It's been said that in order for a scene to belong in your book it should either challenge your character's goals, reveal their motivation, or strengthen their conflict, and that if a scene doesn't work to do at least one of these, then it should be cut. But that's just for minimum impact. To super charge your scenes and really make them work hard for you, it behooves you to write multi-functional scenes. This not only makes them memorable to your readers but it keeps the book tightly focused on your characters and plot. There are several ways to write these dual-purpose scenes and I've come up with a convenient list of ten elements to get you started.
1. Sexual tension - this goes beyond hot glances and hidden desires. Sexual tension at the basic level is nothing more than awareness. If your heroine's best friend touches her on the arm, it is a touch of friendship, but when the hero touches her arm, not matter how innocent the touch, the results are explosive. Every sensation is heightened when we're sexually aware. Imagine your hero and heroine are sitting in his truck and they've just had an emotionally revealing conversation. Sweat rolls down the center of your heroine's back and the sensation tickles down her spine causing her to shiver. It's the awareness, not the temperature, not the sweat, just the give and take, pulling back and forth between your hero and heroine. The want is palpable.
2. Humor – this is self explanatory, but keep in mind that humor is delivered in varying degrees. Some authors deliver knee-slapping, rip-roaring laughter, for others, it's more of a subdued chuckle. The types of humor seem practically endless. There is situational, physical, satirical, dark/black, and the list could go on. And there could be as many examples as there are types of comedy and I don't have room here. Just keep in mind that humor is incredibly personal. What one person finds hilarious, another just won't get. Suffice it to say, if you think it's funny, then you'll find at least one other person out there who will agree with you.
3. Suspense – for most of us that word conjures spine-tingling action, but suspense means nothing more than anticipation. So even comedies or emotional dramas can have suspense. Think about your heroine as she's standing in a crowded ballroom. She sees the hero across the room and wonders if he'll live up to his bold promise of taking her first waltz. He hasn't made eye contact yet, she doesn't even think he's seen her and the waiting, the wondering has not only her stomach in knots, but your readers’ as well. Emotional suspense can be just as gripping as having your heroine running through the woods from a clever, but deadly killer.
4. Develop subplot – subplots can vary from mysteries to romance to treasure hunts. Basically this is anything outside your main plot. If you're writing a romance, then your subplot might be your hero trying to save his family's farm, or perhaps the hero and heroine chasing down a villain and solving a mystery. If you're writing a mystery, however, your subplot might be your detective's quest for love. As long as the subplot, like the main plot, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, anything is possible.
5. Introduce/utilize secondary characters – most books have them, they're the best friend, the mother, the sister-in-law, the evil co-worker, and so on. Other characters that people our books and give them depth, texture and either act as counsel or interfere with our main character's lives. Again, your possibilities here are pretty varied, but keep in mind that each character should serve a purpose. That is to say, your heroine doesn't need three confidants – that doesn't mean she can't have more than one friend, but they should each serve an individual purpose. The introduction of secondary characters can happen at any time of the book, but generally occur towards the beginning, so the remainder of the book you'll be utilizing them. In other words, they really help (or hinder) with your character's goals, motivations or conflicts or they add comic relief or create suspense. So in and of themselves, secondary characters are multi-functional and hard working – just like our scenes.
6. Lighten/deepen emotion – if you’re writing a gripping emotional drama, sometimes it’s useful to lighten things up a bit. Likewise, if you’re writing non-stop humor, sometimes you’ll want to pause to deepen the emotion. This may seem counter-intuitive, but remember, feeling one emotion makes you vulnerable to feeling others. Think about scary movies. They make you laugh to get your guard down, relax you a bit, because once you're laughing, you're engaged and you're more vulnerable for what comes up next. So when they ax-wielding psycho jumps out of the barn, you jump and scream and everything works accordingly to the movie makers' plans. So giving your reader an emotional break, whether it be light, heavy, scary, funny, or whatever can really suck them further into your book and make them even more susceptible to what you have coming next.
7. Reveal character's values or beliefs – these are the nifty little things we add to our characters to make them real, functioning (and dysfunctional) people. Values are exactly what they sound like. The things our characters value: family, independence, justice, money, respect, revenge, etc. Beliefs are fairly self-explanatory as well and can often be represented in cliché form. They're something the character believes to be true, whether or not they actually are: money doesn't grow on trees, home is where the heart is, you can't judge a book by its cover, etc. As I said, these don't have to be clichés, but there's a whole trove of them out there for us to use, but you can make up your own as well. Revealing these in scenes adds character depth and allow the reader yet one more connection.
8. Reveal conflict between hero and heroine – this is partial to romances I suppose, but could be revamped to fit other genres as well such as revealing conflict between the protagonist and villain. It's a different type of conflict than the one mentioned before. Your characters' goals, motivations and conflicts should exist with or without the context of the book. Now the plotline might add to these elements, but in their lives they had before the book opened, they should have some existing conflicts. But the conflict I'm talking about here has more to do with the main plot line. In other words, it's the conflict that is created from the action of the story. In a romance it's the conflict between your hero and heroine. Why they can't be together. All of the reasons that are keeping them apart, both external and internal. Keep in mind that this conflict should be strong enough that it can't be resolved if you sat them on a couch and made them talk it out.
9. Reveal connection between hero and heroine – this is also partial to romance and is basically the pull between your hero and heroine. There is always so much focus on conflict that we often forget that there must be something (more than one something, probably) drawing our hero and heroine together. She values family and he grew up always wanting a large family himself so he responds to that value in her. He's a self-made man and she respects his creativity and determination that got him to the top. This connection goes beyond the physical attraction, although that is undeniably present. The more connection you feed through the book, the more satisfying (and believable) your happily ever after will be.
10. Layer subtext – subtext is one of those things that's hard to explain and almost as difficult to recognize, but technically that's because when subtext is doing its job, you don't really notice. It goes something like this: a man and woman are having a fight about him constantly leaving his clothes on the floor. She's out of control with anger and he just doesn't understand what the big deal is. She's yelling about clothes and all of a sudden, she's in a million pieces, sobbing on the bed. Is she really upset about the clothes? Possibly. But more than likely there is something bigger hiding just beneath the surface of her words. She's really upset because he used to bring roses home for no reason and once he set up a wine tasting right in their living room – just for the two of them. She's upset because he's lost his romance and the pain of feeling neglected and unappreciated has her harping about laundry on the floor. It's characters talking about one thing while the undercurrent is about something totally different. It can be difficult to utilize, but if you can get it in some scenes, it will power punch the emotion right off the charts.
So there they are. Ten ways you can add to your existing scenes to make them do double, triple, or even quadruple duty. As you can tell from the examples several of these lend themselves well to working together so it is easy to mix and match and find two or more to add or strengthen to any given scene to really punch it up. So the next time you're looking for ways to transform a lifeless scene, reach for this list and see if you can breath in some life.