Scene choice can make or break a story. Putting empty scenes in will bore readers, while leaving important scenes out could make them feel cheated. Scene design is also critical to managing everything your reader has to learn. If you don’t have scenes that help you communicate, you’ll end up compensating with boring exposition dumps.
In the previous articles of this series, we covered reducing the story’s complexity to make the information load manageable, then selecting the most important information to convey. Once you have a high-level plot outline and a list of what you need to communicate, it’s time to design your scenes.
What Scenes Need to Highlight
A scene is a unit of narration that depicts events in real time, as though the reader is witnessing it. Anything shown this way has more detail and emphasis, and it’s more immersive as a result. Designing scenes is about prioritizing the most important parts of the story.
Information is important, but don’t choose scenes for the sole purpose of making information easier to convey. Scenes should also feature the story’s structure. I have a detailed breakdown of this in another article, but let’s go over a few basics.
First, what does it mean to feature the story’s structure? Structure has three components.
- Problems: A problem, or hook, is a tense situation with an uncertain outcome. That tension holds the story together, so it’s worth a scene to establish. However, you’ll often have a lot of flexibility when choosing how and when to introduce problems. For a murder mystery, you could show a scene where the victim dies or you could wait until the main character sees the body.
- Turning Points: A turning point is a moment of change when important outcomes become inevitable. In most cases, a turning point is the moment when a protagonist solves a problem or gets what they need to solve it. Turning points are often very specific, and they need to be in a scene. For instance, readers will not be happy if the final battle against the Dark One happens offscreen.
- Resolutions: This is the outcome that was uncertain before. Witnessing it directly allows the last of the tension to be dispelled, so the audience is effectively released from the hook. In many cases, the resolution happens immediately after the turning point, and they can happen in the same scene. However, you might choose to have one scene where your protagonist catches the villain and another scene where the authorities take the villain away.
Together, these components make up an arc. Because plots are fractal, most great scenes feature not only an important component of the bigger story but also their own self-contained arc.
For instance, let’s say in your opening scene your protagonist takes a risk at work and gets fired. Getting fired could easily create a bigger problem that drives the story, but the protagonist also just tried to fix something and failed. That’s an arc. Generally, if you aim to put relevant conflicts in your scenes, you will end up with good scene-level arcs.
The structure in a scene should move the story forward. For this reason, flashbacks are usually a bad idea. Yes, they enable us to present history using immersive, real-time action, but they obstruct the story and test reader patience. Instead, sometimes backstory should be depicted as part of the linear order of events. See my article on backstory for how to judge this.
Storytellers also make the mistake of glossing over events that should be depicted in a scene. For this, follow the expected trend rule. Anything that follows an expected trend in the story does not have to be shown in a scene. You can summarize or skip over it. But if there’s an important change the audience couldn’t anticipate, they need to see how that happens.
While it’s important to follow the structural requirements of a story, information is still an important factor when planning scenes.
Keeping Information Limits in Mind
There’s a hard limit on how much information you can introduce at once. This is especially relevant during openings, when everything is new. A scene with 10 diplomats around a negotiating table would make an atrocious opening, because you’d have 10 characters to introduce and all of the political context needed to understand their negotiation.
So how much can you fit in one scene? Well, if your story opens in a real-world environment that needs no explanation, you might get away with introducing four named characters. The more world complexity you have, the more you’d better reduce the character count. For instance, Elantris opens with just Prince Raoden in his room. Simply explaining how Raoden suddenly transforms and that this is related to an abandoned city nearby is complex enough without additional characters.
Reducing characters doesn’t mean you can’t have more people present for the scene – but those will be unnamed people hanging out in the background. The audience shouldn’t have to learn about them or remember them.
In many cases, you can expand to give yourself more time for information. While you shouldn’t add superfluous scenes just to explain things, you can add more engaging structure to the story. Put another challenge in the protagonist’s path, one they have to get through before the rest of the plot can unfold.
For instance, the previous article in this series had a case study featuring The Kiss of Deception. In it, Lia has to escape from an arranged marriage. The marriage is dangerous because her new family thinks she has magic when she does not.
