How to Make Every Scene Count
Each scene in a novel (or narrative nonfiction, such as a memoir) should move the plot forward by providing one or more of the following:
• pertinent, new information about the characters
• aspects of setting that affect the characters or plot
• events that advance the storyline.
A scene that does not accomplish at least one of these purposes should be deleted. A scene that accomplishes all three is ideal.
Actions and reactions to information or situations provide important insight into the characters. The opening interaction between two characters sets the stage for the development of a relationship as the individuals strive toward their goals. Though back story is often important for understanding characters, don’t just “dump” information on the reader. If the back story affects the characters in a way that is vital to the story, show how it affects them as the story develops.
Some novels depend on a particular setting to create suspense or danger. Scenes that depict descriptive details of a location prepare the reader for a future incident or situation that applies to that setting. For example, a deserted mountain cabin, miles away from the nearest neighbor, would be vital to a story about someone trapped by a killer, snowbound by a blizzard, or injured and in need of rescue. Weave enough detail into each scene so the reader can visualize where the action is taking place, but not so much that the reader is distracted from the storyline.
Scenes that move a story forward present events that change the main characters in a positive or negative way. The scene can introduce a new conflict, add an additional stumbling block, introduce growth or understanding, foreshadow a coming event, or advance a relationship. Such scenes must deepen the conflict and add new insight into the plight of the main character.
To test the usefulness of a scene, ask yourself, “How does this move the plot forward?” If the scene only shows the passing of time, cut it or summarize it. For example, a scene where two characters get to know each other as they enjoy a picnic lunch has no value if it does not provide new information pertinent to the storyline. A scene is only as compelling as the elements that cause the story to progress toward a fulfilling ending. Make your novel or memoir a page-turner by making every scene count.