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Sep 16, 2012

Seven Questions To Ask To Improve a Scene (or an Entire Novel)

Or you could just add Taylor Kinney.

There are seven questions you can ask your about your book before you begin to write it, which will make it a stronger book. Those questions work best if you ask them before you actually sit down to write.

Now, if you're like me, and sitting in front of a computer with a finished or progressing manuscript, these questions might frustrate you--it's a little too late to change the stakes of your entire novel.

It's not too late to help strengthen the novel scene by scene, however. As you know, I'm a strong proponent of the idea that strong scenes make a stronger book. I've blogged on this before. (I label each draft of my novel with a letter of the alphabet, and I usually get to those squiggly ones near the end. This is undoubtedly excessive. But as you can see, I obsess over making my scenes awesome.) So look at each scene individually and ask yourself these seven questions:

1. How can I raise the stakes?

There are basically two kinds of scenes: critical scenes, which Holly Lisle calls "candybar" scenes, and I call "juicy" scenes, which both the author and the readers (hopefully) love, love, love. These are the scenes which would be shown in the teaser clips for next week's episode if your book were a tv show. When the heroine tells a lie to the hero and the villain, or when the lie is revealed. When a confrontation, a revelation or a declaration of love occurs. These the linchpins of the novel.
The other kind of scene are the ligaments of the novel. In epic fantasy, these are often the "traveling scenes." Between the time the heroine lies to the villain and the time she is caught, maybe they travel together. (Um, in fact, this is EXACTLY what happens in Wing.) This scene needs to be there. And it needs to be a scene, not a one-liner about "three weeks of hard travel." You need some on-stage story space between the action and the consequence, or the story arc won't flow right. So this is not a scene you can just skip... but you don't want it to be boring, dragging down the rest of the book with its oozing Blah.
The solution is to raise the stakes. Not TOO high--you don't want to overshadow the later show-down when the villain finds out the lie--but something more exciting than plodding alone. The stakes could be physical, emotional, moral or what have you. But make the outcome matter.

2. How can I deepen the emotion?

In a way, this point and ever other on the list follow from the first, Raise the Stakes. Deepening the emotion in the scene also raises the stakes.
Look at the characters in your scene, especially the two main characters as ask what is each one feeling? What is the main feeling--and what is the undercurrent? Two characters who are antagonists, each trying to achieve a mutually exclusive objective, might be hostile to one another at one level, yet admiring on another level.
And, of course, never underestimate the possibilities for romantic tension.
Emotion becomes deeper in the scene if you keep in mind that the characters are feeling something, feeling more than one contradictory emotion, may be lying to themselves or the other characters about what it is, and is probably misunderstood by the other character.

3. How can I force a choice?

Gandalf and the hobbits are trudging along--pretty dull, right?
No, because there's a snow storm which could kill them all. (Raise the Stakes) And that means that they now have to make a choice.
And Gandalf is going to make Frodo do it. He's the Ringbearer after all. No pressure, Frodo. It's not like this moment, when you decided to take the path that would GET GANDALF KILLED is going to haunt you for the rest of your life or anything.
See how that works? Force your character to make a choice. Just remember, the choice has to have real consequences latter on in the novel.

4. How can a character pass a test, fail a test, or prove a point?

Often one of the reasons that you can't just skip from one candybar scene to the next is that your hero has some growing and changing to do first. Neo has to learn Kung Fu. Even though he just downloads it, we still get to see that happen and drool jealously. And think, never mind kung fu, that tech would have saved my butt during high school geometry. "I know proofs!"
Ahem. Moving on.
Double up your scenes so that your hero is impressing some people--maybe winning over the heroine who was contemptuous of him at first--but antagonizing others, like the heroine's present boyfriend. Or the opposite happens -- he cheats on a test to pass, and can advance to the next level of the competition, but he knows that he's not ready. He's actually more of a fake than ever.
As always, this has to fit the novel's overall story arc. Don't insert random episodes to make it exciting if they are irrelevant. Just look for the natural tests, choices and proving grounds your hero would logically pass through on the way to the final climax of the story.

5. How can I delay gratification?

You may think that simply sprinkling in more sex and violence will add excitement to any story. It won't. But adding the anticipation of sex and violence will. (And here you thought I was going to be above gratuitous sex and violence? Nah!) Anticipation is more addictive than consummation. You can get to the smooching and punching and monster attacks in due time, but don't skip the foreplay! So wherever possible:
Replace or precede consummation with seduction.
Replace or precede wrongdoing with temptation.
Replace or precede horror with suspense.
Replace or precede shock with mystery.

6. How can I draw out a theme?

I discussed this quite a bit in my last post. Quiet scenes are often good places to toss in a symbol or sentence that will reinforce your theme. One of the most important scenes in Never Let Me go is a simple scene where the character is hugging a pillow. The author connects that one scene, that one action, to the romance, to the mystery of the children, and ultimately, to the deepest theme of the book itself

These don't have to be quiet scenes either
In Book 6 of The Unfinished Song, my character, a hunter named Finnadro, asks himself the same question over and over: what makes a man a monster? In several successive scenes, as he uncovers new evidence and also grows more desperate, he keeps reaching different conclusions--but the real question is if he will find out what he really needs to know before the deadline.

7. How can I replace a cliché with a twist? Or deepen a cliché with an archetype?

Eliminate cliches. There are two easy ways and one hard way. The hard way is to be utterly and brilliantly original. Good luck with that. If you pull it off, I'll hate and admire you (see Point 2).
The two easy ways are to set up a cliche and then twist it in an unexpected way. You're playing off the reader's expectations things will end one way, but they don't.
The second way is to deepen the cliche into an archetype. And the way to do this, ironically, is to add more individuating and unique details to your version of this trope or character. So you want the wise old teacher who teaches the hero. Make him a small, green thief with a silly laugh who steals your lunch. (I bet you forgot that when Yoda was first introduced, he was the very last person Luke expected to be a Jedi Master.)
With either of these, be careful. Now we all take Yoda for granted, and he no longer surprises us. If you're trying to twist a cliche, make sure you haven't just twisted it into a new, even more tiresome cliche. If you are presenting an archetypal character, really make it your own and make sure it fits deeply into the worldbuilding of your story.

Finally, here's one more free tip: 

When in doubt, get one or more character into less clothes. It makes scarier scenes scarier, and sexy scenes sexier and it increases the chances your book will be optioned by Hollywood.  ;)

(And here you thought I was kidding about Taylor Kinney!)


April Grey said...

Thanks for these terrific tips. They will come in handy (and I am printing them out for my bulletin board).

SandyG said...

I agree with April - I am saving all your blogs on how to write better. You really should write a book on how to write a book...

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this! I just wrote out a quick list of scenes for my next book. Tomorrow I plan to detail out those scenes and will definitely use these questions as I work.

Tammie Painter