In this exclusive extract from the Writers' & Artists' Guide to How to Write, acclaimed author and W&A course leader, William Ryan, looks at the importance of ensuring purpose in every scene that you write.
Writing a novel is often about asking questions and considering possibilities. The important question that you probably need to answer before you write the first word of any scene is what its purpose is in the overall story. Scenes can fulfil many different functions in a novel but knowing the narrative essence of the scene – the reason why it has to be in the novel – will probably tell you a lot about how the scene has to be written, what has to be in it and what you can leave out. Perhaps the easiest way to think of a scene’s purpose is to identify the reason why it can’t be discarded; if its absence will have no eff ect on the novel, then discarding it is probably the right decision. What narrative purposes, then, justify a scene’s inclusion in your novel? There is no exact formula and different novels will have different narrative requirements. However, here are some that probably do deserve inclusion:
● scenes that introduce the setting in which the novel will take place or which establish atmosphere;
● scenes that introduce key characters or, once they have been introduced, tell us something about them that is important to the story;
● scenes where a key event occurs or a key piece of information is revealed that moves the story forward or sends it in a new direction;
● scenes where a challenge, obstacle or danger to the central character is introduced;
● scenes which create anticipation and expectation;
● climax scenes where the character must overcome one last obstacle, the biggest yet, in order to reach their objective;
● scenes that come after the climax which serve to tie up loose ends and confirm that the objective has been achieved.
This is not an exhaustive list and there will be, in practice, quite a lot of overlap as a scene may fulfil different story purposes at the same time; very occasionally, it will fulfil none of them at all. What it must do, though, is help the story in some way. Whether a scene’s purpose justifies its inclusion will also depend, in some cases, on where the scene is placed in the novel.
Scenes which focus solely on atmosphere, setting or world-building are usually dealt with early in the novel. For example, if you place a scene which gives important practical information about the setting of the story towards the end of your novel, it will probably no longer be necessary, will slow the novel down at a point where you are generally looking to speed it up and possibly be confusing for the reader. Information about setting or place is therefore much better included towards the beginning, even if its importance becomes apparent only later on. For similar reasons, it’s best to introduce important characters early on. Even if they can’t actually appear until the closing chapters, information about them should probably be seeded well before that so that their arrival does not seem contrived.
William Ryan is the leader of a number of W&A writing courses. View all upcoming W&A writing courses here
William Ryan has written four historical novels which have been shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year, The Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, the HWA Gold Crown for Historical Fiction, the Crime Writers Association’s Steel, Historical and New Blood Daggers and the Irish Crime Novel of the Year (three times). William teaches creative writing at City University in London and has previously taught at the University of East Anglia. His latest novel, A House of Ghosts, was published in 2019 by Bonnier Zaffre. The Writers' & Artists' Guide to How to Write is published by Bloomsbury and available now.