The 102nd Killer Writing Tip

Wherein we address the question: “Why, when I have a hot idea and a killer concept, an astoundingly compelling hero, a powerful theme and I just happen to write like the love child of Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell… why, with all those wonderful things in place, can’t I sell my story?”

This might be why.

Your scenes suck.

Shortly after I launched this site I wrote an ebook called, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”   

Maybe you have it.  Maybe you should have it. 

But that’s not my point today (honestly), other than to add: well over half of these tips are ideas and strategies you may not have ever heard before (or heard defined quite this way), but are dead-on empowering.

Now back to my point, which sets up the 102nd killer writing tip promised in the title.

That number – 101 – wasn’t entirely derived from entry-level online marketing lingo.  The term “101” as street slang means an entry level dish, the basic stuff, the first line information you need to know.  And okay, it sounded onlineseque, too.

Guess it worked – this thing has sold many hundreds of copies.  It ended up being a grander effort and a more robust, relevant writing resource than I envisioned when I conceived the idea. 

Love it when that happens.

Of course, when you launch a successful project, the next challenge is how to follow that act, and do it in a way that leverages the equity of the original, including the name itself.  And when there is a number – like, 101 – in the title, the concept for the sequel sort of writes itself. 

In this case, “101 More Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”  Or, “The Next 101 Slightly Advanced Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters.”   It would, of course, offer “202” level tips (more advanced and subtle stuff) for writers who want to wrestle with the nuances.

Good 101 tells you what.  Good 2o2 tells you how.

One of those new 202-level tips is haunting me daily.

It’s a natural evolution, an enhancement, of what I believe to be the most empowering, liberating and exciting writing tip… ever.  One that’s not something I’m ripping off from another body of work, but rather, a distillation of the essence of what we know about dramatic effectiveness getting boiled down to a principle that can be expressed and understood at a glance.

Something that works.  Something that will make you better.  And, because nobody’s defined in quite this specific way, maybe something you aren’t proactively doing now.

Proactive effectiveness beats serendipitous effectiveness every time.

So here it is, the most powerful writing tip I know (you’ve read it here before… it’s also Tip #96 in the aforementioned ebook).  I reprise it here, not only because you can’t encounter this morsel of narrative gold too often, but because it forms the pre-requisite foundation for rolling out The 102 Killer Writing Tip itself.  Here ‘tis:

Every scene should have a succinct mission.

Sounds simple.  But it’s one of the primary reasons unpublished manuscripts remain unpublished – they ramble.  Mess this one up and you compromise everything about the story, from pacing to reader clarity, vicarious empathy (a required reader outcome) and expositional effectiveness.

Have you ever read a novel that is starting to either bore you, or confuse you, or both?  Chances are this is the reason: the mission for each scene is either missing, muddy or muddled.

When I talk about story planning, this is what you plan: the mission of each scene.  Only when you completely understand a scene’s mission can you write a scene that optimizes drama, characterization and expositional effectiveness.  In other words, the reader’s experience.

Characterization is not the mission of a scene – any scene — at least in this context.  The only viable exception here happens in Part 1 of a story, and even then, character is best served by something happening (show, don’t tell), and whatever is happening needs to be story-driven, not random and isolated merely for the sake of characterization.

New writers make that mistake all the time.  Published writers, not so much.

Characterization is a part of every scene in a story, just like staying upright and awake is a given expectation of someone playing a sport.  It’s essential.  But the real mission of a scene, in this context, is expositional: what information is the scene imparting to the reader?  What changes?  What is being exposed here?  What is the wrinkle, the twist, the unveiling?  

What is taking the story forward, and/or building the basis of the story, in any given scene?  That’s the mission.  To answer that question.

Who answers it?  You, of course.  But as you’ll see in a moment, the real deal-breaker here is whether your reader can answer it, or has to guess.

If it’s not there, then the scene violates this principle.  And it can kill your story.

You can find all the exceptions you want, but that doesn’t negate the validity of the principle.  But exceptions are rare because those books rarely get published. 

Because they don’t work.

If you’d like to read more about this tip and the storytelling physics that make it so powerful, click here.  But come back, because I’m about to show you how to make sure you’re doing it.

The 102nd Killer Writing Tip

This is subtle.  Forgive me if I’ve already oversold it and rendered it obvious, but this is the acid test:

If, after reading a scene, the reader cannot immediately define what new information has just been revealed, what the mission of the scene was, then the scene has failed to accomplish this mission-driven goal.

