Give Your Scenes the Third Degree

By Elizabeth Heiter

If you write thrillers, you’ve probably heard the advice that every scene needs to have a purpose.  It seems obvious, because if you wrote it, you probably had a reason, right?  The question is, does that reason serve the book in the end?  And how do you know?

With every scene in every book, I have a set of key questions I ask myself:

  • Does it say something new about one of the main characters?

One of the main purposes of a scene, besides advancing the plot, is to tell your readers about your characters.  Every time a character appears, your reader is potentially learning about their status quo (what life is like before things change during the plot) or how the plot is changing them.  And the plot of your story should always change your characters, because they have to deal with whatever you throw at them.  Ask yourself if your scene gives the reader important information about the characters or how the plot impacts them – if not, can you add that?

  • Does it move the plot along?

Does the scene change what’s happening in your plot in some substantial way?  If not, then there has to be another compelling reason for it to exist in your story.  Readers pick up thrillers to follow the character through some suspenseful action (or to figure out a mystery). If the scene doesn’t do that, you need to ask yourself what purpose it serves.

  • Does it move the subplot along?

If a scene doesn’t move a main plot along or tell something about character, it should move a subplot along.

If you can’t answer yes to at least one of the questions above (and ideally yes to character and either the plot or a subplot), then the scene probably doesn’t belong in your story.  That doesn’t mean cutting everything you wrote.  Often, it means doing one of two things: either adding one of the above components to the existing scene, or (more often for me) moving the important pieces of the scene into another scene that does accomplish one of the important goals above.

Once I answer these primary questions about a scene’s usefulness, then I get into the nitty gritty:

  • Does something important change between the beginning and end of the scene?

Just like the book as a whole, each scene needs an arc.  If nothing substantial has changed between the beginning of a scene and the end of a scene, then it’s difficult to build tension.  And when the tension is flat, your thriller isn’t moving and you risk losing your reader.

  • Does it start on a hook?

Start with the action.  You’ve probably also heard that advice – it doesn’t necessarily have to be literal, but you should start every book (and every scene!) with something that will compel the reader to keep going.  Think of the beginning of each scene as a place where a reader might bookmark a story and decide to come back to it later (or not).  By opening with a hook, you convince them to keep going through the scene.

  • Does it end on a hook?

Just like you want to open each scene on a hook that pulls a reader in, you want to end each scene on a hook that makes them think, “I’ll just read one more scene (or chapter) before I set it down.”  Do this with every scene of the book and they never will set it down – and then you have a page-turner.

  • Are there enough sensory details to pull the reader into the story?

Different styles will have different amounts of detail, but every scene should have sensory description of some kind – a way to make the reader feel like they’re not just reading words, but experiencing the story alongside the characters.  In every scene, think about the five senses – do you have all of them?  Some of them?

  • Is there enough white space on each page?

Open up your favorite thriller.  Is it filled with densely packed blocks of black text or is there a lot of white space?  Does that differ in scenes that are action-packed versus those that are more about character development?  Breaking up paragraphs and scenes with white space can move the eye along and increase pacing.

  • Is there a mix of action and introspection?

All action all the time can be exhausting.  Nothing but introspection will slow your pacing down to a crawl.  But the right mix keeps the book moving and makes readers care what happens to the characters – and you need both for a powerful thriller.

  • Are you providing a compelling reason to keep reading?

Your readers don’t necessarily need to like your characters to care what happens to them.  They don’t necessarily have to agree with your themes to want to unravel the mystery.  But you do need to give them a reason to keep turning pages, and most of the time that’s about more than just the action.  This is true not just in the book as a whole, but in each individual scene.  Make them care with every page and, by the time they reach the end, they’ll be searching for your next book!

Critically acclaimed author ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, psychological twists, and a little bit (or a lot!) of romance. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range.

To learn more about Elizabeth Heiter’s most recent thriller, click on the cover below:

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