I made this list as part of my revision process for my debut novel, Let it Reign. I hoped to write a book readers would struggle to put down. One of our goal as authors, is to make a story flow and keep the pages turning. Three-dimensional characters and riveting plots are essential. But to succeed at something, you know breaking a goal into steps is your best shot at accomplishing it.
For storytelling and writing craft, those steps are scenes. And it’s important to look at each individually, as well as how they work from one to the next.
Hence why I think this list can be helpful not just in the revision stages but also during plotting. Or even while fleshing out your scenes and adding more details in later drafts.
So whether you are staring at a blank page or a messy draft, I hope these questions help anchor you into the story and the scenes just as you hope your readers will be one day.
For this journey, let’s take two characters (let’s call them A and B) and work through a scene with them to give a more hands-on explanation how these questions benefit the story as a whole, and make your chapters rich from scene to scene, to scene.
1. What needs to happen in this scene?
This is going to be your basic ABCs.
Example: Character A walks in on Character B hurriedly cleaning up blood and finds out Character A is. . . the killer they’ve been searching for throughout the book.
Gripping right? But let’s make it more intense.
2. What are the character’s goals here?
Knowing this will help you decide whether or not certain characters need to even be in this scene (or if a character is missing perhaps), how they will act and react throughout the scene, and what their motivations are against the other characters involved.
Example: Let’s say A was searching for B to tell them they are in love with them. Now what? As for B, maybe their goal was to finish cleaning up the blood of their latest victim, knowing A was on their trail? Perhaps they’re late to catch their escape flight?
3. What is this scene’s purpose? Am I increasing tension, showing growth, or creating more conflict?
Your scenes should have a purpose if they are taking up ink and pages and adding to your word count. The purpose is up to you as the author to decide. It can be comedic relief, showing character development, raise the stakes of the plot, etc. How you tone the dialogue and prose will affect this. Think of it like background music in a movie impacting your feelings about what’s on screen.
Example: For A and B, I would say this scenes purpose would be to increase tension AND show character development. Will B let A go because they love them? Will they arrest them? Will B kill A to keep their secret? And how do they feel about A in return?
4. Who needs to be in this scene?
Well, we will need A and B, right?
But perhaps A has a sidekick, or B has a pet, etc. Adding another moving part to a scene can affect almost everything. So be mindful of who shares your characters’ special moments, and ensure everyone involved truly belongs there. Even if you don’t showcase the why immediately.
And remember, if you’re not writing in first person of either A or B, perhaps the scene could be told from a Character C’s POV.
Example: Character C is hiding in the closet watching the whole scene. They knew A was coming to tell B about their feelings and was hoping to stop them, but B got their first and they were forced to hide. Could they have witnessed the murder? Will they come out of hiding?
5. Where could it take place?
I suggest picking at least two locations because your first thought might not be the right one. Even writing this blog post, I first imagined the characters in a kind of surgery room, then an abandoned warehouse. But it could also be a cabin in the woods or a grand mansion.
It will come down to what time-period you are writing in, as well as the means of a character and the world-building you’ve created prior to this scene.
6. What activity/ actions could the characters be doing?
Plan this out in advance to avoid the common writing pitfall: ‘the white room’. Giving your characters something specific and interesting to do will help anchor them AND the readers into the scene.
Example: Character B could be crouched cleaning up the crime scene, and maybe Character A pulls a gun on them once they see the blood, putting all the previous clues from the story together.
7. What is the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
This is where your creativity can come alive. Depending on the scene’s mood and what you want to happen next in the story following this scene, think of this moment as a means to an end. But a passionate and exciting one. (Or funny, if it’s comedic relief.) You could go worst-case scenario if you’re looking to raise the stakes at the climax, or best case if this is the end.
Worst Case Example: After some banter, B lunges at A. The gun goes off. Did the bullet hit one of them? Or miss? Or did it go toward the closet where C is hiding?
Best-Case Scenario: B confesses to A who they are. Will they run off together? Will A leave everything they know behind? Or take B down and finally be taken serious as a detective, etc?
8. What story theme does this scene help communicate to the reader?
When you first plot a novel, you may have already decided what your themes are throughout.
For Let it Reign, my themes were being true to yourself, friendship, and found family, community cooperation, and inner strength.
