Add this book to your writing craft library
I finally made it to chapter eight in this fantastic resource for writers. I recommend it for anyone who wants to improve their writing.
In accordance with my goal for the ROW 80 challenge last week, I read a chapter in James Scott Bell’s book. I marked it with a few sticky notes. I jotted down some acronyms.
I considered how helpful this new knowledge is going to be when I finally finish my first draft of this novel I’m writing. It will be quite illuminating to go back and re-read each scene to see how it measures up according to Bell.
The Four Chords of a Scene
I know, it sounds musical, right? I was ready to hum a few bars, sing along. But, no, there was a discordant note because he wasn’t being musical at all – even when he mentioned major chords and minor chords.
The parallel for any of you with musical background is that in any given key there are three primary chords used to build a song and a related seventh chord. Other chords might be used in the song, but these four chords are the building blocks.
The major chords in every scene are action and reaction. The protagonist does something (the action) to move them toward obtaining their ultimate goal. Some sort of conflict or complication prevents them from succeeding. Afterward, they react and make a new plan of action.
Setup and deepening are the minor chords in the scene. Early in the book, you’ll need to have a paragraph here and there to set up a base of knowledge. Deepening is “the spice” according to Bell and it’s needed to help the reader understand characters better.
You guessed it – this is the acronym I jotted on a sticky note. HIP stands for hook, intensity and prompt.
I think most writers are familiar with a hook. We need a hook in our query letter. Without a hook in the first paragraph of our novel, we should expect the thing to find the slush pile.
According to Bell, every scene needs a hook. Why should the reader continue? Dangle a carrot out there at the beginning of every scene and you’ll have a page-turner. The hook is to gain the reader’s attention.
Intensity is how the writer keeps that attention. Every scene needs some intensity to heat it up. Conflict is the primary kindler of that fire and if you have a scene without any, it might be time to use the delete key. Tension between characters is another way to ratchet up the intensity (notice the same root word).
The way to end every scene is with a prompt. This is something that keeps the reader from putting their bookmark in and closing the book. It’s a promise that something important will be revealed in the next chapter. A life-altering secret is revealed that changes everything for our hero.
Bell ends his chapter talking about an intensity scale. I have to admit that the way he wanted me to graph the intensity of every scene in the book deflated me. Is this essential? I guess I’ll find out if I get a letter from an agent or editor that tells me I’ve got too much intensity or not enough.
What’s your take on scene writing? Do you have some wisdom to add to the formulas presented here? I’m curious to know if there are writers who consider these formulas as they’re writing their first draft.