Being a Better Writer: What’s a Memorable Scene?

This post was originally written and posted September 8th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still off the grid in Alaska. This post was uploaded ahead of time for your viewing pleasure.

Welcome back for today’s Being a Better Writer post. It is a bit more nebulous topic, and so I’m going to try and approach it in a bit more relaxed manner. Rather than moving from point to point, or even prepping more than the initial idea beforehand, I’m just going to talk about it and see where things go. Partially because I feel like being a bit more relaxed today, partially because I want to see how well this works, and lastly because the topic itself can be a little nebulous.

So, what does make a memorable scene? And here’s where we run into a few differences, right with the first answer. Because to me what makes a scene memorable is something important happening. But that might not be the same answer that others give. In fact, others might give a completely different assessment of what makes a scene memorable. Perhaps it has to do with the main characters. Perhaps it’s the final battle, the most energetic portion of the story. Even upon thinking about it, my own answer that it is something important doesn’t exactly hold a sum total, because there’s a secondary element to consider, in that it be interesting. For me, these are two things that I put into my mind when I’m writing: What’s important about this scene? And is it interesting?

But that probably isn’t what’s going through other writers or readers heads when they do their own scenes. They might be going for clever dialogue. Or maybe even a funny joke.

So why when I’m asked what makes a memorable scene, do I think of importance and interest? I think part of it comes from what I’m looking at as a writer. The last thing that I want my reader to do is be forced to slog through things that aren’t important. Look, let’s be honest, anyone with half a decent talent for prose can sit down and write a lovely several thousand word piece on a character’s experience of cleaning a kitchen. Sliding the washrag across the counter, doing the dishes, cleaning the windows, putting things away … this can be done pretty easily.

But what does it mean? What reason does the reader have to read about such an event? Let’s face it, we’ve all had our characters do tiny little things like take a drink from a glass, and those little bits of flavor add to the story, but they’re like bacon bits. Tasty, but short-lived, and not that good on their own. And if you make a whole chunk of a story about someone cleaning their kitchen, unless it serves a purpose, unless it’s important to the story somehow, well then it’s little more than a whole bowl of bacon bits. The writing is good, yes, but there isn’t anything important going on.

Clearly context has a bit to do with this. A story about action, adventure, and daring escapes really drags when a character spends their day in a kitchen doing nothing relevant to the story. You see this problem in a lot of places, both online and in published books from lesser-known authors. They’ve put the character in a situation, and then they write about it without stopping to consider whether or not there would be any reason to do so.

Importance. Spending five-thousand words of prose on a scene that contains nothing of importance might still lead to a well-written scene, but the reader isn’t going to find it memorable. You have to consider how important it is to the story. What will it convey? What will it do for the reader? Is it moving the plot ahead (aside from just burning time)? Is it delivering the reader interesting elements and anecdotes?

For me, usually considering the importance of the scene combined with the characters I then turn loose in it tends to make the scene memorable enough. Because if I combine anything of importance with characters that are going to bounce off and around it, I can usually trust on those characters to make the scene memorable in various ways. For example, Captain Steel in a kitchen is going to be pretty utilitarian—and by extension, not interesting—unless he’s interacting with Cappy or his niece and nephew. But even by taking those characters out of the equation, having Steel ruminate on their absence can be a way to keep the scene interesting as well (though it should also be important in some way). Likewise, writing a chapter about a cheerful parent cleaning up their kitchen could be really boring and not at all memorable if simply approached in a very flat manner, but if the author uses it to show something about or around the character through their thoughts and actions, such as thinking about the rapid-cooking and mess-making that led to the unwashed dishes so that they and their daughter wouldn’t be late to a play, or thinking about the fun they had making a desert while cleaning up, it can give life and value to an otherwise dull scene.

Man, this is such a tricky question. Let’s see, what about a scene that doesn’t really seem that exciting, but is important? After all, plenty of foreshadowing in books often happens during what most of us would consider day to day activities. How do we get our readers to remember some important detail from a scene that’s less than exciting or doesn’t seem important (and how do you keep them from getting bored)?

A lot of that goes back to one of my earlier posts on misdirection. Basically, you can conceal information that is important by hiding in with other interesting things. For example, Harry Potter pulled double duty with this in one book by having what would have only been a marginally important scene (a dinner party) serve as foreshadowing for the room of requirement. But to keep it from being dull (and to make it memorable for the reader), Rowling used Dumbledore as the vehicle for the foreshadowing as they group discussed unusual stories of their experiences at Hogwarts. The audience gets a plethora of funny events (which keeps them interested), topped by Dumbledore’s special mention of a “magic bathroom” that serves as the capstone story to the scene. The reader laughs, remembers the last story (which becomes relevant later) and enjoys what would otherwise have been a bunch of characters sitting around talking.

