In my work as a professional freelance copyeditor and critiquer for publishers, literary agents, and authors in six continents, I wade through something like two hundred manuscripts a year. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I come across certain flaws repeatedly in many — if not most — of the manuscripts I examine. These issues are especially endemic to first novels, and when pointed out to the authors, they seem so obvious. They say, “Why didn’t I notice these problems?”
Because of lack of adequate writing experience, helpful critical feedback, and sufficient skill development and training, writers don’t realize they aren’t showing enough — and especially in a scene’s opening paragraphs — to help readers picture where a character is and when the scene is taking place in the story.
The challenge for writers is in determining how and how much to convey to readers what the writer is seeing in her own mind.
These ten necessary things are often omitted or overlooked due to lack of experience, for the most part. I hope that by providing these ten questions to ask of your scenes, you’ll keep your eye out for these flaws and really make your scenes shine.
1) Where is this scene taking place? I shouldn’t have to ask this, right? The writer is thinking, Isn’t it obvious? I know where this scene is taking place.
2) What does this place look and feel like? And what’s usually missing is not just the locale but the smells and sounds, a sense of the time of day and year, the weather, and exactly where in the world it is.
3) How much time has passed? So many scenes dive into dialog or action without clueing the reader in on how much time has passed from the last scene. Scenes needs to flow and string together in cohesive time. It’s important to know if five minutes or five months has passed, and it only takes a few words to make that clear. Don’t leave your reader in confusion — that’s a bad thing.
4) What is your character feeling right now? This is a biggie. It’s probably the most important element needed to show at the start of a scene, but it’s often left out.
5) What is your character’s reaction? So many times I read bits of action or dialog that should produce a reaction from the POV character, but the scene just zooms ahead with without an indication of what the character is feeling or thinking.
6) What is the natural, believable way your character should be reacting? For every important moment, your character needs to react — but in a believable order. First viscerally, then emotionally, then physically, and finally intellectually. Oftentimes a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.
Example: If you get hit by a car, you aren’t going to first think logically about what happened and what you need to do next. First, you scream or your body slams against the sidewalk and pain streaks through your back. Keep this adage in mind: for every action, there should be an appropriate, immediate reaction. That’s how you reveal character.
7) What is the point of this scene? This is a scary question. Not for me — for the author. Because if there’s no point to a scene, it shouldn’t be in your novel. Really. Every scene has to have a point — to reveal character or plot. And it should have a “high moment” that the scene builds to.
8) What is your protagonist’s goal for the book? If she doesn’t have a goal, you don’t really have a story. The reader wants to know your premise as soon as possible, and that involves your main character having a need to get something or somewhere, do something or find something. Or some variation of that.
That goal should drive the story and be the underlayment for all your scenes. That goal is the glue that holds a novel together. It may not be huge, and in the end your character may fail to reach that goal — you’re the writer; you decide. But have a goal.
9) Where’s the conflict? Every scene should be bulging with either inner or outer conflict or both. Conflict creates tension, which is a good thing. Conflict is story.
10) Where’s your opening hook and strong ending sentence? Treat each scene as if it’s a mini novel. Every scene should hook the reader with a strong opening line or two, and should end with a satisfying wrap-up or hanging ending that makes the reader want to dive right into the next scene.
I actually ask a whole lot more questions than these. And many are just as important to crafting a powerful novel. I’ve found when writing my own novels that if I just keep asking questions — the right ones — I’ll find just the right answers for that story.
If you can get in the habit of continually asking questions as you delve into your novel, you may find it will lead you to the heart of your story.
C. S. Lakin is an award-winning novelist, writing instructor, and professional copyeditor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written sixteen novels and three writing craft books. You can learn more about C.S. on her blog and her Amazon Author Page.
30 thoughts on “10 Important Things Writers Often Omit from Their Scenes”
Thanks, C.S. These are good points for all of us to remember.
Thanks! I hope they serve as a good checklist for you.
Good points. I know I sometimes take for granted that certain things are obvious when they aren’t. This is a good checklist to make sure we haven’t missed anything.
This site really is a great resource for authors.
What useful guiding questions, C.S, especially #7. I often wonder why a particular scene is included. A lot of books would be helped if the author paid attention to “What is the point of this scene?”
Every scene has to have a point or purpose or shouldn’t be in a novel. It should reveal something important about the character or advance or complicate the plot. Glad you enjoyed this post.
Excellent points, and thank you. I try to keep that “what’s the point?” question in the back of my head while I’m revising.
Ten important scene-setting, character-introduction points, indeed! The five “W’s” always help: Who, what, where, when, and why. Thanks, CS.
Excellent points; I really like this round-up. A while back I read a book that incorporated the smells of the environment, and I realized it really upped the ante on visualizing and feeling the scene. All good points here; this is one to bookmark and keep handy. Thanks!
‘Oftentimes a writer will show a character reacting with deep thought about a situation, when their first natural reactions are missing.’
