Books are meant to be read, but boring, skippable scenes defy this purpose. If readers are skimming pages like the advertisement section of a newspaper, the story isn’t fulfilling its design.
Most writers agree that lazy scenes are unacceptable, but everyone proposes different fixes. Some advise cutting lengthy talks about previous discoveries, while others think long villain speeches and inner monologues should be banned. But these solutions overlook the core of the issue. Scene failures can be traced to the absence of an element that every reader craves: change.
In “3 Smart Tips for Structuring Powerful Scenes,” Rachel Starr Thomson writes, “A good scene has forward motion—not only in the sense that something actually happens but also in that it moves the whole story forward. By the end of a single scene, the story world is not the same as it was before.”
A scene that doesn’t alter the story’s direction is meaningless fluff that will disrupt the pacing and cloud the message. But you may be wondering how to shape every scene to affect your story. Disney’s hit Frozen demonstrates five ways to accomplish this.
1. Push a Character Toward an Important Decision
I’m not saying that every scene must contain a plot twist. That would feel artificial and forced. Organic movement comes from the natural link between actions and reactions, not random surprises. Instead, your scenes should revolve around a conflict and a choice.
A completed scene might resemble Anna and Elsa’s argument at the coronation ball. Elsa insists that Anna’s engagement to Prince Hans is rash. Anna jabs at Elsa’s distant attitude and upsets her, causing her to expose her ice powers to the court. As Elsa flees Arendelle, she accidentally sets off an eternal winter.
Anna must now decide how to address the new situation. She takes a moment to process, then mounts a horse and gallops after her sister. Voila! The story rushes forward.
Note that the conflict prevents Anna from resuming ordinary life. Even if she’d stayed at the castle, her sister would still be missing, and the snow wouldn’t stop. This is what Rachel Starr Thomson was describing in her article. A character shouldn’t be able to return to normalcy after a scene closes.
2. Divert a Character’s Course
The pivotal plot point between Anna and Elsa isn’t the only scene that redirects the characters. During the wolf chase, Kristoff’s sled tumbles over a cliff and explodes. Though the consequence is relatively small, it forces Anna and Kristoff to continue the journey on foot. This leads them to Olaf, who later saves Anna from a locked room in the castle. The incident seems minor, but it serves as another domino in the collapsing chain of events. A scene doesn’t need major repercussions or remarkable action to be significant.
3. Reveal Startling Information
An information reveal keeps the action/reaction sequences rolling. It kickstarts a scene by giving the protagonist either a new quest to follow or a new obstacle to overcome.
In Frozen, the plot is shoved forward when Grand Pabbie tells Anna that she’ll freeze without an act of true love because Elsa struck her heart. In your book, maybe a character discovers that a friend has been kidnapped, a magical object is fake, or an enemy has besieged his village. These revelations force characters to respond—or ignore the problem and suffer the consequences.
Even if the protagonist remains idle, new knowledge will still redefine her world and astonish readers. If Anna and Kristoff had disregarded the troll’s warning, Anna would have frozen in the end.
Though side characters share information through dialogue in the example above, remember that you can rely on showing too. When Elsa freezes the fjord, viewers see her expanding powers. Characters discuss it in the reaction portion afterward, but the audience understood what was happening through the visual display beforehand.
4. Add Side Character Conflict
A story can also transform when another character’s struggles influence the protagonist. After leaving the castle, Anna visits Oaken’s Trading Post, where Kristoff and the owner squabble over prices. Kristoff loses, and Oaken throws him outside. The ice man scares Anna a little, but the dispute doesn’t involve her. She then uses Kristoff’s need for supplies to bribe him into helping her, which launches the plot forward.
This tactic needs to be applied with caution, though. POV characters are usually in the thick of the action because readers feel separated from the excitement if they watch the person with the most at stake from the sidelines. However, Kristoff’s dilemma relates to the plot and Anna’s quest, so it works.
5. Create More Obstacles
An obstacle can be anything from a giant snow beast to a wolf pack, as long as it hinders the protagonist from achieving her goal and prods her down new paths. However, you do need to follow a few criteria.
1. The obstacle must make sense. In Frozen, wolves attack Anna and Kristoff. Wolves live in the forest. Wolves eat reindeer. Therefore, their pursuit of Sven, Anna, and Kristoff fits within the realm of Disney logic. Story obstacles need to be tied to the environment or the antagonistic forces. Otherwise, readers will roll their eyes.
2. The obstacle needs to matter. If a scene’s altercation doesn’t evolve the plot, it’s pointless. This echoes the a-story-must-change-with-every-scene principle. Any bumps that the protagonist faces must have bearing on the story as a whole.
3. Don’t introduce another major antagonistic force halfway through the story. You’ll risk fracturing the plot. The lead antagonist should be established during the beginning chapters of a book, though his minions or environmental friction can develop later.
But what about Prince Hans? No one knew he was evil until miles past the midpoint. While this is true, his motivations were foreshadowed, so his deceit is not a complete shock.
Don’t Obsess Over Structure
At first, reviving a scene seems simple. All you have to do is ensure an encounter provokes a reaction that results in a choice and prompts more action. Then the cycle repeats.
But when you’re handling a thousand tiny story threads, seeing the core can be difficult. Scenes sometimes refuse to fit into a mold, and that’s okay. You still need to be wise about which ones you include, but don’t forget to let your characters live. Better to wander a bit than be too direct and fake. As you edit your scenes, try to balance structure with authenticity. Then those unnecessary scenes won’t seem so skippable after all.
A long time ago on a hill not so far away, Gabrielle Pollack fell in love. Not with ice cream or cats (though those things are never far from her side) but with storytelling. Since then, she’s been glued to a keyboard and is always in the midst of a writing project, whether a story, blog post, or book. She was a reader before becoming a writer, however, and believes paradise should include thick novels, hot cocoa, a warm fire, and “Do Not Disturb” signs. Her favorite stories include Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn saga and Nadine Brandes’s Out of Time trilogy.
As those who know her will confess, Gabby is a whole lot of weirdness packed into one INFP. Sharp objects, storms, and trees are her friends, along with stubborn characters and, on occasion, actual people. When she’s not writing, she’s shooting arrows through thickets and subsequently missing her target, jamming on the piano, and pushing her cat off her keyboard. She hopes to infuse her fiction with honesty, victory, and hope, and create stories that grip readers from the first page to the last. Her other goals include saving the world and mastering a strange concept called adulthood. You can hang out with her on her quirky blog and Instagram.