Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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December 16, 2020

Scene Coherence … from the Reader’s Perspective

by Barbara Linn Probst

The deeper I go into the craft of writing, the more I keep returning to the importance of thinking like a reader. So much of the “advice” seems to be about what we, as writers, ought to be doing. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But what about the reader’s experience? Does it match what writers think they’re doing? I compare the question to the cook’s experience of preparing a meal and the diner’s experience of eating it. They might be the same, or they might not.

By way of example, let’s consider the reader’s experience of a scene, since scenes are the building blocks of a story.

We’re told that every scene needs a purpose, a source of conflict or tension, and a pivot where something changes, concluding with an upward or downward shift in the protagonist’s journey. Like the beams and girders of a building, these guidelines are structural, architectural, not necessarily experiential.

What I’m calling the experiential level refers to the sense of satisfaction that a reader has when a scene feels meaningful and whole. Without it, a scene might be technically perfect, but flat.

What helps to create that sense of participation and organic coherence?  “Deep POV” is often cited as the key, and it can certainly be useful—although my own view is that it needs to be used strategically, not constantly, and that other “writer tools” are also needed.

Here are some suggestions.

Resonance Between the Beginning and End of the Scene

The way the scene opens and the way it closes need to be related, but that relationship doesn’t have to be as mechanical or obvious as “the protagonist is closer to story goal” or “the protagonist is farther from story goal.” There are many other ways the beginning and ending can be related—and experienced as related, by the reader. For example:

  • By echoing: the repetition of an evocative image, object, or phrase – first appearing early in the scene – whose meaning reverberates in a new way at the end.
  • By intensifying: the solidification of a longing, foreboding, or hunch that was suggested at the beginning of the scene. This can be the movement from idea to action, or from lesser to greater intensity – that is, from a “quiet” desire, fear, or action to a stronger iteration of the same emotion or behavior.
  • By inverting: the reversal of a belief, desire, alliance, or expectation that was dominant at the beginning of the scene. This can be partial, through the arousing of doubt, or total, through a shock such as betrayal or the appearance of new knowledge.
  • By undoing: the character’s exit from a setting that provoked regret, humiliation, fear, or another emotion that threw her world off-balance.

Ask yourself: Isolate the first and last paragraphs of a scene. Is it clear that they belong together, like bookends?  If the answer is no, what can I do to create the missing resonance?

Creating a Moment of Peak Intensity

Somewhere in the scene, there needs to be a sentence that captures its specific emotional quality. It’s the moment that grabs the reader, the sentence the reader just can’t forget. Prior sentences lead up to this peak; subsequent sentences show its effects.

It’s the most intense moment in the scene—the reason the scene exists. A moment of choice, change, surprise, possibility, or emotional impact.

Although this peak moment can reflect a new realization, it’s better to avoid words like “realized” and “understood,” since they shift the focus to the mind. In general, the reader’s experience of peak intensity is strengthened by the use of concrete details, rather than by words that name generic emotions.

Ask yourself:  What is the one sentence, without which the scene would lose its emotional power? If you’re not sure, try deleting different sentences and note the effect. If you can’t find that peak sentence, add it. If there seem to be several, you may have over-written the scene; try picking just one.

Use of Supporting Features to Evoke Reader Participation

Story events are given texture, nuance, and depth by passages ofinteriority and exteriority. Interiority means stepping inside the point-of-view character’s mind (through response, reflection, or memory). Exteriority means describing the outer world, usually to create context or mood. The purpose of both techniques is to enhance the narrative events – to help the reader feel why an event matters, and to whom.

But their use can’t be random. Timing (placement in the scene) and duration (length of the passage) must be thoughtfully rendered, or they will jolt the reader out of the flow of empathetic engagement. Thus, the writer must be crystal clear about her intention.

If you’re using interiority, what is your specific purpose right now? Is it to evoke empathy, show conflict or struggle, connect with the past or future?  Why is interiority the best way to accomplish this?

Ask yourself: What would happen if I externalized the moment instead – through an action, gesture, or interaction with the environment (e.g. the character fingering the frayed fabric of the couch, rather than ruminating on how her life seems to be falling apart)? How can I draw the reader into the character’s embodied experience, rather than into her mind?

If you’re using exteriority, why have you selected a specific aspect of the environment to move into the foreground right now (e.g., sound, light, temperature) or given an object a specific quality (e.g., size, color, location)? Is it to evoke a memory or show something about the culture, social dynamics, or power relations among the characters?

Ask yourself: How else, other than through description, can I convey this?  Can I use dialogue or movement instead of descriptive details? How can I pull the reader inside the scene as a participant, rather than keeping her apart as an observer?

Re-opening after the apparent resolution.  Yes, every scene needs a satisfying ending, a clear indication of how the world of the protagonist is different from the way it was at the beginning. But it also needs to unsettle us again, to provoke a new question, suggest further complexity, signal that there’s more to come. A coda that says: Or maybe not. 

Ask yourself: What sentence lets the reader know that the story isn’t over? What sentence makes the reader want to continue to the next scene?

What about you? Do you use one or more of these tools? Can you share an example? Does one of these tools spark a new idea for you in your WIP?

* * * * * *

About Barbara

BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment WeeklyParade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launches in April 2021.

Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work and blogs for several award-winning sites for writers. To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see http://www.barbaralinnprobst.com/

15 comments on “Scene Coherence … from the Reader’s Perspective”

  1. One of the most intensely thought-stimulating posts I've seen on writing craft. It challenges the writer to do so much work in every tiny corner of the novel to impove the reading experience. I'm exhausted just thinking about the editing job ahead of me. 🙂

      1. If you can, you might try to pick out two or three of these suggestions and go through the MS with an eye to spotting places where you could add or enhance them. Does each scene have a peak moment? If you can't find it, then you can add it. That could be a do-able way to strengthen the MS before turning it in, and then you could tackle other elements later, if they seem relevant.

    1. I'm glad you found this so stimulating ... but it's not meant as a "to-do list" for every single page! Think of it as a list of possibilities that you can draw from. The only item here that really do require of myself, for every scene, is the relationship between how a scene opens and how it closes (the idea of bookends). I find that very helpful, personally.

    1. Miriam, I am so glad to hear that! Don't try to do everything at once, though. Pick a couple of things that you suspect may be missing or shortchanged and start there. Triage 🙂

    1. And you've made my day, in return! I find that other people or a relevant blog can help to diagnose a problem. The way we solve that problems is up to each of us, as the writer—such a practical and, to me, encouraging balance 🙂

  2. Each "Ask yourself:" is brilliant. Wonderful post.

    I'm in the process of editing the manuscript from this past NaNoWriMo. The timing of this post is perfect. Thank you!!

    1. Ellen, I'm so happy to hear that! I think it's helpful when "advice" is actionable—that is, includes a way to put it into practice. And yup, editing is a massive job and has to be done in layers. That's another post!

  3. I agree with Ellen - the "ask yourself" questions in this post are extraordinarily helpful. And the editing job ahead of me is...well, I'm just not going to think about it right now!

    1. Thanks, Jenny! I also find that "editing" isn't merely correcting and fixing, but leaving space for whole new elements to appear. It almost seems as if we need a new vocabulary, other than the generic words "revise" and "edit," to capture the different stages and aspects of this enormous process!

  4. All the tools, all the time. Scenes are like short stories - structure is critical, and the reader experience is primary.

    I have long checklists - part of why it takes me so long to write a scene - but when it's finished, it's DONE, and I rarely have to go back for anything much. I work in scenes because of a damaged brain, with a complete and comprehensive written structure to support the scenes.

    But I had to laugh - and say yes to each of your very good points.

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