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  • [BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] Three Essential Questions that Will Make Your Scenes Unforgettable
[BREAKFAST WITH THE MUSE] Three Essential Questions that Will Make Your Scenes Unforgettable
Written by
Jill Jepson
May 2016
Written by
Jill Jepson
May 2016

We’ve all read books we couldn’t put down. For me, it was Game of Thrones. One page on vacation with my husband, and I ended up spending our entire trip with my nose in the book. For others it might be Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, one of the classics, or some obscure book that no one else cared for. Each of us has some work that pulled us into the story so fully we could hardly pry ourselves away. A writing teacher of mine called it, “getting lost in the dream.”

That experience is what all writers long to give their readers. It’s great if they enjoy our writing, or find it interesting, but how much more wonderful it would be to know they can’t stop turning the page.

There’s no sure-fire way to achieve the ultimate page-turner—but there are techniques we can use that add power and focus to our work, bringing us closer to the elusive goal of the book no one can put down.

Here is a technique I call the “Three Essential Questions.” Applying this technique to your work scene by scene, adds energy, depth and focus to your work. The answers to these three questions aren’t always easy to come by—but once you have them, they will take a scene that is merely interesting and make it unforgettable.

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1. What does each character in this scene want right now?

If you’ve done your homework, you have a clear idea of what motivates your characters. You know their backstories. Their desires. Their interests, tastes, and foibles. When you write a scene, you need to push that understanding deeper, to make it more immediate. Ask what your character wants in that moment.

Say you have two couples sitting at a table in a restaurant. You’ve written some snappy dialogue. You have some nice details—the smell of simmering Italian sauces, the taste of the warm bread they’re munching on, the clink of dishes and the murmer of the crowd. So far, so good. But if you really want that scene to sizzle, you need to ask yourself what each of those four people want as they sit at that table.

Maybe Jane wants her husband Jim to order something healthy. She’s worried about his weight.

Maybe Jim wants to be home. He’s tired and didn’t want to go out to begin with.

Perhaps Lisa wants her wife, Susan, to stop telling the same tired jokes.

Or maybe Jane wants to sleep with Lisa, Lisa wants to leave Susan, Jim wants Jane dead.  

Everyone has something they want at any particular moment. Those wants, big and small, guide the action. Your characters may be chatting about the weather, but underneath their conversation will be swirling pools of wants and needs. Know what they are.

2. What draws these people together?

People in a scene together must be there for a reason. What draws them together will determine how the scene unfolds. Do Jane, Jim, Lisa, and Susan have a shared mission or goal? Do they have needs they are fulfilling by being together? Are they drawn together by mutual love—or shared hatred?

Keep in mind the supposed reason for people being in a room together may be different than the actual reason. Just make sure the true reason is clear in your own mind.

3. What is disrupting this scene?

If you read thoughtfully, you’ll see that disruption is what stories are all about. If our four diners simply have a nice time and go home, you don’t have a story. To make their dinner a story worth telling, something has to interfere.  

Disruptions can be external or internal, large or small, blatant or understated.  A subtle competition brews between Jane and Lisa. The waiter spills spaghetti sauce on Susan’s new dress. A car crashes into the restaurant. Jim pulls out a gun. Whatever it is, there has to be something that disrupts the normal day-to-day experience of your characters.

To answer these questions, have a good conversation with your characters and see what they have to say. Play with the scene, answering the questions differently until it feels right. Experiment and be open to discovering new things about your characters. Write your scene with these three questions in mind and see what comes up.

I'm Jill Jepson, author of Writing as a Sacred Path. Get my free strategies for writers in your email twice a month.

Photo credit: © Zwawol | Dreamstime.com - Woman reading book

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  • Jill Jepson

    I'm glad you found this helpful, Stacey!

  • Stacey Wiedower

    Great questions! I'm putting these on a Post-it so they're in front of my face as I work on my current book. Thanks!

  • Jill Jepson

    Thanks, Kristin!

  • Thank you as always for posting Jill! I'll feature this in an upcoming newsletter for the community.