller by Jodie Renner has a ton of useful information for writers. I’m in chapter 5 today, entitled Every Scene Needs Conflict and a Change. If there’s nothing happening in your scene, if everything is nice and happy, your reader will be bored and reach for the TV remote. That can’t happen. So spice up every scene with tension and intrigue.

James Scott Bell, in his book Revision and Self-Editing, says, “Every scene in your novel should have tension, whether that comes from outright conflict or the inner turmoil of character emotions… You create outer tension by giving the POV character a scene objective. What does he want, and why? It has to matter to him, or it won’t to us [the reader].”
Simple enough: toss obstacles in the path of the hero and watch him try to get through it. Those obstacles could be other people (like the villain, or the hero’s mom, or the hero’s best friend…), difficult circumstances, the weather, even his own inner conflicts. Renner says, “Even in quieter scenes, it’s important to show the inner tension of your viewpoint character–worry, concern, irritability, anxiety, doubt, indecision. Also show the tension of other characters by their words, actions, tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.”
Hallie Ephron, in her book The Everything Guide to Writing Your First Novel, says, “In every scene, something has to change. This means that something has to happen that changes the situation, or a character’s perception of it, and that change propels the story forward.” Maybe your character emerges from the scene with a different perspective on their situation. Maybe his emotional state is changed. Maybe his relationship to his wife has altered. Usually, this change is for the worse. This change should also help the character grow, usually by learning from his failure.
Remember to show, not tell, within scenes, and hold something back for the reader to wonder about. If you need to use a flashback or show backstory, leave enough mystery that the reader is anxious to know more, but don’t give it yet. Hold something back. This also creates tension.
Lastly, end scenes early. Don’t let them linger, or peter out. End on a hook, something that prompts the reader to turn the page because they’re dying to know what happens next. Many times, you’ll chop a scene with a chapter break and continue in the next chapter (or the third one after that).
Go back to your work-in-progress and choose a scene near the beginning. Ask yourself: Is there conflict? Is there turmoil, either outer or inner? Does the hero want something and can’t quite get it? If you answered NO to any of these, brainstorm ways to add conflict. Think of ten different things that could go wrong. Then discard the easy ones, the cliches, the expected ones. Now choose one that’s still on the list and insert it. See if that doesn’t improve your scene and get rid of the yawns.
-Sonja
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