Earlier I mentioned context, and I think I should get back to that. Context means a lot for your story. An action scene can be memorable. A character breaking character for a big reason can be memorable. A well-timed joke (like Dumbledore’s funny story) can cement the scene in the reader’s mind. A clever finish to a scene, something unexpected.

Each of these are things that can in one case make a scene memorable, but in another, can break it (or worse, make it memorable for all the wrong reasons). A lot of it comes down to what story you want to write, what story you want to tell, and what elements you’ve put into your work. A true horror story, for example, isn’t likely to try and make it’s scenes memorable with constant pop-culture references and fourth-wall winks. It’s going to try and make scenes that are tense. Terrifying. Nightmarish. Or perhaps shocking. In Monster Hunter Alpha, one of the most memorable scenes in the entire book is one in which the main character takes an industrial-strength snowblower—the kind that can eat small trees—up against a horde of zombie werewolves. The end result is one of the bloodiest things in the entire series, to a point of near absurdity that even the characters comment on. It’s memorable precisely because it’s so absurd … but also because it is a great solution for the problem, and fits right into the series blend of ridiculous over-the-top action and dark humor.

It’s not something you’d see in Harry Potter (though that does make an amusing thought; “Harry Potter, tonight you—arrgh!”). My point is, keep your context in mind when thinking about what will make your scene important and interesting.

Another thing to keep in mind is what sort of readers you’re appealing to with your story. A reader who likes nothing but straight hollywood action, for example, isn’t at all going to find a slice-of-life story interesting. Putting a single chapter of it into a story for that audience is pushing it. Likewise, a reader who lives for complex, spiderweb plots and stories where there are wheels within wheels is probably not going to enjoy a very straightforward, simple mystery where everything is just as it appears. And versa-vice with a switch of the situation.

We tend to acknowledge this (at least, usually) when considering what we or others like to read, but as writers, we can’t forget that the same rules apply. Context of what kind of story you’re telling and for who can change quite a bit about making a scene memorable or interesting.

One more thought—at least at this moment—concerning having a memorable scene, and even more importantly the ending. No matter what the scene is like, the best way to make sure that your reader remembers it is to make it relevant. A reader who understands that he can drift through the story without paying close attention isn’t going to bother remembering details of scene or story. If you make scenes relevant, give them weight, where what happens and what is said has recurring effects on the story as a whole, it becomes memorable, because your reader quickly learns that they need to remember why a scene is important.

As a side note, this is one more reason I despise flashbacks 90% of the time. Some writers use them not to present new information to their reader, but to re-explain and retread information that was already discussed, taking the decision away from the reader as to whether or not to remember information and scenes (and therefore making them less memorable). Even more grievous, I’m pretty certain that this feeds back to the writer as well and lulls them into a false state where they themselves stop considering the importance of what they present. After all, for both parties, why bother remembering or picking out anything important when it’ll be handed to them in a silver platter later?

Anyway, getting back to where that side note took off, the more events of the story mean, the more weight they have, the more a reader will remember them and the more important each scene will feel in relation to the core of the story and the end. To use an earlier example from Rowling, the Dumbledore toilet story still probably wasn’t memorable to some readers. However, once Harry has found the room of requirement and he as a character makes the single-line connection between the two, the reader’s attention is drawn back to it and the scene is given greater importance in the dialog as a whole.

Hmm … come to think of it, retroactive memorability (?) is something to consider as well. Not as a core point, because if an entire scene’s worth of material only become relevant and interesting later, than it was probably boring at start, and we don’t want that. But you can, through later elements of the story that come back to something in an earlier scene, make that scene more memorable (especially on a reread). For instance, the first time a reader reaches the scene in Rise where Steel plays with his niece and nephew only to find himself completely snared by a well-placed (and well-tied) jump-rope, the scene is cute and mostly serves to illustrate what Steel is like when he lets himself relax as well as to counterpoint the relative loneliness and lack of family the rest of his life has. But only in the finale, when Steel uses the same snare concept on a gigantic golem, does the scene take on a new level of importance, and therefore, memorability to the reader. It was a foreshadowing, not that the reader knew it at the time. But when the result pays off at the end of the book, the reader is tied back. Even if they forgot it, on another read-through the scene will take on a whole new significance.

All right, I think I’m starting to reach the end of my thoughts in this, at least for the moment. Which means it’s probably a wise idea to summarize things. So, when making a scene memorable, remember that you need to give your reader a reason to remember it. So it’d better be important to the story somehow. It should also be interesting. Funny, unique, cool … there should be something going on that makes your reader interested in what’s happening. Keep in mind context of both the characters and scene, but also of the story overall.

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