Are Your Scenes Causing an Effect?

Last month I shared a tip on how to keep your scenes moving. This month, I’d like to take a step back and look at the bigger picture aspect of scenes and plotting. Once you know what’s moving your scenes forward from a plot perspective, consider how that scene affects your entire novel.

What is the cause and effect in your scenes?

No matter how well written a scene might be, if it isn’t doing anything to make the story happen it probably doesn’t belong in the story. Scenes happen for a reason, and a good scene will cause an effect that changes the story in some way.

Take a look at one of your scenes—either a finished scene or a rough outline if you’re still in the planning stage. What’s the point of that scene? Why is it in the story? You’ll probably have two answers to this:

  • The goal of the protagonist
  • The goal of the author

The protagonist will be driving the scene, either trying to achieve something or trying to avoid something—sometimes both.

The author will have a reason for writing this scene that relates to the overall story or plot. She chose this scene to dramatize at this point in the story for this reason.

Next, ask: what effect does this scene cause? How does it change something in the story?

Whatever happens in this scene, no matter how big or how small, should effect what comes next. It might be a direct result, such as breaking into a house (cause) and getting caught by the antagonist (effect), or it could be indirect, such as breaking into a house (cause) and leaving behind a clue that will alert the antagonist the protagonist was there and make him retaliate at the worst possible moment (effect).

In essence, it’s “When protagonist does X, Y happens.” If you describe your scene and all you have is, “Protagonist does X,” that’s a red flag that your scene isn’t moving the story forward. Try looking for the Y (the effect) to get that scene back on track.

If that effect eludes you, pull back and consider why you as the author put that scene in the book. What’s your reason for it being there?

Be wary if that reason is of the “to show X” variety, such as “to show that the protagonist is afraid of commitment.” Showing an aspect of a character is great, but on its own it doesn’t cause an effect. Instead look for ways to make that character aspect cause something to happen, or be the result of something happening. “To show the protagonist’s fear of commitment by having her start a fight with her new boyfriend so she doesn’t have to go meet his parents later at breakfast, which causes things to be strained between them at breakfast and this makes his parents decide they don’t like her.”

A little convoluted, sure (sometimes that’s just how scene summaries are), but basically, this boils down to, “When the protagonist has a fight with her boyfriend, it causes tension between them that makes his parents not like her.” That cause leads easily into the next effect, “When the boyfriend’s parents decide they don’t like her, they start trying to convince the boyfriend to dump her, putting a strain on their relationship.”

Actions cause reactions, which cause more actions, which cause more reactions, and so on and so on.

One trick to test the effect of a scene, is to look at the story without it. What changes? What can’t happen without this scene to trigger it? If nothing does, odds are there’s a problem and it’s not serving the story.

Let’s look back at our couple:

Say the reason for the fight scene really is just “to show that the protagonist is afraid of commitment.” The protagonist has a goal of not going to breakfast because meeting the parents is a big step she’s not sure she’s ready for. You write a fun scene with them arguing over something inconsequential, exchanging witty banter, poignant observations, showing great characterization. By the end of the scene, boyfriend calms her down and they go to breakfast (because you need that to happen for the plot). The scene works as a scene.

Next scene, the couple has breakfast with the parents. The protagonist tries to win them over and fails. They don’t like her (which was always the plan for that scene).

What does the fight scene have to do with that breakfast scene? If you cut it, would it have changed the breakfast scene at all? Probably not.

Will it kill your novel to leave it in? Honestly? Probably not. But it’s a missed opportunity to strengthen the overall story, and that opportunity could make the difference between a happy reader gushing about your book to all her friends, and one who forgets about it a week later. If there are a lot of scenes like this, then the odds of the novel feeling pointless increase, and that can kill your novel.

It would take very little effort to make the fight scene affect the breakfast scene and cause the parents to not like her. That way, it becomes a result of something the protagonist does, not random chance that has little to do with her and is only happening because plot says so. It also forces her to work harder to win them over when she realizes she does want to commit to this particular guy, and now she’s screwed it all up. She has to fix her own mistakes–commit to making things right–which can work as a great thematic mirror to committing on a larger scale. Suddenly this little nothing scene has deep roots and will resonate on a much bigger level.