In the opening, we could add a scene where Lia makes a last attempt to get her father to tell her prospective in-laws about her missing magic. This social conflict would tell readers about her marriage and its danger to her. Once she fails to convince him, she has to resort to her escape attempt. This would make it much easier to convey information than if the story opened with her fleeing the cathedral.
Covering What’s Important
Keeping those hard limits in mind, the best scenes allow the audience to learn the most important information by witnessing it directly. For instance, you might have a scene where your protagonist sells a prized possession to get enough money for their next meal. That’s a more powerful way of building sympathy than expositing about how they had to sell their possessions so they could eat.
Unfortunately, showing also takes more time than expositing. It’s unlikely you can communicate everything the audience should know this way. And again, it isn’t worth showing all of your information if that causes you to abandon important plot events. Thankfully, the scenes that work best for the plot often match up nicely with those that convey information. This is especially likely if you prioritize engagement information and not just logistical details.
Let’s say goblins are the big antagonists of your story. To create tension, you want to inform readers that a big goblin invasion is coming and that it could destroy your protagonist’s home town. But your current opening scene shows your character trying to cast their first spell. It has nothing to do with goblins, so you’re struggling to work goblin information in there. Not only would you have to use exposition, but that exposition won’t fit in naturally.
Your problem is that your opening scene is too far from your story’s plot. In fact, you might have chosen this attempt at spellcasting just to explain how your magic works. But your audience probably doesn’t need to know everything about magic immediately. Instead, the best choice for both your story and your information strategy is to get the goblins involved somehow.
Inserting goblins in your opening scene would make it very tense, but you may not need to go that far. Could the protagonist try to cast a spell that will hide them from goblins? Or maybe the protagonist works on the spell outside, only to find signs that a goblin scout has visited the area.
Often, milder opening conflicts will make it easier for you to include attachment-related information, but you don’t want to neglect tension either. In this case, what if the protagonist spotted dangerous goblin scouts in the woods nearby, tried and failed to use a spell to hide themself, and then had to escape back to the village? That would create lots of tension while still giving the protagonist – and perhaps a friend that’s with them – a few moments to interact or think through a spell.
Frequently, writers ask me how to feature events that their protagonist isn’t involved in or that have nothing to do with anything else. The answer to this is usually pretty simple: change your events.
Your plot is not set in stone; rethink what you’ve put down rather than merely accepting it. Are you starting in the right place? Is there material slowing everything down? Could you add another conflict to focus on what’s important? Your opening scenes can almost certainly be better.
Case Study: They Mostly Come Out at Night
The opening of They Mostly Come Out at Night includes most of the information the story needs, but the scene design was clearly neglected. Below is what readers need to know:
- Dangerous monsters roam the village of Smithsdown every night. Because of this, every family has a cellar that they hide in from dusk till dawn.
- Most people have a magic ability called a Knack, which appears during their youth and closely resembles professional skills. No one is sure how someone ends up with a Knack, but it seems to be some combination of heredity and childhood experience.
- The main character is Lonan. His father was a famous smith with a smithing Knack, making him invaluable to the village.
- When Lonan was a kid, he witnessed another kid, Jarleth, doing something dangerous while they were in the cellars. However, Jarleth has a Knack for deception. As a result, Lonan is blamed when the monsters kill Lonan’s father and injure Lonan’s childhood friend Branwen.
- Since the incident, everyone has hated Lonan. The smithy was taken away from his family and given to Jarleth. Possibly as a result, Lonan has never developed a Knack.
- Lonan is in love with Branwen, but not only does she hate Lonan like the rest of the village, but she’s also married to Jarleth. This setup makes Branwen feel like a possession, but we’ll ignore the sexism just for this exercise.
- The book also specifies that since Lonan’s mother hates him, he instead lives with the gracious village healer, Ogma. Lonan spends his days gathering medicinal herbs for Ogma in the woods. All of this is optional information, so I may not include it in the scene plan. With the whole village hating him, Lonan hardly needs a hateful mother for sympathy.
The backstory when Lonan was a kid is pretty complicated. The current story has a brief dream flashback of the incident, but most of it is filled in with exposition that leaves much of it unexplained. Readers are left to scratch their heads over how exactly Lonan was blamed and what Jarleth did. More logistical information would reduce confusion and put these distracting questions to rest.
