When you create scene questions, you engage readers and keep them reading to find the answers.
Two strategies simplify this task:
Either approach to scene questions will quickly create reader involvement in the story, and reader involvement creates a desire to read on. Test this for yourself. Open any novel and begin reading. Within a few paragraphs you will either want the answer to a scene question you have formulated, or you will know what the POV character wants to achieve in the scene.
A few paragraphs into The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes:
I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
Who is Gatsby, and Why does the character feel "unaffected scorn" for him? Those are the questions raised, and readers read forward to learn the answers.
In the first paragraph of Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates writes:
. . . Monica Jenson was introduced to Sheila Trask at a crowded reception in the headmaster's residence. And the meeting was so awkward, her own response so lacking in brilliance or distinction, Monica could never have predicted that Sheila Trask would remember her or even that they would meet again.
Who is Sheila Trask, and What happens when Monica meets her again? I ask myself these scene questions before I'm through the first paragraph of Solstice.
About two hundred words into Fault Lines, Nancy Huston puts us into the mind of her six-year-old character Sol:
I'm exceptional. I can't allow just anything into my body: my poop has to come out the right colour and consistency, this is part of the circulation.
Who is this kid, and is he exceptional or dysfunctional? I kept reading because I wanted to know, and so did many others, beginning with the editor who bought the book.
Not one of these books starts with action or dialogue, and yet readers are pulled into all three stories immediately because of strong scenes that raise questions the reader wants answered.
Another technique for raising scene questions that capture and hold reader attention is to give the character a desire or goal and to make the reader aware of the goal as early as possible in the scene. This is called the statement of goal. When readers know what a character wants, they will either hope he gets it, or they will hope he fails. Either way, the reader becomes involved in the story and interested in the outcome.
In his novel Unknown Man No. 89, Elmore Leonard opens chapter two with his main character, Ryan, meeting a boorish Jay Walt in a restaurant. This is a simple set up—two guys meeting for a coffee—but the meeting alone is not enough to create tension or to make a successful scene. The first step in creating tension is to let the reader know what the character wants:
Ryan was hot in his raincoat. He ought to take it off. He looked past Jay Walt to get the waitress. Get something and get out.
Note the sentence Get something and get out. As soon as readers see that statement of goal, they unconsciously wonder if Ryan "gets out" successfully. And because Jay Walt has such poor manners, they hope Ryan succeeds in escaping him.
In the next paragraph, this statement of goal is reinforced when Ryan thinks, Christ, walk out if you want. You don't have to explain anything. He's turned on his seat, about to leave, when Jay Walt puts a hand on his arm to stop him. He says, "I got you, let me tell you what I want."
Ryan still wants out, and makes a few more attempts to get away. These attempts give his actions purpose in the scene—he has something to do besides talk and listen. But Jay Walt's goal is to keep Ryan in the restaurant until he convinces him to find a missing person. These conflicting character goals create extra tension.
So now the story has tension and conflicting goals. Who will win? We read on to find out, and ultimately Ryan succeeds, but not before Jay has talked him into taking the job, which raises the stakes considerably higher, and moves the plot forward.
The next paragraph begins with another statement of goal: He got right on it, beginning with the Detroit City Directory for 1941. Now Ryan needs to locate the missing man. Readers keep reading to learn whether he finds him or not.
"But what about literary fiction? I imagine writers asking. "You don't need a statement of goal in literary fiction, do you, to write strong scenes?" But you do. A statement of goal raises tension as readers wonder if the character will succeed in achieving his goal. It raises questions for the reader. It keeps the reader involved in the outcome.
In Fault Lines, Nancy Huston writes a scene where Sol has a mole removed. Five lines into the scene, she writes:
The day goes by and the feeling comes back, and it's a bad feeling, aka pain. I don't talk about it. I refuse to complain. I can stand it. This is a test and I'm going to pass it with flying colours.
Will he pass this self-imposed test? Readers want to know, so they keep reading. And that's the point. Goals need not be large, but even small goals give the character purpose, and that's the point of a scene—to show a character trying to achieve something he or she wants.
Failure to create scene questions and goals leaves readers floundering as they wonder "what's the point?" When they have to read too many scenes without feeling involved, they get impatient. They get bored. Sooner or later, they'll stop reading. They may complain, "So they went out to dinner and had a wonderful meal. Everything was described in vivid, lush detail, but who cares?"
If readers don't care, it is because the author didn't create the questions that would have given them something to care about.
How a Strong Story Premise Sets You up for Success
Writing Characters: How to Use Daily Rituals to Strengthen Characterization
Writing Dialogue with Good Tension
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