Crafting a well-written, tight scene that keeps your reader hooked can be tricky. Each chapter should push the story forward: developing the characters, increasing suspense, and most of all, forcing the reader to turn the page.
But what do you do if your scenes feel weak or flat? One way is to ask a simple question.
Every chapter or scene you write is like a mini-story—an episode that advances the story forward in time.
If your story is a house, each scene is a brick. You may have a magnificent blueprint for a dreamy mansion ... but if your bricks are dusty, crumbling, and weak, you have nothing to build with. Your story is only as strong as each individual scene.
Your story is only as strong as each individual scene.
That's a pretty strong statement, but it's true.
If your story was one, long, continuous scene, you wouldn't have to worry about it. That'd be like building a house with one massive brick. But your story, like every other, is made up of multiple scenes. If it's a novel, about sixty, to be exact.
So learning to craft a tight, intentional, page-turning scene is awfully important.
I'm not going to dive into deep theory today. Instead, I'm going to give you five straightforward tips to instantly boost your scene-writing to give you a head start on your next chapter!
Tip number one:
1. Write a Disconnected Open
What do I mean by "disconnected"?
When you ended the last scene, you probably had some kind of cliffhanger. Not necessarily a huge disaster ... just something to worry your reader and force them to turn the page. They have questions, and the next page has answers.
But don't always give the answer right away.
Suspense is all about promising a disaster, then delaying it. Every second of delay is a second of suspense for your reader. You can only hold that tension for so long before it breaks, but you can and should stretch it out as long as possible.
Your last scene ended on a question.
So delay the answer. Not forever ... just long enough to keep your reader in suspense.
Here are a few ways you can do this:
Cut to a different character (unless your story is limited to one perspective). Jump into the subplot, the side story with an entirely separate problem, and put that character in peril before coming back. Keep juggling back and forth, always leaving the character in more trouble than they started ...
Cut to a new point in time. Don't tell us how your character got away from the hulking brute pointing a gun at his face. Just cut to the next day, with your character sipping a drink in a Parisian cafe. Then, slowly give us the answers through context clues: dialogue, inner thoughts, telling actions. Don't tell us all at once. Don't even tell us the whole story. Just reveal that your character had to give something precious to the gun-wielding brute to escape, and don't tell us what. I can smell the suspense cooking already.
Cut to a different location (again, only if your story is told through multiple perspectives). This method is like cutting to a different character, but this time you're not cutting to a subplot. Instead, you're jumping to somebody who's directly involved in the last scene's problem, but from their perspective. They could be across the room or in a different country—if they have any connection to the surprise on the last page, tell us the rest through their eyes.
A strong beginning demands a strong end. So that brings us to:
2. Always End With a Cliffhanger ... But Not Literally
Action and adventure novels are famous for ending scenes with the hero in some kind of deadly peril. Usually, their life is on the line. Super intense stuff.
You don't always have to be so extreme with your scene endings. (Unless you're writing an action novel, in which case, go for it!)
But you still need to end your scenes with a cliffhanger. Here are some examples of less deadly cliffhangers that still force us to turn the page to read more:
Leave your character in an emotional chasm. They lose their temper and say something a little too honest to their best friend. Or they lock themselves in a room and cry. However their personality reacts, end the scene on an emotionally dark note.
End with a surprise. I don't mean, "Suddenly, the ceiling blew in." Just a simple surprise, something unexpected. The best surprises are shockers about a character: somebody isn't who they say they are, or somebody confesses, or somebody gets scared and gives up.
Ask a question. Just put a simple doubt or worry in your reader's mind. Use a character to ask the question out loud, have your protagonist just think it, or heavily imply it through the circumstances. If your character just found out their house is going to foreclose, just end the scene with the obvious question: Where is she going to live?
Now that you're ending your scenes with a gripping cliffhanger, you've got another problem. Queue tip number three:
3. Put the Real Scene Endings in the Middle
When you end scenes with a cliffhanger, there's an immediate problem. At some point, the character is going to get off that cliff. The question is going to get answered. The immediate problem is going to be temporarily solved or postponed. That's the real end of your scene, but you can't actually end your chapter that way.
So where do you put those pesky conflict resolutions?
Right in the middle of the chapter.
When the hero gets off that cliff, make sure it's somewhere in the middle of your chapter. Since it's the middle, your reader won't even think to stop reading—because there’s ten more pages to go before the next chapter break.
Subconsciously, your reader is waiting for a chapter to end on a "good place to stop." So your job is to never end a chapter on those spots (because there will be those moments.) As long as there's more chapter left, your reader will keep reading, so keep going—until another cliffhanger happens and you can end the chapter.
In order to do this, you need to make sure your scene doesn't wander into the weeds. And there's an easy trick to help you do this:
4. Use Index Cards to Stay on Track
Index cards are a writer's best friend. They are commonly used to outline novels scene-by-scene, briefly describing each scene on a separate card. They're super-helpful and perfect for plot outlining.
But there's so much more you could use them for!
Here are a few creative ways you can use index cards that are invaluable to writing a great scene:
Character Quick-Reference: Write the most important traits of your character on an index card. I would start with their name, role in the story, their need, their want, main positive trait, and main negative trait. If you have room left, add any other essential details, like their secrets, relationships, or moral dilemmas. Use both sides of the card to be as comprehensive as possible, but only use one card per character. Now you have all your characters at your fingertips, easy to reference whenever you need!
Plot Point Cards: Write just the major plot points down on index cards—one plot point per card. If you've used the One Page Plot to outline your story, you already know what the plot points are. Keeping them handy on individual index cards means that you always know which point you're heading for, which will help keep your scene on track.
Idea Bank: Whenever you get a brilliant idea for your story but have no idea where to put it, jot it down on its own index card. Rubber band all your idea cards together and keep them handy. If you ever hit a block while writing a scene, you now have a whole bank of fresh ideas to keep you going!
That brings us to the last tip, which I consider the most critical—and often least understood—part of scene writing:
5. Raise the Stakes
This term gets thrown around constantly in writing circles. If you're like me, the concept can be confusing.
Here's the basic idea: every few scenes, tell the reader that the impending doom you promised on page ten is actually worse than before.
The key to remember: raising the stakes is all about promising disaster ... not the disaster itself. Every time you mention the Promised Disaster, it needs to be worse than before.
For example, if your protagonist was in danger of losing her job on page 30, she needs to find out she's in danger of getting blacklisted by page 100, and then realize her entire reputation as a person is about to topple by page 200.
So, if your scene is lagging, try raising the stakes.
Don't do it every time. Raising the stakes is delicate—do it too often and the story gets ridiculous. In a novel, it's a good idea to raise the stakes at least two, three, or four times, spaced evenly throughout the whole story.
A few ideas to get you started:
Dialogue. Even a single word can instantly reveal how something else is at stake, whether it’s spoken by an antagonist or a friend. These moments are perfect for ending scenes and chapters (see tip 2).
Revelatory action. A quick analogy can best describe this: If your character is facing financial downfall, the stakes can be raised by delivering an eviction notice to their door. All it takes is one silent glance at the huge red letters stamped across the envelope to increase dread, tension, and suspense—all without a word being spoken.
Witness. Your character sees, hears, or otherwise senses the bigger, badder story villains hiding around the corner. You thought this storm was bad? Wait ‘til you see the huge wash of red clouds rushing your direction on the Doppler radar.
The technique you use will depend on the story you write. Use your gut, let the story naturally develop, and look for opportunities to worry your reader (according to the genre you write in, of course). It’s okay … they want to be scared.