What are Scenes?
Most writers stick to a basic cause and effect, or conflict and consequence, ordering of their scenes.
Jack was bad->Jack’s dad punished him->Jack got angry->Jack’s dad punished him again->Jack got revenge. THE END
While there is forward motion and conflict present in this type of story, it is not enthralling or page-turning. It simply goes until it stops. It also doesn’t create an effect on the reader that is memorable. Why? It’s not playing on emotional beats or giving readers time to engage with the story and characters.
In this tutorial, we won’t focus on how to write scenes in a particular order, but how to put them together once you’re done writing. That’s because a lot of writers write differently. Some writers write from the end or pick a couple of major starting points or just write what they feel in the moment.
What’s Genre Got to Do With It?
When we start talking about putting our scenes in the right order (for our reader and our characters), we have to take into consideration first what genres or niches we are writing in. They all have different frameworks, paces, and structures.
For example, thrillers move much faster than bildungsromans. So their scenes are ordered differently. Epic fantasies tend to be longer with greater character arcs and plot points stretched out over many scenes. Compare that to YA romances that have almost the same quick pace as thrillers with more reflection or sequel scenes throughout.
Along with these genre conventions, there are reader expectations, which are even more important. Knowing what your readers’ expectations are will help you not only figure out the right order of your scenes are, but it’ll also help you understand how to subvert their expectations.
This will allow you to create memorable stories.
There are a lot of ways writers can go about finding what their genre conventions and reader expectations are, but I’ll bullet point the best ways to make things easier on you:
- Genre Conventions
- Read critic reviews of books within your genre or niche
- Consume a wide variety of stories within your genre and pay attention to what they all have in common
- Check out the Story Grid and their breakdown of genres
- Reader Expectations
- Read Goodreads reviews of books within your genre
- Poll readers within your genre
- Listen to roundtable discussions about your genre
- Listen to fan podcasts about your genre
Understanding the type of scenes desired of your plot and genre is the first step in ordering them for the effect you want, whether that be heart-racing, dramatic, or a mix. You’ll have control of the emotions and fallout of your scenes instead of guessing at what you think you’re doing right.
Scenes and Sequels
We’ve touched briefly on scenes and sequels in my previous tutorials, but here is where they come into play. While a scene and a sequel are both scenes, they serve two different purposes. Your scene is where the main or big conflict happens and the sequel is the fallout or reflection upon that big conflict.
I like to think about them like this: my original scene where something happens is followed(not necessarily immediately) by a reflection or reaction to that scene. This helps the reader connect with the character and shows the character’s internal and external growth.
In my sequel, or as I call them, reflection scenes, I sometimes use them as the driving force that allows for my character to show their internal reaction to the scene in relation to it. If the main/scene conflict in my scene is a break-up and the internal conflict is a fear of being alone, then in my reflection/sequel scene, I show the character whose internal conflict and fear have been realized reacting to the news to a different character tied to a previous conflict.
When you tie conflicts and bring up unresolved issues, you show that your characters’ lives and the parts of the story are all connected. It also builds trust between you and your reader. This is why the use of scene cards or scene lists is helpful. Because they allow you to see previously unresolved conflict that can be used later to ramp up tension or be resolved through a character reflecting on a previous scene.
Not always do sequels follow their scenes. Sometimes several scenes or even chapters happen before the sequel or character reaction. Deciding when to have your character react or reflect on a scene determines the pacing and overall feeling of the story.
A story that has a sequel immediately following every scene has a reflective and slow air. While on the other hand, stories that have more spaced-out sequels/reflections have a quicker pace and more of a rhythm to them. Neither is wrong but is based on what the writer wants the reader to feel or experience and what the genre and reader expectations are.
There are also differing opinions on how long the scene and sequel should be. Some writers say that sequels need to be under 500-words while scenes need to stay below 2,000-words. Other writers say that there are no limits to the word counts of scenes. I tend to stick with the first camp mainly because the first camp makes more sense.
Have you ever tried to read through a 10,000-word scene followed by a 5,000-word reflection on that scene? It’s tedious and boring and feels like the writer could have gotten to their points in a better way or didn’t really know what their points were.
So I caution writers to stick with keeping their sequels quick (between 1–1,500-words) and their scenes lengthy but succinct (500–2,000-words).
Sequences and Arcs
A story, especially as it gets longer, is more than its entirety. It’s broken into parts, parts that make up the whole. When it comes to scenes, they make up a sequence or arc. Some writers prefer to think of the sequences and arcs as chapters or parts within the book.
For example, in Harry Potter, the first scene arc is all about Harry getting to the Dursleys. That arc is a fairly short one but makes up the first part of the opening sequence of the book.
When I sit down to think about how my scenes are ordered and what sequences or arcs they are playing into, I set out my intention for each. What do I want my readers to learn, feel, and experience? Where are my characters at emotionally and mentally? My opening sequence is there to show my main characters’ lives before the big story conflict comes along. Within that sequence, there are smaller arcs that showcase who exactly my characters are.
Depending on what genre and form I am working in, this is either stretched out across many scenes or handled in one scene.
You’ve no doubt picked up on the main deciding factor in figuring out the order of your scenes. You have to understand your story. You have to understand your readers. That’s why this exercise is going to be a bit different.
Collect 10 three-star or midrange reviews of stories within your work-in-progress’s genre or niche.
Focus on what common issues readers find within the story. What do they like and what do they hate? What do they love about the genre you write in?
Pick one of the stories that you read a review on and break it down into scene-by-scene.
Determine how the scenes’ structures and sequences affect you. Try and pinpoint what about the way the scenes are ordered makes you feel the way you do. How is the author subverting genre conventions or sticking to them? Do you agree with certain reviews or can you see what the author was doing?