Scene Building: Setting The Pieces Into Motion

Header for scene building series
Header for scene building series
We are continuing our scene building series, which started at

We’ve discussed the pieces that are needed to build a good scene, but now we are going to dive into the actual process so we can see them in action. I will be using the very first scene in chapter one from a book I wrote in junior high — let it never be said that I’m not a good sport! At the time, I was hopped up on Tolkien and it really shows; however, it is perfect for this exercise because young Sarah was just beginning to learn the ropes. So let’s break it down.

Example No. 1
Example scene that needs a lot of work because it fails to elicit emotion.
The lead-off scene from the first chapter of a book I wrote in junior high. Note the gray highlighting: Those are all info dumps, which should be avoided at all costs! ((C) Sarah Wright 2018)
Breaking It Down

OK, what didn’t work? Short answer: a lot! But let’s dive in.

Characters without setting of any kind might as well be floating in outer space. Here are are three elf characters in the vacuum of space.
Characters without setting of any kind might as well be floating in outer space. Here are our three elf characters in the vacuum of space.

For one thing, we have hobos in outer space. There is no setting at all besides Gloril “observing the splendors of Selor.” This “telling vs. showing” actually tells the reader nothing. What are these splendors? We don’t know! Heck, we don’t even know where this scene is happening at besides in Selor, which is clarified as a city in the prologue.

In fact, this scene relies too much on telling. Just look at the gray highlighted sections — all of those highlighted parts are info dumps. Over a half of the scene is an info dump. In my haste to set up the story when I was younger, I felt the need to dump all of this information into chapter one to fill in the time gap between it and the prologue.

Stick figures demonstrating the overuse of the word look.
Let me look at you as you look confused and perturbed as I gaze at your countenance. Oh, look a squirrel!

Another lacking scene component is action. The only action that any character in this scene takes is to “look” at each other. Look (in all of its variations) is a crutch that many young writers use in abundance. It is often a weak verb that seldomedly brings anything to the table, lacking emotional punches that other verbs/actions might bring. As a filter word, look also encourages writers to tell more than show when it comes settings (often at the expense of letting characters interact with their settings) and character emotions (e.g., he looked angry).

There is an emotional dearth in this scene, too. The characters are talking about a subject that should be emotionally charged; after all, they’d just sent away a young family member that they presumably care about. The dialogue just is not conveying any emotion. It is very blockish and feels like characters spouting lines.

Another major issue is point of view: There is no concrete POV character. As the scene opens it feels like Gloril is our POV character, but then the POV jumps to Brook, who is not identified as her husband until the next paragraph after he speaks. Yikes!

On The Redo

So we’ve covered the highlights of how the pieces of a good scene are completely absent above — really all of them from the queen to the pawns are just not there. So, if I had to redo this ancient scene, what would I do? Well, I’d kill it.

You might recall from my previous post that a lot of novice writers will set up scenes that shouldn’t be scenes while leaving information that should be scenes as exposition. This is a perfect example of that. None of these characters are my main character. Two appear in the prologue so they kind of act as a bridge between the prologue and chapter one, but for the rest of the book, all except Bryan play minor roles.

Instead, I would turn some of that exposition, particularly Estel’s hardships (I was really high on Tolkien, but actually got that name from a baby book and not Aragorn), and turn them into a scene. Showing the events that lead to his being sent away would have added to his character and built up the stakes for the story rather than having the adults in a room talking and summarizing while he is completely absent. Sure, it would have been painful to do a lot of word killing, but it’d be the right/smart way to edit and improve the manuscript.

But that is a cop-out for this exercise. So let’s improve this scene and get all of the pieces into perfect working order. So if I wanted to keep this scene and revamp it, how would I do that? First, I’d move this scene to after scene actually showing Estel’s hardships — including the final straw that ends with him being sent away. The above scene would then morph into one of fallout between the adults while further Bryan’s character and his own goals. With that being the new aim of the scene, I’d also cement the POV, moving it firmly to Bryan who has more POV scenes later in the novel and who I remember as a fun character (though very Elrond-esque).

The revamp scene might look a little like this:

Example No. 2: THe Revamped scene


The revised scene stands a little better on its own, though could still use some tweaks to further strengthen it. (Copyright Sarah Wright 2018)
Breaking Down The New Scene

So, here is the new scene, albeit it is a partial scene — I didn’t want to go too long for this exercise.  However, while incomplete, it’s working a lot better than the old one and could be stellar with further revisions.

The POV is now firmly with the character of Bryan, and this shift has allowed for the development of his character. Through his actions (including interacting with the scenery), emotion is added to the scene along with some depth to his character.  It’s a more impactful introduction to some of his backstory than having his wife’s death relayed via tedious exposition.

There are more setting descriptions within the scene, even though it is still somewhat sparse and could be further fleshed out throughout the scene. For instance, we are only tapping into three senses: sight, touch, and hearing. Taste and smell could still be added in, such as a certain perfume permeating Gloril’s room to the point it even coats the tongue. I also picture a fountain not far from her room, which could add not only sound but smell to the scene.

The dialogue, paired with action, comes to life versus the more mechanical dialogue of the first draft. There feels like there is more at stake, and there is now a conflict between Gloril and the men in her lives rather than her being completely passive to her father’s decisions.

So the queen piece (characters) is moving as it should alongside the knight pieces (actions) and bishops (emotion). There is more flow in the scene and more stronger verbs are being used, though the full use of the methaphorical rook piece is harder to judge since the scene is incomplete — so too are the scenes that would surround it. The scene could definitely use more pawns (or setting) as was mentioned above, but over all, it would be a stronger scene if it made the final cut and stayed in the manuscript.

Still not perfect, but it is on its way to being a solid scene that keeps the king (the overall story) out of check.

Thank you for your patience. With Christmas and then my gallbladder surgery I didn’t quite get this up when I thought I would.

Since this post got to be so long, there will be another post next week looking at scenes that work, which was originally supposed to be a part of this post. I’m still open to workshop any troublesome scenes that people would like to have workshopped on the blog. Try to keep them briefer scenes if you do submit one.

Tatiana the cat sleeping with face in sofa like she passed out.
I leave you with my cute Tatiana until next time.

Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

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