Instead of relying so much on exposition, this backstory should simply be the opening scene. It’s exciting, it gets the whole plot rolling, and it involves two of the important things we have to learn about: monsters and Knacks. Sure, we’ll need a time jump afterward, but that’s a small downside in comparison to the strengths this has as an opening scene.
Depending on the details of the incident, the story might start with Lonan rushing to get into a cellar or with him quietly waiting in a cellar. Either way, he witnesses Jarleth do something that makes everyone vulnerable to the monsters. The scene might end with Lonan’s father holding off the monsters while Lonan flees with an injured Branwen.
Readers will need to understand the extent to which Lonan is blamed and that this results in his family losing the smithy. Jarleth makes this happen by using his deception Knack, and readers will probably feel cheated if they don’t see that happen. Since it dramatically alters the events of the story, taking it out would violate the expected trend rule.
One option is to work it into the opening scene. Lonan would get blamed for the monsters as soon as they arrive. Then we’d cut to Lonan as a young man and fill in what people did to punish him with exposition. These results would be somewhat expected, since readers would already know Lonan was blamed for the attack and that people died.
Working this into the first scene would avoid multiple downer scenes that could make the opening gloomy. However, it would come at the cost of raising the information load. Since this story is intended as dark anyway, I think it would be better to add a second scene with Lonan as a kid.
So for scene two, Lonan and Branwen might emerge from a hiding spot they found and reach safety. The adults there tell Lonan that his father and a few others are dead, but they don’t know what allowed the monsters to reach them. Even though Jarleth is present, Lonan tries to tell everyone what happened. In retaliation, Jarleth uses his deception Knack to make everyone believe it was Lonan’s fault instead. The villagers berate Lonan, telling him that he killed his father, and that he isn’t worthy of his father’s legacy.
Next, it’s time to update readers on Lonan’s life as a young man. He’s supposed to be in love with Branwen, but it’s hard to imagine how that happened, as she’s hated him since the incident. So I would create a work-related reason why they still see each other. For instance, if Branwen was the healer instead of Ogma, she might need to use the herbs Lonan gathers, and Lonan would have a chance to see her at her important work.
Showing Lonan sell herbs to Branwen would allow us to work in his longing for her. Maybe he’s making very little money because he doesn’t actually want to charge her anything. Selling herbs will also make it fairly easy to reveal that Lonan still doesn’t have a Knack, since if he did, he would have started a related profession. Ideally, Jarleth would show up so we could see that he’s now the town smith and he’s married to Branwen.
Working in a child arc of the throughline isn’t as easy here, because the next big step for the throughline is Lonan getting a vision. That doesn’t have anything to do with Branwen. However, it’s acceptable to step away from the throughline briefly to boot up the romance subplot. But we still need a small arc with a conflict to keep the scene engaging.
Perhaps Branwen has run out of funds to purchase herbs because she keeps healing people who can’t pay her. Lonan wants to give her the herbs for free, but because Branwen hates him, she doesn’t want to be in his debt. Knowing she’ll end up selling her belongings, Lonan tries to fake being sick so she can pay him in trade. Being a healer, Branwen catches him in the lie, which only makes her less willing to accept his charity.
Then Jarleth arrives after finishing his day at the smithy. He uses his deception Knack to convince Branwen that she already paid Lonan for the herbs. Lonan is incensed that Jarleth is using his Knack on Branwen, but this only gets Lonan unceremoniously kicked out. Afterward, I would have Lonan reflect on the fact that his choice to lie to Branwen is not unlike what Jarleth did. He’ll resolve never to lie to her again, which will affect how this romance plays out.
From there, I would summarize Lonan heading to his mother’s cellar for the night. Like in the current story, he might get some dirty looks from the villagers on the way, who call him “Knackless.” This is to make it more selfless and challenging when he struggles to save the village. The vision happens after he falls asleep.
If you’re an outliner, your final task is to block out specific scenes in your outline. Otherwise, it’s easy to put in a quick line describing how your character learns something without considering how that will change your scene plan. Will you need a whole scene just for that one clue? This can lead to an excess of boring scenes where very little happens. If you plan scenes as part of your outline, you’ll be ready to write a great draft. Next time, I’ll show you how to use exposition while you’re drafting.
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