You can reduce many questions about writing your novel to just two:
1. Do readers want to experience this as a live-time scene?
2. Do readers want these contextual details, and if so, earlier, now, or later?
Tip: Question what your readers want, and when. It won’t make you clairvoyant. It will improve your ability to meet reader needs.
1. Start with scenes.
Novels can’t survive without them. What must they accomplish?
~ Direct access to the characters.
Sol Stein, in Stein on Writing, reminds us that “scene happens in front of the reader, is visible, and therefore filmable.”
~ Lack of resolution.
According to Jack M. Bickham in Scene & Structure, scenes are for characters struggling toward their goals, not for achieving those goals.
~ Psychological change.
Author and writing coach Jessica Page Morrell says that scenes change characters. Unless there’s enough pressure to force that, maybe it shouldn’t be a scene?
2. Connect your scenes.
Background and context are the glue that sticks scenes together. Readers want who, what, where, when, and why, and neither so early that the information seems cluttered and irrelevant, nor so late that they’re already confused. It’s all in the strategy.
~ Connect details to what’s happening in the novel right now.
Sometimes you have to delve into the past. Always use that to escalate present-time tension.
~ Disperse gradually.
Info dumps, if they belong anywhere at all, are for textbooks. Respect reader attention span.
~ Keep action prominent.
Sense of place is crucial, but not necessarily as the start to every chapter. A hook pulls in the reader while reminding the writer where the scene is going.
Question the contents of your scenes. Question the details connecting your scenes. The answers help create the illusion that your novel is perfectly paced. Isn’t that worth a question or two?