How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

Why are  you writing?

Well, obviously because I had a traumatic experience when I was young with a pair of wild gophers, and ever since words have flown from my pen even when it’s capped (it’s rather creepy, actually), so I write as catharsis and to keep quiet the horrible gopher demons inside.

Ah… no.  That’s not what I mean.  When you’re writing a story, or a scene, or even a paragraph, what are you trying to accomplish?  Why are you writing those words?

With delicate things like humor and poetry, knowing your purpose can be as important as knowing how to tell a joke or create beautiful imagery.  A joke without purpose is a joke in the wrong place— it doesn’t add to the emotion, it doesn’t forward the plot.  Instead, laughter will often destroy your hard-earned effect.  (This is why laughing at an insult is so effective.)  In the same way, imagery without purpose is useless.  Imagery that creates a specific emotion is poetry, and readers call it beautiful.  Imagery that isn’t attached to any sort of emotion has no reason to be there, and readers call it purple prose.  Without purpose, both humor and poetry are lost causes.

So how do you figure out your purpose for a scene?  Generally, my purpose in writing a scene is to tell a story, and to tell it well.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t tell me how to use poetry and humor.  Indeed, trying too hard destroys your ability to tell a story well, so stated this way, my purpose tells me nothing.  But it’s obvious, isn’t it?  Your purpose for any scene is going to change from scene to scene.  That way you don’t just fill a book with the same scene, told the same way, over and over.  As the needs of the story change, your purpose for the scene changes.

How do you tell what your purpose is?  Occasionally, it will be obvious to you— you want this scene to happy and then crush the readers with tragedy untold.  (Or rather, told, because… anyway.)  Or you want the scene to be extremely sad, or extremely shocking.  Depending on your idea of the scene, you might already have an idea of your purpose there.

But what if you don’t?  It’s always a possibility, and for me, since I rarely have clear ideas of scenes in my head, knowing my purpose beforehand doesn’t happen very often.  Occasionally I’ll write it by instinct, but usually I’ll stumble along, not knowing what I’m writing.  So how to find out?  As with everything, there is a process to it, but it’s going to be slightly different for every scene and every person.

I start very generally.  My overall plan is to write well, but what does the scene need to do in this case?  Does it need to introduce a character, a subplot, or a bit of foreshadowing for later?  That comes first.  If that doesn’t happen, the rest of the story can’t work, in which case humor and poetry mean nothing.  But with those basics down, you can begin to find the rest of your purpose, the real emotion of the scene.

Ask yourself: who’s reacting to these new developments?  How is this affecting the viewpoint character?  Do you want the reader to feel the same thing, or something different?

One of my recent posts dealt with reactions making characters feel real.  Not every character will react differently to information, but you can’t assume they will all react the same way.  Even if they don’t have traumatic childhood experiences that tie back to this plot twist, they can have a reaction completely opposite that of the main character or another side character.  That can grow into a subplot if you wish, in many different ways.  It can be a one-time thing, to add to an argument or a conversation.  Or it can be the start of a running gag, where the character is made fun of for reacting that way.  (That dips into subplot-land.)  All of this, as you uncover it, feeds into the emotion of the viewpoint character and, ultimately, the reader.

How is the viewpoint character feeling about everything?  If things are going wrong, chances are she won’t be willing to sit back and relax.  Or perhaps she will, annoying her best friends.  Is she scared by things?  Angered by them?  Depending on her emotion, that’s how you’ll skew the scene.  Instead of relieving tension with a joke, you can increase tension by making a character laugh at the thing the viewpoint character is most sensitive about.  Also, depending on the viewpoint character’s emotion in the scene, that’s what she’s going to notice.  If she’s angry but doesn’t know who to be angry at, the first person to object to her will feel the brunt of her wrath.  All of the side character reactions you just brainstormed contribute to the viewpoint character’s emotion.

And finally, how do you want the reader to feel?  Are they completely inside the viewpoint character’s head at this point, seeing what she’s seeing and feeling what she’s feeling?  In that case, everything the character notices is going to be accentuated by the way you write it, through the words you choose.  You want to keep from jarring readers and kicking them out of the viewpoint character’s mind.  You’ll want to smooth out the viewpoint character’s thought processes so they seem like the reader’s own reactions.