Cause and effect is a simple tool that can help you craft stronger scenes and tighter plots, whether it’s planning a first draft or polishing an almost-finished draft. No matter what stage you’re on, think about what you want your scenes to accomplish on both a character level and an author level. What do your scenes cause to happen in your story? How are they interconnected? A story that holds together well on multiple levels is a story readers remember.

Do you ever think about how your scenes affect the whole novel?

14 Responses to Are Your Scenes Causing an Effect?

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Jul 23 2014 at 8:59 am #

    As a pantser, I follow the story logic to get from start to finish, so all my scenes have to contribute to that forward motion. The real issue for me is what sort of forward motion it will be. In that sense I always think of it, but I never have to worry about the possibility that a scene will be just filler.
    My biggest fear in my writing is the opposite, not having enough of the stuff that isn’t specifically meant to propel the plot. I have the bones, muscles, and skin of the story (i.e., the characters and the plot), but tend to forget or skimp on the fine clothes, hair styles, and/or the make-up (setting and descriptions). For me revisions usually end up as additions of new text to flesh out a rather lean story.

    • Janice Hardy Jul 23 2014 at 10:01 am #

      That sounds like a solid process though. First draft gets the story down, then once you see how the main plot unfolds you can develop the subplots and weave them in, add setting details, flesh out what need fleshing, etc.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Jul 23 2014 at 10:53 am #

        Everything is first draft, I can’t write page 2 without having page 1 written. If I come up with something in chapter 10 that I hadn’t planned on, I go back and add infrastructure right away. If the story decides to go in a different direction, I make the necessary changes right away. I don’t know that I’ve ever written a subplot, just multi-threaded main plots. I wrote a blog post about this a while back. A long while back. I really need to blog more.

        • Janice Hardy Jul 24 2014 at 6:58 am #

          Ah, you’re one of those writers (grin). So is a good friend of mine. If you’re like her, by the time you get to the end you’re pretty much done, right? Do you do a lot of polishing after that or does that happen as your write?

          • Marc Vun Kannon Jul 24 2014 at 8:53 am #

            Since I’m rereading it as I go I often think of new bits to write, or ways to move things around. The story is done, in the sense that the plot is complete and the characters ended up where they should. But the odd little bits bits of setting or action that aren’t contributary to the story but make for the ambience of the whole thing, those sometimes come late in the game. If they’ll become something big, and they often do, they usually come earlier. I sometimes add bits during edits, if the editor inspires me to it. Talking it over with others always helps.

  2. Claire M. Caterer Jul 23 2014 at 1:48 pm #

    This is why I love Pub Crawl! You all are so good at articulating the functions of things like scenes, characters, conflict, and so on. Wonderful post. Thank you, Janice!

    • Janice Hardy Jul 24 2014 at 6:59 am #

      Most welcome! I’m a structure gal, and I love digging into the hows and whys of writing. It’s just fun.

  3. Erica Jul 23 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    I’m so glad you posted this, Janice! It makes me feel more confident I took the right steps in my novel. My CP wanted me to add school fighting scenes to my YA novel, even just after one happened. But I said no because they would become tiresome and wouldn’t add to the story (each fighting scene I have affects the story.) I’m a very tight writer. I hate wasting words, and when I write scenes, I don’t just write what comes to mind. I am very, very picky about what scenes I decide to write (having hat wasting words), so I think them over and how they contribute to plot before I pen them.

    • Janice Hardy Jul 24 2014 at 7:02 am #

      Oh good! Sounds like your instincts are right on target, and I would have made the same call there. Unless that fight scene adds something new, it’ll probably feel repetitive. Good for you for sticking to your story convictions.

  4. Natalie Aguirre Jul 23 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    Great tips, Janice. Since I won a fantastic critique from you, I’m trying to think of this more. In fact, I’m trying to rework my current first chapter with this in mind.

    • Janice Hardy Jul 24 2014 at 7:04 am #

      Hope it helps then 🙂 I think this is probably easier for some writers to use than the traditional goal-conflict-stakes format, even though it’s basically the same thing. It’s more fluid and dynamic for the organic writer.

  5. Mason Young Jul 24 2014 at 8:49 am #

    Great advice. I think that what you’re saying also applies to blogging and other types of engaging social media. The human interest and storytelling of a blog keeps me reading. I can also remember those articles better.

  6. Carol Baldwin Jul 24 2014 at 2:46 pm #

    Thanks, Janice. Your insights are so valuable!


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