Every Scene Should Develop the Plot: What Does It Really Mean?

Every Scene Should Develop the Plot (What Does it Really Mean?) | As a writer, you might have hear that every scene should develop the plot. Here’s what that really means. A must read for writers who want to streamline their stories and keep their reader engaged.

Every scene should develop the plot. It’s Plotting 101. Readers don’t want to be bored, so everything they read has to count toward the bigger picture.

There’s a lot of advice out there that will tell you scenes should do “at least one of the following”, the ‘following’ being some variety of:

  • develop or advance the plot
  • establish or develop conflict
  • establish, reinforce or heighten stakes
  • establish or reveal motivation
  • reveal information that will lead to advancement of the plot
  • reveal or develop character
  • foreshadow future events
  • reveal backstory
  • world building
  • establish setting, tone or mood
  • illustrate theme
  • develop subplots
  • develop minor characters
  • develop conflict
  • slow the pace
  • increase word count

A scene that does any of these is developing the plot, right?

Wrong.

Consider this:

Scene 1 – the main character is having breakfast with a friend and talks about her relationship problems so the reader knows what’s going on in her life.
Scene 2 – a 400-word description of the main character’s apartment because it’s an important setting.
Scene 3 – a flashback to a fight with the main character’s first boyfriend to establish backstory in relation to her current relationship problems.
Scene 4 – change point of view to establish a subplot in which a minor character’s interest in volleyball is explored.

Common advice would have us believe that all of these scenes can justifiably be left in the story, as can the subplot. They also all sound like a complete snoozefest. While I’m sure the information is important, none of these scenes is developing the plot in any way because the story isn’t moving forward.

The list above, compiled from other blog posts on this topic, is flawed. ‘Develop the plot’ is often misunderstood and can result in a string of action scenes that can damage the pace and readability of the story. It’s important to understand that plot comprises many elements that all need to be developed for the plot to move forward. Conflict, stakes, motivation, character, information, and narrative techniques are all part of plot development; therefore, scenes including any of these will be developing the plot. So let’s begin by revising our list.

Elements of scene building do not develop the plot

If we condense the list so that everything associated with developing the plot comes under one point of, well, developing the plot, we get this:

  • develop the plot
  • world building
  • establish setting, tone or mood
  • illustrate theme
  • develop subplot

But it’s still full of problems. Setting, tone and mood are scene elements; they’re part of a scene, not scenes themselves. Theme is part of narrative and should be illustrated through the story, not through individual scenes. World building contributes to many story elements but should not have its own scenes. Readers want to read a story, not a Wikipedia entry on Your World. There’s no reason why, in most cases, these things can’t be done in the context of developing the plot. In fact, if these things are not developed, written or explored in the process of telling your story, the story itself might be underdeveloped.

Good scenes put all of these things together

There’s a scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling that accomplishes a lot in less than 500 words [pp 133–134]. The first paragraph describes the setting in a way that shows that time has passed since the end of the last scene. In the second paragraph, external stakes of the subplot are established. In the third paragraph, internal stakes of the subplot are established, which also contribute to character development. The fourth paragraph sets up the conflict of this scene. World-building takes place in the fifth paragraph. The rest of scene creates conflict that leads to the next scene, where plot-related information is discovered. The scene is short and simple, but accomplishes way more than one of the items on that list. And all of it is done in the context of the narrative, and plot has advanced by the end of the scene. No single story element has a scene dedicated to it, story elements are developed as the story unfolds.

This is the key to ensuring that every scene develops the plot: it tells the story. It doesn’t matter how much character development or world building a scene accomplishes; if there’s no contextual movement, it hasn’t developed the plot.

 

Louise

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