Create Scenes That Sizzle - 7 Essential Elements

Posted by Martha Alderson, M.A. on

Every story spans a period of time. Story can be defined as conflict shown in scene, meaning that most writers will treat time in scene rather than in summary.

An example of a partial scene from Rick Bragg's memoir: Ava's Man:

"Charlie felt the hot rush of shot fly past his face, and his legs shook under him with the boom of the gun. But it was a clean miss, and he started to run at Jerry, closing the distance even as Jerry fished in his pocket for another load.

Twenty feet.

Jerry cursed and broke open the breech.

Twelve feet.

He slapped in the fresh shell.

Eight feet.

He snapped the gun closed.

Six feet.

He threw it to his shoulder.

Four feet.

He saw a fist the size of a lard bucket come flying at his nose."

Every high point in a story must be played out in scene on the page, moment-by-moment in real time. The technique of slowing things down forces the stakes in a story ever higher. At the same time, the stakes also rise for the writer. Many beginning writers hide from the pressure of creating scenes by relying on summary. These same writers hold the mistaken belief that they can control things better by "telling" what happens rather than by "showing" what happens in a scene. Consider, instead, the idea that by breaking down each scene to its smallest parts you retain control.

Essential Element #1: Time and Place

The first layer of every scene deals with time and setting. Often this layer is implied or understood from the scenes and summaries that precede it. Either way, be sure to ground your readers in the "where" and "when" of the scene. The last thing you want is for your reader to awaken from the dream you have so carefully crafted due to disorientation or confusion.

In the scene from Ava's Man, the time is established in the earlier part of the scene - "They were getting ready for supper just a few weeks later when"

Essential Element #2: Character Emotional Development

If conflict, tension and suspense drive the reader to turn the page or send the viewer to the edge of her seat, the character emotional development motivates them. Readers read stories and viewers go to the movies to learn about a character's emotional development. The word development implies growth or change. Therefore character becomes a layer.

Using the example, Charlie's character emotional development has deepened over the scope of the story thus far. "Then Charlie did one of the bravest things I have ever heard of, a thing his children swear to. He opened the door and stepped outside to meet his enemy empty-handed, and just started walking."

Essential Element #3: Goal

The protagonist has a long-term goal for the duration of the story and smaller goals for every scene. They may or may not reach the scene goal by scene's end, but viewers and readers who know what is at stake for the character are more apt to cheer for the character's successes and mourn his failures.

For example, in Ava's Man we know that Charlie's goal for the portion of the scene written above is to close the distance between himself and Jerry before Jerry loads the gun.

Essential Element #4: Dramatic Action

Dramatic action that unfolds moment-by-moment on the page makes up the next layer of scene.

In our example, the dramatic action intensifies because of the "ticking clock" - will Charlie stop Jerry in time or will he get shot?

Essential Element #5: Conflict

Embedded within dramatic action lies a layer or two of conflict, tension and/or suspense. The conflict does not have to be overt, but it must be present in some form. Fill a scene with tension or suspense or something unknown lurking in the shadows and you have yourself an exciting story. Remember that setbacks and failure create suspense, conflict and tension, not success or good news.

Charlie's dilemma has conflict, tension, AND suspense. Will he or won't he? is a simple and powerful set-up.

Essential Element #6: Emotional Change

Just as the action in every scene affects the overall emotional growth of your characters as a reflection of the entire work, the action also affects your characters emotional state at the scene level. In other words, the character's mood changes because of what is said or done in that specific scene.

In Ava's Man, Charlie starts the scene angry that Jerry hurt his friend, Hootie, "just for the sport of it." The more he thinks about "now this man had come to his house, bringing the treat of violence to where his wife and children lived," the angrier and more determined he becomes.

Anger consumes Charlie. Then Jerry says he is coming inside the house, and Charlie becomes furious (an emotional change in intensity).

Charlie's anger gets him to his enemy in time to stop him cold only to see "a huge figure hurl itself at him from the shadows," changing his emotional state again, moving it even higher.

Essential Element #7: Thematic Significance

Thematic significance not only creates mood, it also creates the final layer of scene and the overall spirit of your story. Your reason for writing the story, what you want your readers to take away from having read it holds the key to your theme. When the details you use in scene support the thematic significance you have an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.

The theme of Ava's Man could be that a man who drinks too much but is loyal and just, inspires respect and becomes legendary.

Our example scene, Charlie's friend Hootie is accused of stealing Jerry's whiskey. Charlie is not drinking or drunk in this scene, but the fact that alcohol is the object of the conflict creates thematic significance.

Early in the scene, Bragg establishes that Jerry has done wrong to Hootie. As much as anger motivates Charlie's actions, so does his deep sense of loyalty to Hootie. This reinforces the idea that Charlie is loyal and, by emphasizing the concept, also strengthens the theme.

At the end of the scene, in summary we are told that Jerry never came back, "maybe because [he] respected [Charlie]" Yet another of the thematic elements is highlighted, deepening the thematic meaning to the entire piece.

Creating a Scene Tracker

Create a Scene Tracker for your project using all seven essential elements for a scene that sizzles. Track each scene for the seven elements. The elements you locate right may very well be your strengths in writing. The missing ones may create more of a challenge for you.

Take it one layer at a time. Trust the process and good luck!

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