Coaches like Jack M. Bickham and Dwight Swain offer terrific suggestions for scenes, yet focus more on the building blocks than the writer’s perception of what happens next.
Tip: Plan your scenes to meet the goal of tension on every page.
Here’s an alternative: Character Goal…Hook…Hook.
~ The goal.
Know what your character wants. Instantly. Why can’t the character achieve this right now? And what’s the immediate result of failing? “Instantly” and “immediately” are the key words. A casual, long-term possibility offers little at this moment. And readers, who have all sorts of other ways to spend their time, don’t want to wait. Don’t make them.
An added bonus: if you identify what your character desires, then you know where the scene needs to go. Win/win/win: characters get motive; readers get conflict; writers get strategy.
~ The hooks.
Use your protagonist’s goal to start every scene with a genuine hook, or anything that whets reader appetite. Hint: it’s rarely just the setting. Consider these possibilities:
- Seemingly unwinnable goal
- Snazzy dialogue
- Short sentence that pops
- Complex emotion
- Huge dilemma
- Grave danger
- Emotional upheaval
- “Ticking clock” (as Noah Lukeman put it)
Launch the scene with a hook, and conclude every scene but the last with another hook. Again, a bonus not just for readers, but for writers. Hooks help identify which material needs to be in scene while maintaining high tension right up to The End.
Now for the frosting. It’s often the writer’s motive, but less so the reader’s. Some examples:
Ø Allusions (literary or others)
Ø Social commentary
Ø History or geography or any other kind of “lesson”
Ø Poetic moments
Like frosting, perfectly delightful. But in small doses, and never as a substitutes for the actual cake. The good news? Build scenes from hooks and goals, and you can add that delicious frosting without distracting from the plot. That’s where tension thrives.