Make sure your scene answers these questions before your reader asks them, unless you are deliberately withholding that information to build tension. (For more keys, join us in the Scene-Weaving class! Or, if you’re a teen, try Teenage Novelist: Scenes and Dreams!)
1. Where am I?
- Orient your reader throughout the scene so that your characters are not just “talking heads”
- Sensory detail
- References to small, specific objects or parts of objects
- References to larger objects or elements of nature
It was a small key, no bigger than a shelled peanut, and when Jenny placed it in his hand Karl had to sit down on the temple steps. Clouds drifted frustratingly across the moon, blocking the light so that he couldn’t make out whatever was etched on it. He ran his thumb over it. Jenny dashed off to look at the marble dragons while Karl breathed in the jasmine air, trying to figure out what to do next. His sandal brushed a poppy someone had planted along the walkway. It was too perky a flower and it irritated him to see it tonight when there were no answers, when Karl was so close to accepting defeat.
2. Who is talking?
- Orient the reader by mentioning the character by name or having him or her pick up an object or do some small gesture.
Karl fingered the key. “Where did this come from?”
Jenny shrugged. “It was under the elephant.”
“Under the elephant? By this you mean under its foot? Under its bottom?”
“Just under.” Jenny traced the bamboo leaves distractedly. “You sure ask a lot of questions.”
“For all the good it does me.” Karl forced the key grimly onto his key ring. “Look, Jenny, if we want any chance of you catching that spaceship we’ve got to leave now.”
Jenny drifted across the stone steps looking up at the moon.
“Are you even listening?” He jingled the keys impatiently.
“What?” she said. “Oh. I was thinking about my mother.”
3. What is the forward movement of the scene?
- Give the reader a reason to keep reading. Every scene has a purpose to move the action forward. It can do so by explaining crucial information or by showing direct action, but even an “explaining” scene should involve some change.
“You were thinking what about your mother?” The moon was back. Karl stood and held the key up to the light.
“It’s her birthday.” Jenny climbed one of the marble dragons. “I’m sleepy. Do we have to stay?”
Karl didn’t answer. In the far distance, maybe over the next village, he could see lights in the sky. They seemed to open and close like eyes. They were moving towards the temple.