Every writer faces dead scenes at some point (yes, including John Green and Rainbow Rowell). But your dead scenes still have buttloads of potential. Yes, two cheek loads. So don’t toss ‘em. And having meh scenes doesn’t mean you’re a terrible writer either, sweet flamingo. So let’s talk about how to breathe some life into your scenes.
Every single scene has to motivate the plot by either:
- Building up your main character(s)
- Creating conflict
- World building
(or doing all three!)
But first, let’s talk about the necessity of a powerful opening paragraph:
The Opening Paragraph:
First paragraphs must propose questions to the reader. A powerful first paragraph sets the emotional tone for the rest of the scene. It spotlights the characters involved, offers a setting for the scene to play out in, and throws the reader right into the next plot point.
Overwhelmed yet? Lol, don’t panic, baby. Consider these ideal examples of opening scenes:
“Alderaan was known to people throughout the galaxy for its beautiful scenery, its aesthetically pleasing architecture, and its commitment to preserving harmony and tranquility. Those people would have been very surprised by the scene at the Aldera spaceport, when the Tantive IV unexpectedly unloaded a hundred refugees from Wobani.”
-Leia Princess of Alderaan
“Mr. Hindley came home to the funeral; and- a thing that amazed us, and set the neighbours gossiping right and left- he brought a wife with him. What she was, and where she was born, he never informed us: probably, she had neither money nor name to recommend her, or he would scarcely have kept the union from his father.”
Endless questions reel us into these intro paragraphs like fish on a flippin’ hook!
We get the emotional feel of the scene immediately. These scenes also provide a setting, raising the emotional stakes even more.
The opening paragraph funnels your reader into one heckuva’ powerful scene. So, let’s talk scene options:
Building Up Your Main Characters:
Give readers a scene that either:
- Challenges your character’s beliefs
- Has him challenge the status quo
- Has him face a fear
- Has him fail at something important
- Has him succeed at something important
Remember in The Force Awakens when Finn decided to help Poe escape captivity from the First Order?
Finn struck up a relationship that mattered to us. Likewise, Finn challenged the status quo and faced a fear by flying out with Poe in a TIE fighter and battling other TIE fighters together.
It was a powerful scene that hooked us. We were on the edge of our seats, desperate to know how it would end for Finn and Poe!
Conflict is all about raising the stakes, giving the reader reason to be invested in the story. Conflict doesn’t have to be a giant battle either. Tension is the key here. Tension is subtle but undeniable to the reader. Creating tension means you create scenes where:
- Characters disagree
- A character reacts to an external influence
- A character chooses a risky course
- A character acts out in secrecy
- A character takes a bold stance in opposition to someone or something
In Ready Player One, Wade Watts faces a test that threatens everyone’s chance at finding a 2 billion dollar “Easter egg”:
“My first impulse was to delete every single copy of the e-mail and pretend I’d never received it. But I changed my mind. I wanted to know exactly what IOI was going to offer. And I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet Nolan Sorrento, the Sixers’ infamous leader… Once I’d done my homework on Sorrento, I felt like I was ready to sit down with the devil. I pulled up the contact card attached to Sorrento’s e-mail and tapped the chatlink invitation icon at the bottom.”
This (edited version) scene provides tension and conflict. We are dyyyying to know what becomes of Wade’s decision. Why? Because this scene shows a character we’ve invested in reacting to an external influence, choosing a risky course, and acting out in secrecy.
We read books for the very purpose of leaving our current reality. That means writing world building scenes are hecka’ important. World building doesn’t have to be an elaborate description of a character’s home planet, or the hectic bazaar they’re snaking through- although that’s welcome. World building can be subtle, yet artfully weaved into your narrative. That means you can:
- Share a description of animals in their daily routines
- Describe the weather or season
- Suggest local history
- Describe the local peoples- their customs, their wardrobes, their routines
- Have a character face a creature, or the elements
- Describe the view during a journey
Consider a scene from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:
“Dwarves had not passed that way for many years, but Gandalf had, and he knew how evil and danger had grown and thriven in the Wild, since the dragons had driven men from the lands, and the goblins had spread in secret after the battle of the Mines of Moria. Even the good plans of wise wizards like Gandalf go astray sometimes when you are off on dangerous adventures over the Edge of the Wild; and Gandalf was a wise enough wizard to know it.”
This scene marries history, creatures, and races in one tight paragraph. It’s a beautiful glimpse into the world of Middle Earth.
If you’re writing a science fiction or fantasy novel, world building is a must. Find out countless ways to build your fantasy world here
Powerful scenes resonate with readers. They motivate the plot. They build up your characters, and they describe the world you’ve invited your reader into. It’s encouraged to weave these scene varieties into one.
How about you, dear pangolin? What scenes are you working on currently? How do you plan on changing them? Tell me in the comments section below. I’d love to talk shop with you!
(Check out my review of Ready Player One here!)