And the reader will have no clue why they were forced to read it.

At best, the reader will ignore or tolerate the mission-void scene and press forward in search of more and better story exposition.  At worst, especially after too many of these clunker scenes, they’ll put the book down and do something else.

A clear and powerfully rendered mission is the key to writing a great scene.  Which, by the way, is one of the six core competencies of successful storytelling.

This isn’t just for major milestone scenes (the plot point, the pinch points, the hook, lull, open, climax, whatever…), it applies to every scene in the book. 

Pick and choose your characterization-only scenes (those without expositional content otherwise), because you’re asking the reader to tolerate, rather than appreciate.

Once you wrap your head around this principle, with a full and functional understanding of this mission-driven concept (both for your scenes, and for your four contextual story parts), you can then apply the acid test to every scene you write.

Is the mission clear and easily comprehended?

Is it valid and necessary to the forward motion of the story?

Is there only one mission, one point, happening in this scene, other than the assorted minutea of characterization?

Is the mission of the scene itself overtly, proactively characterization, or is it just showing more of the same character stuff you’ve already established?

This is the writer’s equivalent of the touch that makes an athlete successful… the ear that makes a musician stand out… the instinct that makes a professional (insert any  field here) consistently competent… and the craft that elevates something to the level of art.

Need an example? 

Click HERE to read a chapter from my 2004 novel, “Bait and Switch” (named to Publisher’s Weekly “Best Books of 2004” list). 

Any trouble discerning the mission here?  And yet – I hope you agree – the scene still has it’s own arc, is loaded with characterization and, in no small part because this stuff is spicy hot (as in, rated-R), plenty of entertainment value and (c’mon, admit it) a vicarious ride.

The purpose of writing mission-driven scenes isn’t to cut back on character and entertainment, it’s to enhance both.

This is your mission, should you decide to accept it.  Use this principle in your scene writing, and apply this evaluative tool, to make sure you take full advantage of the opportunity it presents.

Oh yeah… if you’d like to read more about and perhaps even order a copy of “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters”… click HERE

19 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

19 Responses to The 102nd Killer Writing Tip

  1. Sammi

    Thank you! Scene execution is my weakest core competency–it’s the reason I didn’t complete my NaNoWriMo novel.

    Could you explain more about how to flesh out a mission into a full scene?

  2. Monica Rodriguez

    Great post, Larry, great points. I’ve been using a set of questions to apply to each of my scenes to make sure each has conflict & advances the story. I’ll be adding your questions to the list!

  3. Patrick Sullivan

    Scenes are such a weird beast in a lot of ways, from planning to execution and everything in between.

    I know when I was writing my last novel (where I only had a beat sheet for my outline, which helped but ended up not being ENOUGH) I came to realize the one or two sentence idea of what the scene was did not have me prepared enough sometimes to just start pounding the thing out when it’s turn at bat came.

    This lead to what I’m doing with my current novel prep. Start with the beat sheet, then (what I’m doing now) convert each one into a three sentence description of the scene. The first? The starting point and the problem. The second? The scene’s climactic thing (confrontation realization, whatever) and the final is the resolution that sets up what comes next.

    If you have those three bits, and don’t know what the intent of that scene is… well, I don’t know what to do to help you 🙂

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  5. Mission-driven scenes is one of the most important aspects of novel-writing I’ve learned. I’ve heard it described in a slightly different way that is also helpful: if you can remove the scene and the story overall stays the same, then remove the scene or modify it so it must be there. Both descriptions are great ways to make sure the story is always being propelled forward.

  6. I think I’m on the right track. When I map out my stories, each chapter (which may contain more than one scene) needs to either provide information that supports one of the plot points or provides information that supports the information that supports the plot points.

    If a character needs to be fluent in French in the third at, a scene early in the book will have her run into a French family on the each early in the first act so she can demonstrate her fluency. Nothing worse than having something critical to the story how up for the first time at the end of the book.

    As far as transitions into and out of scenes are concerned, I think a combination of my engineering (and project management) experience and a daughter who absolutely could not handle rapid transitions in her early years has helped hone that immensely.

    Loved the 101 tips. I think 202 deeper, more detailed tips would be fantastic.

