First, let me tell you where you can find a real-life example of the list I’m about to share. My selection of books is wide-ranging. I read The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas when I was in high school. I read every one of the books in The Mushroom Planet series when I was in the sixth-grade. Robin Hood books were my favorite when I was even younger.
However, the book that has affected me and my writing the most is one I finished recently. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 tells the story of a man trying to change the past by stopping the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It’s pure science fiction (flavored only the way King can do it) and it adds a new twist to the canon of time-travel stories. (I think I’ve read every time travel story available; trust me on this.)
That’s only part of what makes this book great. Things that King shows are elements that each scene of a successful story must have. A lot of these items are obvious, yet I’ve read books by high-powered authors who don’t include some, making for confusion.
(1) Source of light. Every scene must explain the time of day and, if the scene takes place inside, show the reader where the light comes from. Are we outside in the middle of the night? Full moon? New moon? Starlight? Clouds?
(2) Participants. Every scene must also tell the reader who is there and where “there” is. One novel I read recently started a new chapter that ran for over a page before I knew the who and the where. This is frustrating and irritating to readers (who are, after all, your main audience).
(3) Senses. Every scene should deliver the six senses. Six? That’s right. Not only smell, sight, hearing, touch, and taste, but the emotional state of the character needs to be explored. Briefly and surreptitiously, of course, unless you want to have a list at the beginning of every scene. (Not advisable.)
(4) Resolution. In every scene, somebody must want something, somebody must oppose that want, and there’s a clear winner and loser. Otherwise, what you’ve written is a lecture on morality. A good exercise is to write a scene about what Jack and Jill do with that pail of water. Each needs it and there can be no compromise.
The best book I’ve found on how to set up scenes is Naked Playwriting:
There are tons of lists. One is by Kurt Vonnegut, which can be found at this site:
And, to paraphrase Vonnegut, if you’re a great writer, you can ignore any list!
Bill Hopkins is retired after beginning his legal career in 1971 and serving as a private attorney, prosecuting attorney, an administrative law judge, and a trial court judge, all in Missouri. His poems, short stories, and non-fiction have appeared in many different publications. He’s had several short plays produced.
Bill and his wife, Sharon Woods Hopkins (a mystery writer!), live in Marble Hill, Missouri.
COURTING MURDER was his first novel and his second novel RIVER MOURN won first place in the Missouri Writers’ Guild Show-Me Best Book Awards in 2014. All of his novels can be viewed on his Amazon Author Page:
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