Another thing I dislike as a reader is when something traumatic happens and the protagonist reacts with a snarky/sarcastic/tongue-in-cheek kind of way. I like ‘wit’ as much as the next person, but it has to be in the right place!
It’s not just newbie writers either. I’ve published five novels, both indie and trad, and I’m still making these mistakes. Points 5, 6, and 10 are especially problematic for me, but with experience I’ve been able to attend to these elements at the revision stage. When I wrote the first draft of my adult novel 15 years ago, I had no idea why this was a first draft and not a finished product. I burned some publishing bridges before a kindly editor who rejected the manuscript also gave me the very good advice to enroll in a summer workshop and add a one-on-one tutorial that spelled these issues out where they occurred in each scene.
Excellent stuff. If I had a couple of free months, I’d go over every scene in my next novel and ask those questions about each one, and then fix them. Of course, by the end I’d be a good writer, wouldn’t I? 🙂
You would! After seeing so many of these problems in all the manuscripts I critique, I created my workbook for The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. It has hundreds of brainstorming questions, as well as extensive checklists, to ensure writers get all this down pat before expending too much time and energy in writing their scenes.
NIce points, thank you.
Excellent points. I read the list saying, “guilty, guilty…guilty”
I’m love’n this site.
Painters make painting mistakes, sculptors make sculpting omissions, musicians and composers make musical boo-boos… and as authors, we are prey to writerly hurdles and spokes. The only way not to make them, or avoid them, is not to write. A handy list like this is not just a prick to the conscience, but a reminder that we can get blase, especially after the seventh novel! And this blase business is sometimes very visible in the works of big-name authors, who are no different from us. A timely reminder, thank you … this is worthy (and nicely succinct enough) to stick on the fridge.
Thanks for all the kind comments. You can print out this post and stick it by your desk to use as a checklist!
Your checklists are fantastic, Susanne, and my favourite go-to resources when editing – thank you!
I loved #10 “treat each scene as f it’s a mini-novel”
This is a huge one. Too many scenes don’t have a point, don’t build to that critical high moment, don’t resolve or hang in a way to make readers keep reading. I often read a scene and wonder why it’s in the manuscript. And way too many scenes are narrative summary, not showing action in real time, and so nothing really happens.
This is a very useful checklist as making one think about the things we tend so much to take for granted helps improve our work. But I’m not sure I agree with your #9. Why must there always be conflict? Not everything requires conflict or tension to make it interesting. No everything has to be ‘gritty’ to make good reading and trying to force it in might make the writing a bit formulaic.
As James Bell says, every scene should have a death. Death of a dream, a plan, a friendship, etc. Conflict is story. Microtension on every page, which is optimal, is created by tension. Inner conflict is essential to strong character and story. I go into great lengths about these two types of conflict, what conflict and high stakes are, why high stakes are essential, and how the inner motivation presses the protagonist toward her goal in my new book The 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction.
Every great writing instructor will tell you that you must have conflict in spades. It may be subtle; it may be huge. But if you have scenes with no conflict and everyone is happy in happy land, readers will turn away bored.
Sure, you can have sweet moments, moments of humor, but the underlying tension is created because the main character is struggling with conflicted desires, feelings, views, and issues. They should be rippling under the surface at all times as the hero attempts to reach her goal. Hope that makes sense.
Great questions to help shape a scene and to connect the scenes into a whole. I’ll adapt this for my narrative non-fiction. Thanks!
Fantastic post! Definitely a keeper 🙂
I am printing this post and attaching it to my desk right now. Thanks, C.S.
You ask, ” What is your character feeling right now?” I think you have to be careful about describing a character’s emotions. It always makes things seem too purple. If your scene shows a loving mother inter-acting with her child and then the child gets run over by a bus in front of her eyes, it’s a mistake to describe the mother’s emotions. There’s no need to do this. Every reader will know already and will not need to be told that “agony shot through her veins” or anything like it. We will all respond in the way that is most accurate and personal to ourselves. It’s better to just blankly tell what happened next, or move on. It’s a case of “less is more” and its part of “show don’t tell.”
The more loving you have previously SHOWN the mother to be, the more the reader will know how she feels when the child is killed, without needing to be told.
Tui, that can be effective at times but not usually. If you show a child being hit by a car and the mother doesn’t react emotionally and you don’t show that, it will seem as if she doesn’t care. And that’s a very bad thing. You should never “describe” emotions or tell what emotion a character is feeling. But you do need to show actively an emotional reaction. Whether it’s via direct thoughts of horror, body language and action, or vocalized, or all those, you need the emotion to come through. The only way to get a reader to bond with a character is to go through the emotional journey with him or her.
Great post. I’ve studied your 12 Key Pillars to novel writing and struggled with answering some of the questions. This list is a great reminder of the important things. Thanks
Good tips! Regarding how a character should be reacting, I think it is important to give it some time to experiment with different reactions; if a character is complex (and we want him to be) he can react in 2-3 different ways, all of which will have to make sense.
Excellent reminders, C.S. Thanks for sharing! –Michael
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