This knowledge helped me craft the moods and the motivations in the characters, whether they were part of my hero’s team or the antagonists.
For our imaginary scenario here, perhaps our themes could be uncovering the truth, justice, death, and love, etc.
9. Are you including elements of foreshadowing or red herring?
At first thought, you may think these terms are reserved for mysteries, thrillers, and other suspense plots. But you can use call-backs and even foreshadowing in the cutest romances. You might want to plan them ahead or add them in later during revision. But in a pivotal scene, take a moment and see if there’s anything from a previous scene you could use to spark an “Aha!” moment now or anything you can place in prose/ dialogue now to set up a future scene?
10. Is any specific backstory being revealed?
A secret could be revealed, or a question answered, whether the reader knows they’ve been asking it or not.
Looking at our scenario here, this could be an excellent opportunity for B to explain their origin story. How they became the killer A has been chasing., why they do what they do, and perhaps even how.
11. Are you involving any world-building?
This goes back to our white room syndrome but in a broader view. Not just focusing on the room or location our characters are in, but the environment as a whole and how it’s affecting the scene and the characters.
Bringing in additional, simple world-building elements can be as simple as describing the weather or as deep as talking about society and its influences on the characters.
Example: Character B could talk about growing up in poverty, and how they did what they had to gain the wealth they have now (or survive.) Rainwater could be dripping into A’s eyes, and they have to brush their hair back to better aim with the gun.
12. How could it begin?
Beginning a scene can be a challenging. I sometimes feel frozen staring at the blinking line, wondering how to start. However, it doesn’t have to be so scary. I promise, there are many ways to start a scene.
Character Action or Description
I stepped into the hall, my eyes sweeping left to right, my footsteps sure and excited until I slipped. Looking down, I fumbled for the light switch behind me and my gaze widened as it followed the blood trail to the kneeling B. Their back was to me, the knees of their white trousers soaked with blood.
Setting or World-Building Description
The trees surrounding the cabin swayed viciously in the wind and rain soaked my hair as I pounded up the wooden steps and onto the porch. I didn’t bother pushing it back, my heart pounding in my chest as I turned the knob and walked in, not even bothering to knock on the door.
“B!” I called, stepping into the cabin without even knocking. “B! I have to tell you--”
This was it. I was actually going to go through with this. I was going to tell them how I felt. How grateful I was for their patience and friendship these last few months. And how I wanted more.
Our last year of friendship has come down to this moment.
(True for more than one reason, right?)
13. How does it need to end?
Is it possible to be as intimidated about the end of a scene as the beginning? You bet, but holding on tight to your characters motivations and this particular scenes purpose, should help you figure that out quickly if you’re struggling.
14. What emotions need to be communicated here? What three ways can you reinforce this through dialogue, body language, and prose?
In our imaginary scenario with A and B here, I would say the primary emotions throughout the scene might be: anticipation, horror, fear, shock, dread, and clarity.
We can communicate these emotions in dialogue by showing incomplete sentences or shouts and screams. In body language, we can talk about pounding hearts, wide eyes, nervous ticks unique to each character, or slow and careful movements. And in prose, we can describe the characters’ emotional and mental reactions as the clues fall into place and the truth is revealed.
15. How can you incorporate the five senses into this scene?
If it’s a quick scene, try to showcase at least two senses. If it’s longer, I would aim for closer to four, if not all five depending on the length.
The reason for this special focus is because we all experience the world differently. Some feel further drawn in by sounds or smells. And if we want our readers to feel immersed in the book, like they are the main character, or in the room during the scene, using more than just visual cues will create a scene beyond the surface of what is seen.
In our scenario, we can describe the smell of bleach B is using. We can write about the crackling fire in the cabin or the branches whipping against the window from the storm. And describe the gun’s weight or how A can’t seem to release the doorknob, frozen in shock.
Whether using this list before you write or after (or in some combination), I wish you the best luck with writing a binge-worthy novel, readers will devour and rave about.
Meet Cathrine Swift
Cathrine Swift is a Canadian multi-genre indie author passionate about writing steamy and empowering romantic fiction full of diversity and responsible representation.
Through her YouTube channel and online support group, she works to inspire herself and other creative souls to live an intentional and creative life. You can connect with her across social media as @authorcathrineswift and get more info at www.authorcathrineswift.com