5 Ingredients for a Great Scene

20 Mar

What makes for a great scene? Below is a brief clip from author, Sonya Noble’s book, We Fight Together. This is part of a young adult science fiction series based on the clone girl, Pariah, and her military squad mates. In the scene below Garn, one of her fellow squad mates is walking with her for a meeting with her commander. It’s not urgent, so they decide to have a snack on the way.

After walking through the darkened hallways for fifteen minutes they finally ended up at the cafeteria.

“Why’re we stopping here?” Pariah wondered aloud.

“Because I’m hungry,” Garn whispered. “Aren’t you?”

Pariah heard her stomach growl and tiptoed behind Garn. “You realize we could just walk right in without all this sneaking around,” Pariah pointed out.

“But it’s no fun!” Garn whispered back. “I wanna know if they caught us on tape tomorrow!”

The first ingredient for a great scene is immediacy in setting. In this scene, you immediately have a feel for exactly where you are. With just a few words, author Sonya Noble shows us that it’s late, they’re inside some sort of compound, and the lights are low. You know that it is quiet because of a lack of sounds. Also, through Ms. Noble’s use of opposites, the phrase ‘Pariah wondered aloud’ shows us that the two have been quiet for the last fifteen minutes.

The second ingredient for a great scene is snappy dialog. Ms. Noble uses her dialog tags to further her scene as well as make her characters come alive. By having Garn whisper, the author keeps you in the moment and stays in this quiet setting. By having Pariah speak out loud (not loudly, notice), the author shows that Pariah isn’t really afraid. The dialog is friendly and fun. Notice the contractions, ‘why’re, I’m, aren’t, it’s,’ as well as the word ‘wanna’. These indicate that these two characters aren’t scholarly, they’re just real people. Garn tries to get Pariah in on his adventure and because she is hungry, she goes along.

Pariah shook her head and strangled a laugh. Garn was right, it was more fun to slink around in the shadows and pretend to be on a top-secret mission instead of just waltzing in like you owned the place. “We’ll sneak into the kitchens and grab something to eat,” Pariah hissed.

“Great plan,” Garn whispered back. He held his hand up in a fist commando-style and whispered, “Phase One of Operation: Food Grab go!”

Pariah rolled her eyes and imagined the layout of the cafeteria. Ten rows of tables, five in each row. She heard the sound of a boot scuff across the concrete floor of the cafeteria and froze. “What was that?” she whispered, searching the darkness with her eyes. They’d nearly adjusted to the darkness, but it was still pitch-black. The ‘shadows’ she could be seeing might’ve just been her imagination.

The third ingredient is affective details. You don’t need to go into grave detail, explaining every nuance about every scene to get people involved. Through just a few well-chosen words here and there, you are pulled into the scene and feel like you could whisper a few words to Garn or Pariah yourself. Here Ms. Noble uses words like ‘cafeteria’. That immediately puts a picture into most people’s minds. Another affective detail is ‘ten rows of tables, five in each row’. This shows that the room is fairly large. ‘The sound of a boot scuff across the concrete floor’ also generates in us a sense of immediacy. The author uses most of our senses to suck us in. She uses sound and sight. There is also a sense of sterility and hardness (touch) through her showing us the concrete floor. She even manages to generate in us a sense of smell and taste with her next line about the ‘mystery meat’.

“It was just me, now come on! There’s leftover meatloaf in the fridge that the chef hasn’t mixed into the mystery meat!”

Pariah exhaled slowly and continued to follow Garn. She heard another sound, like feet pounding across the ground, towards the light switch.

The fourth ingredient is affective pacing. At the beginning of this scene, there’s no sense of urgency. It’s just a quiet walk in some dark hallways and then a dark cafeteria. As the scene goes on, there’s a sense of adventure and fun. They want to see if they can sneak into the cafeteria and kitchen without being caught on camera. Then, with just a few well-chosen words, Ms. Noble conveys a sense of urgency, ‘now come on!’ Garn is hungry and wants to get to the meatloaf before it’s gone. There’s an aura of mystery conveyed by the darkness, shadows, and some strange sounds that are dismissed as Pariah’s imagination.  At the end, those sounds are intensified.

The lights were suddenly flipped on and, much like the welcoming party that Pariah had received when she was accepted into Zeta Squad, all eight of her squad mates, Tison, and Colonel White jumped out and yelled “SURPRISE!”

Pariah yelped in surprise and jumped nearly four feet in the air.

“We scared her!” Angel cried in triumph.

“No, I just wasn’t expecting that,” Pariah corrected. “What’s going on?”

“It is your birthday, isn’t it?” Hope laughed.

“I guess, but not very many people know that!” Pariah raised a skeptical eyebrow. “How did you all know?”

The fifth ingredient is scene arc. Each and every scene should have its own arc, beginning, middle, climax, and end, smoothly transitioning into the next scene. Just as you have a story arc over the entire book, each scene should have its own ‘mini arc’. Every scene in your book needs a purpose that fits in with the overall arc of your book.

In the scene above, it hits its climax as Ms. Noble takes the reader into a surprise birthday party for the clone, Pariah. As the scene ends and the next one begins, the author takes us into it nicely with a simple question, ‘How did you all know?’

There are many different types of scenes in every book. However, with the possible exception of snappy dialog, all great scenes have these ingredients, immediacy in setting (the reader needs to be sucked in), affective details (not too little, not too much), affective pacing (we need to go somewhere), and scene arc (having a beginning, middle, and ending which should smoothly transition into the next scene).

If you plan out your book beforehand or you write first, edit later, take a look at every scene in your book and make sure they all have these ingredients. Mixed together you’ll come out with a great scene—and a great book!

We Fight Together, by Sonya Noble, copyright 2010, used with permission.

Sonya Noble is a fourteen year old writer and musician. We Fight Together is her second book in the Clones Saga series.

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Posted by on March 20, 2012 in Author in the Trenches


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2 responses to “5 Ingredients for a Great Scene

  1. Daron Henson

    March 25, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    “Five Ingredients to a Great Scene” is an excellent article, explained succinctly, that every writer and aspiring writer should view.

    • ChristinaLi

      March 25, 2012 at 11:14 pm

      Thanks so much, Daron! I know you can go into grave detail in all that goes into a great scene, but my goal is to communicate quickly and easily some specifics to get writers going. I know in my own writing, all it takes is just a simple idea. If I can get a new way of thinking about something, I’m able to take off.


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