How about if the reader isn’t feeling what the viewpoint character is feeling?  In that case, you need to figure out what you want them to feel.  In thrillers, it’s often the case that the reader knows more about the situation than the viewpoint character.  While you still have to show the character’s emotions, you can bring out completely different elements of the scene to make the reader fear for the character, or laugh at her, or any number of things.  Depending on how you want the reader to feel, you can adjust your words to fit.

Often, this process will work.  Everyone wants humor in their writing, and everyone wants to write beautifully— but it depends on what you need the scene to do, and how you need to enact it.  Writing is hardly a performance art, so you don’t have to get it right the first try, but knowing your purpose for the scene will help you immensely in knowing when to tell a joke, knowing how to describe an object, and other subjective things like pacing, ambiguity, and thoughts.  Miss the purpose and you’re a loose cannon, shooting out purple prose and bad jokes.  Knowing your purpose is the first step to making your writing do everything it needs to do.

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27 thoughts on “How to Find the Purpose of a Scene

  1. Oh my goodness, you put it into words and explained it in steps! Thank you, sir!

    I had already sort of figured this out, but I tend to forget about it. Come time to edit, I will definitely be coming back to this post.

    If you have demon gophers, you might need to see someone about that… An exterminator, a counselor, and maybe a doctor.

  2. It’s fascinating (Okay, sorry, but I couldn’t use interesting twice.) how you take this post and draw it out of the other things you just talked about, relating it back to those other things. Makes it easier to follow along.

    I’m not very good at getting the reader to feel the opposite of what the viewpoint character is feeling. But then, I’ve rarely tried it, because I don’t write thrillers, I don’t write viewpoint characters that oppose the main character, and I generally want the reader to feel what the main character feels.

    But it’s interesting how you tied the purpose of the scene to emotions so much like that. I guess it’s kind of like how characters have those “external goals” and “internal goals”–scenes can have external purposes and internal purposes, huh?

    All right, now how does this help me with my present situation. We’ll see, I guess.

  3. Great po–
    *Is distracted by your new profile pic which might actually be you and the fact that if it is you you do not have antlers.*

    Great post! One thing I’ve learned about my writing this year is that I have more fun and am more productive when I know what the purpose of the scene is. Unless of course the characters derail my train of thought and start doing something new. That’s often fun and productive too.

      1. Aha. Well, knowing Liam, he’d probably figure out some way to make them retractable or collapse-able. If the Phils were involved the result might be that they only retract when the moon is 16/87ths full or when “Call Me Maybe” is sung by an armadillo, but hey, they’d still retract.

  4. I try to suck the reader in and make them not just want to read the next sentence but need to read it. It’s not always possible. The story has to proceed along and a certain amount of groundskeeping must be done, just enough is tricky.

    1. Indeed, but focusing on that sort of thing for every scene sounds a bit monotonous. It’s a good goal, to keep readers moving along at a nice clip, but things have to vary.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. I normally am able to write by instinct, but sometimes I just have to pound it out three or four times to get it right… As writers, we have to be efficient… and though it hurts to cut out some of the scenes I really like, I still do it, because it interrupts the flow of the novel and really doesn’t add anything to the plot. I may end up writing those as extras or short stories for author-website-exclusives… hmm… An innovative, fun author website is something a lot of authors, unfortunately, don’t seem to have, so exclusive content might be a plus.

    1. There comes a point where pounding it out just doesn’t work. I don’t enjoy that point, but it happens.

      I dislike exclusive content, personally. If it wasn’t in the novel, it shouldn’t be anywhere else— probably that contributes to my feelings toward reading fanfiction.

      1. I know…Sometimes I just have to walk away from a project, and that tends to be extremely frustrating.
        Mmm… I don’t know. (Second most disappointing thing about some author websites–no interactive maps. I am going to have to figure out how to make one for my fantasy places.)

      2. (Ah. I don’t know. I just tend to prefer more interactive stuff on websites, I guess. One thing I refuse to have on my author website, though, is a hit counter, because I’d rather not flaunt how many times the site has been visited. Same for Facebook likes, though my mass comm. teacher says that companies use that for how marketable your stuff is.)

      3. (Funny thing about what we say we’ll never have— it often turns out to be just the thing we need, when stuff rolls around. But I understand what you mean. I also have to say that I don’t mind if a person has a hit counter on their blog or site, because I don’t look at them or care what they say.)

      4. (Very true. I almost never look at my stats, for some reason. Though I just did get 200 followers, which is super cool. Anyway, I’m hoping to figure out some kind of content to include on my author website.)

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