One of my favorite classes that I took at a homeschool co-op during high school was a chess class taught by a local grandmaster. I learned many different chess openings, position tactics, and endgame tactics, all of which improved my chess strategy.
One day the grandmaster was explaining a game he won against another high-ranking chess player. He pointed out that one move in particular was important because it served multiple purposes. His words stuck with me:
“In chess, a mediocre move only does one thing. A good move does two things at once. But a great move does three things at once.”
This advice not only changed how I play chess, it transformed the way I write.
Pinned by the Single-Minded Approach
Often, when we begin writing a scene, we want to accomplish one specific goal—to have a character explain a massive plot twist or the villain enact a stage of his evil plan. We then write the chapter with that aim in mind, and it may fulfill its goal. But it might still fail as a scene—even if the goal was a good one. Why? Because we’re only trying to do one thing. And that makes a mediocre scene at best.
This problem is most obvious with plot- or exposition-based scenes where the author needs to fill the reader in on some key details and decides to pour everything into one conversation or scene. It’s easy to mock this as readers or reviewers. But get into your author’s chair and you realize how easy it is to do. How else can you expound the intricate politics of the five fiefdoms of your fantasy kingdom?
Usually we peg this as an info dump and leave it at that. But the problem isn’t with giving the reader too much information. It’s that the author is relaying it in a boring way. When a chapter concentrates solely on information, it can’t help but be dull.
Furthermore, a scene that only focuses on a character’s mental angst or on advancing a plot will also likely be boring. The reader can only endure so much bombardment.
Double-Attack Your Way to Victory
The solution to this issue comes by modifying the grandmaster’s advice: scenes need to be serving multiple purposes to be effective.
Let me show you why this works so well by returning to the politics example I mentioned above.
Originally you outlined the politics of the fiefdoms with a single-minded approach, which turned the scene into a long speech/info dump. Now that you understand the problem, you want to remedy it. But how?
Start by giving your protagonist a goal in the scene. Right now he’s just numbly listening to the political structure, and that’s not enough because he needs a stake in it. Maybe he wants to convince the five fiefdoms to unite in war against the generic evil empire, and he’s trying to figure out how to do it. So he goes to a politician for advice, and the politician has to explain the political structure of the fiefdoms.
Better. But even with a goal, talking to politicians in stories is as boring as it is in real life. So take it a step further.
Add some character conflict to the scene. Instead of speaking with a random politician, suppose your character seeks out a friend who’s involved in politics. This friend disagrees with the protagonist’s plan to unite the fiefdoms, because he believes it’s impossible—the fiefdoms are too divided. While the protagonist is trying to convince his friend to help him, his friend is trying to convince the protagonist that the politics of the situation make the idea preposterous. This reveals deep-seated discord between the protagonist and his friend on whether or not the protagonist is too idealistic in his view of the world. By the end of the argument, they are more divided than ever.
Suddenly the whole scope of the scene has changed. Instead of being fundamentally an info dump, it’s now fundamentally a thematic character conflict between two friends with a dose of exposition on the side. You still disclose all the pertinent information, but in a much more interesting way. If you want to add another layer on top of that, start incorporating the setting. Place your characters somewhere symbolic or otherwise intriguing, like a cemetery of soldiers who died the last time the five fiefdoms engaged in civil war, or an abandoned cathedral (because abandoned cathedrals are honestly one of the coolest settings ever).
A once-boring scene has become more captivating simply by adding more goals and elements. If you study your favorite books and movies, you’ll likely see this strategy appear again and again—especially in movies, given their shorter length and greater need to cram a number of things together. (As a side note, this is also an effective way to deflate a bloated story—combine several single-minded scenes to get a shorter and more compelling narrative.)
Consider the Millennium Falcon chase scene at the beginning of The Force Awakens. The screenwriters are trying to establish multiple things: Rey and Finn need to learn to trust each other, the Millennium Falcon needs to be re-introduced, Rey needs to learn how to steer a ship, and the First Order needs to recover BB-8. These could have all been made into separate scenes, but the story would have suffered for it. Instead, all of these elements are combined into one scene with one of the best settings possible (because space fights through the middle of a destroyed Star Destroyer are awesome) to create an entertaining chase scene that furthers plot and character development.
If you are wondering how to effectively combine a number of elements to make a solid scene, below is a list to help you recognize deficiencies in a scene. (Not all of these elements need to be present in every scene. But most of them should be.)
- Most of your scenes need to contain conflict in some form. This should generally be the core of the scene. Begin by contemplating what the source of the conflict and tension will be, and if it isn’t present, consider how you can include it.
- Character development. Characters are essential to a good story—write ones that are compelling enough and the reader will forgive a lot. Determine how you will use each scene to explore, reveal, or test your characters.
- This one might seem overly obvious, but some scenes have no place in a book since they do nothing to advance the overall plot. When possible, verify that the scene in question has relevance to the main plot, and if not, either weave it in or merge it with another scene.
- Setting is often thrown in haphazardly and doesn’t end up affecting anything else in the scene. This is tragic and often leads to the “talking heads” syndrome where people interact with only each other and not the environment. So try to choose settings that will be unique or relevant in some way.
- Although theme is vital to your story, it is arguably second-tier when it comes to writing scenes, as theme is generally tackled with the broad structure of your story and less on a scene-by-scene basis. But when appropriate, look for ways to tie a chapter into the story’s overall theme, either with the characters themselves or with symbols and images.
When the chess grandmaster gave me his advice on playing chess, I’m sure he never thought I would end up applying it to several areas of my life, including writing. But that’s the nature of wisdom: it’s eminently practical. So look at your story and examine your scenes. Are you limiting each scene to one goal, or are you putting multiple goals into each scene to make it powerful?