Make Your Scenes Work Overtime

If you want your writing to really shine, you have to keep the pace up. Even in slower scenes, your job is to keep the reader immersed and interested. There’s a lot of advice out there (and on this site) about how to do this, but there’s one that deserves special attention. 

It deserves that special attention because it’s followed the least frequently, which means if you do this regularly your writing will stand out. That advice is:

Make every scene do at least two things.

Every scene you write should accomplish at minimum two goals. A bit of dialogue can advance the plot and reveal character traits. A scene description piques reader imagination and foreshadows a coming plot twist. An action sequence can reveal character background and increase tension. 

Scenes that accomplish multiple goals are rich and vibrant without losing tension. They deliver tight prose through making every word count. The more each scene does, the more your reader gets immersed in the story and pulled through its action. 

You can accomplish this kind of writing in every scene, but we’ll look specifically today at how to apply it within action, description, and dialogue. Those are the most common types of scenes, and you can use the examples to find ways to make this happen in more obscure places. 

Moving your story and engaging readers happens when scenes do one of four things:

  • Reveal or develop the main external plot, what’s happening in the story
  • Reveal or develop the main internal plot, the development and growth of your characters
  • Building the world and setting of the story
  • Building on the relationships between the main characters

As you might have guessed, today we’ll talk about making at least two of those things happen in each scene. We’ll apply it in action with three types of scene: action, dialogue, and description. From there, you can make it work with any other kind of scene your story calls for. 

Overtime Writing in Action

Action scenes can be tricky. It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of writing a detailed list of what everybody is doing in these complicated goings-on. By the time you’re finished, you’ve used so many words that you don’t want the scene to be even a punctuation mark longer. But you can make it more powerful by getting it to work overtime. 

Action scenes can move the external plot forward when you make sure readers know the full context of its importance. Why is the hero in this fight? Why is the lawyer arguing this case? Why are these characters having sex? How does this chase scene advance the plot? It’s easy to fall into the trap of action for its own sake, but the context of the action is how you make the scene work overtime. 

When you have action in real life, it changes you. A mugging might make you more careful or paranoid. A car accident could change how often you drink, or text, or drive at all. Your action scene can likewise reveal, grow, and develop characters by showing how they act in the moment, and how they process the action afterward. 

World-building through action can be tricky, but the opportunities are there if you look for them. What are the laws about violence? What are the customs around arguments? What can differing approaches to action reveal about cultures, especially cultures in conflict? Something as simple as the choice of weapon or type of insult can go a long way with just a few words. 

Relationship change is probably the easiest overtime writing for conflict. Think about your own life: when you have a serious conflict with your friends, coworkers, or family members it changes your relationship more often than not. The same should be true of your characters on the page. Enter the scene with those stakes in mind, then craft it to show those stakes playing out.

Overtime Writing in Dialogue

Dialogue is often the easiest place to add multiple purposes. The existence of dialogue moves the plot forward through the discussion between the characters talking on the page. It naturally pulls the reader along as the characters reveal information, make plans, or process what just happened. 

The word choice can reveal details about the character speaking. Do they swear frequently? Have an accent? Do they use short sentences, or the longer phrases that might indicate education? What kinds of examples do they use in metaphors? How often do they overtly discuss emotions? At the easiest, you reveal this information to the reader and grow the character in their minds. At its best, subtle changes in how characters speak can show how they’ve changed over the course of your story. 

Dialogue can carry details about your setting. Through dialect, accent, and what they know, you can anchor your speakers in time, place, and culture. With just a few extra words you can reveal how they relate with the cultural powers of their world. 

Your dialogue can also reveal the relationship between the characters speaking. It can describe power dynamics, hidden agendas, and all the myriad subtexts of conversation with simple choices of word, sentence length, and descriptions within your dialogue tags. You can even do this when one character isn’t even there, through how a speaker talks about that character, or how their dialogue changes when they speak to another person. 

Overtime Action in Description

Description may be the most divisive kind of scene in fiction. Some readers love sumptuous paragraphs that set a detailed and vibrant scene for a book’s action to happen in. Some want to imagine the details for themselves. Still others are interested in the plot and characters, and consider most description a waste of their time. By making your description work overtime, you can appeal better to readers with all three opinions. 

It might feel like description pulls away from the external plot, and that’s certainly a risk, but it doesn’t have to. The best example of this is foreshadowing. Chekov’s gun is the rule that if you describe a gun early, somebody needs to shoot that gun later. That’s overtime description in action, but only the beginning of a vein writers mine far too rarely. 

One way to reveal or develop character with description is to write your descriptions from a specific point of view. Start with your general description, then rewrite it keeping in mind your POV character’s mood, stressors, and preferences in that moment. At the beginning, it will tell readers more about that character. As the story progresses, it can underscore the changes and growth that character goes through.

World-building and setting is the forte of description. It’s the main way readers learn about the spaces in which your story takes place. It’s the purpose of descriptive scenes. The risk here is to make this the only thing lines from your story accomplish. Make sure you’re checking at least one other box in each paragraph.

Relationship building is also a strong suit for description, but often gets handled too broadly. Look instead to the small details of stance, facial expression, and distancing between two characters. How does it start? How does it change? What might the differences between clothing choice partway through a story tell about trust, attraction, or nervousness?

Okay, So Now What?

To really cement this idea, try the following writing exercise. 

Choose a scene from a book you like. Rewrite it four times, each time either inserting or emphasizing one of the four purposes of a scene. When you’re done, you’ll have put this skill into action. Your next step will be to do it with your current work in progress. 

Image by Stefan Keller.