  7. I clearly can’t spell check properly. 1st sentence, 2nd para should read:

    If a character needs to be fluent in French in the third act, a scene early in the book will have her run into a French family on the beach early in the first act so she can demonstrate her fluency.

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  9. This is something that I had to really grab onto when I first started studying the craft. I’d already written two novels. And discovered, much to my dismay, that they did not have mission-driven scenes.

    I learned my lesson. Wisened up. Wrote a third novel and made sure each scene had a mission. And voila! My agent sold it! So yep. It works!

  10. Boring. Same-o, same-o. No changes.

    That’s what I get when I read some of my old stuff which violates this scene mission status. Select, delete and tweak a couple words in the previous and next scenes.

    Don’t even have to kill any darlings, either.

    Can’t wait for Story Engineering with more good stuff.

  11. As a die-hard plotter, I love this! Reminds me a lot of “Scene & Structure” by Jack Bickham, only more approachable.

    Between this & your kick ass guest post on Write to Done (the Blood, Sweat & Words one), I can’t wait for your Story Engineering book to come out. Story Structure Demystified has already been a game changer for me… I’m eager to see what else I can learn here.

  12. Hi Larry,

    Personally, I was worried about what I was going to say with all those 100,000 when I first started writing my novel. Now I’m in the second draft, and I’m feeling confined! lol

    That’s because I’m trying hard at the scene level to do just as you say here: make sure the scene has meaning, develops the plot, develops the characters, and do it all entertainingly. That takes some tight writing!

    To help with this, I’ve made specific columns in my outline to note what conflicts there are in the scene, what resolutions to those conflicts (if any), what theme development happens in the scene, and what character development happens.

    Perhaps the most important column I have though is “Purpose”. This is the key one that keeps me on track. Why is this scene important to the book? How does it keep the story moving forward? What information is revealed, what foreshadowing, etc?

    I’m finding that specifically addressing these questions in my outline is helping ensure my scenes have as much kick and meaning as possible, and keeps me focused on writing nice, tight scenes.

    Great post!

    ~Graham

  13. Monica Rodriguez

    Just had to pop back to mention that the song I just listened to helped me clarify the theme & character arc of my WIP – in the time it took to listen to the song & realize the implications of the lyrics! Your always on top of it, Larry!

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  15. Michael J Lawrence

    And here’s where my Narrativemobile with a 483 V-8 Scene engine throws a rod, flips over and lands in a ditch (Yo, Matephorman, could you move over so we can see the point? Thanks)

    Backstory.

    There’s the direct dialog exposition: “Bob, let me tell you about my backstory.”

    There’s the indirect dialog exposition: “Bob, let me tell you about George’s backstory.”

    Then there’s my favorite, the oblique tease: “Your father used this when he was in the clone wars.” What, wuh.. who war… where… huh?

    I hate all of them. I won’t even talk about the flashback because we all know better. But the only alternative is to put the stuff at the beginning, where it is dead weight. Except it isn’t. “Dear reader, please indulge this character information which will be important for you to believe ye olde arc later on.”

    How do you accomplish the backstory mission in a scene that still needs to move the story forward? Let me rephrase that. How do you expose backstory when it isn’t part of the main story? Dude’s wife in Inception was a story mover. OK, that works. But in most cases, backstory isn’t a story mover. It’s a context.

    This is a real problem for me.

  16. Thanks for the gazillion tips you’ve passed along since I subscribed about six months ago! Your story structure truly is the Holy Grail.

    My latest novel, in progress, has all the necessary elements so far, thanks to you. I’m also getting awesome feedback from my target demographic readers (YA) who’d agreed to read my chapters as I finish them.

    Do you have a link where I might be able to get a hold of the pdf for the blank circus tent to fill in our novel’s story elements? We had to do some work on my computer, and somehow that file didn’t end up on my flash drive. If you could send it along, I would REALLY appreciate it!

  17. @twilk — the link is in the post in which I introduced it (see below). It takes a long time to load, so be patient (I get emails from people saying it won’t load… ya just gotta wait, and it’s worth the wait “-“).

    http://storyfix.com/the-big-daddy-of-story-structure-visual-prompts

  18. India

    Patrick Sullivan! I like your three sentence workaround! I’ve sort of been stuck with my carefully crafted outline and couldn’t think of how to move on to the scenes–this helps thanks!

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