So, you have a great story idea, and you want to write a book. Why not test if it’s any good before you spend years working on it?
Key scenes are pivotal for the development of the plot. They form the foundation of your story. If you’re unsure what the phrase key scene means, or if you want to know which scenes are worthy of the title key, visit C. S. Lakin’s site: https://www.livewritethrive.com/?s=key+scene
She has a multitude of great blog posts and an instructional library of tips. C. S. Lakin also offers online courses and personal coaching.
In my opinion, writers can distinguish essential scenes/chapters by instinct. If you have a significant turning point in your novel, or if your protagonist experiences a major change (a critical moment in the character arc), you have a crucial scene.
But to test a story idea, you don’t have to offer your crash test dummies (family, friends, colleagues or a random online group) one turning point. You can devise a chapter which doesn’t end up in the final book. Just write a snippet which has the following ingredients:
- Premise:Choose a central place which has a specific aura or feeling which you want in your finished book. How does the plot make you feel? Are you scared, excited, hopeful? That’s what you want your readers to experience.
- Main characters:I’d include the protagonist (your hero/heroine) and the antagonist (the evil villain) and the significant love interest if you have one.
- Your protagonist’s goal and the stakes:What does your MC (Main Character) want? What happens if he/she doesn’t succeed? What’s at stake? Goals and stakes are hugely important for any book or movie. I cannot stress this rule enough!
- Time and era framework:If you write about WWII spies like me, include the 40’s hairdos, clothes, and culture of that specific time and place. What were the gender roles of that era? If you don’t know yet, research some and include your findings in the test scene. Remember that the final product will change many times.If you get the facts wrong at this stage, that’s okay, as long as you convey the crucial ingredients of your story. Most of your readers expect you to know your stuff thoroughly when you publish the final book.If you’re writing about aliens at space war, set the scene on an interstellar ship/space colony (these are clichés, I know). Well, you get the idea. Create endoskeletal cyborg suits… and twist those usual clichés of the genre.
- Genre rules:People who read Tom Clancy or John LeCarre expect certain things. If you’re writing fantasy, you must have magic/ otherworldly creatures/ whatever your mind can create. You know the style of your familiar genre better than me. Think of your favorite books. The idea is to include the trophies of the genre in the test scene.
- The rest:The rest is whatever you want. Just remember that the test scene must describe the final product.
And please ask your readers to be brutally honest. Otherwise, you won’t know if you have a lump of gold or a piece of shit. If you use dear people as a test audience, they think that they owe you niceness. If you can, use strangers. They’ll say if they’d buy the book or not.
Of Smokeless Fire is my second novel. What you find below is my test scene which my colleagues- my fellow radiographers at the hospital- were unlucky enough to be exposed to.
Em, the heroine, ended up as a secretary because my test audience thought that she reminded them of Catwoman, who was a secretary by day.
The genre is a spy thriller with a supernatural twist. The place and time are Southern France in the 40’s. My antagonist was called “X” in the test scene because I hadn’t invented a name for him yet.
Of Smokeless Fire
Em- That’s what everyone calls me. Emily Durant is the name of the body I inhabit. My ancient birthname slipped my memory a long time ago.
I know for a fact that each time his massive cast iron gates open for me, and the Auburn wind from the orchard touches my hair, he might be onto me. I might be walking into my death, and we’re not talking about just dying. Getting a bullet to the base of my skull is the easy part. The broad spectrum of Gestapo handling comes before that. I know what awaits me if he decides to turn me in; if his new toy starts boring him.
But knowing what to expect prepares you for nothing. My skin is soft. I’m sensitive to touch. I can’t stand torture. When they strip me naked, hang me up, and start beating me… even the thought is too much to bear. I force the image out of my head because the cab stops. I smell the Provence herbs for the car window is open. My favorite- the lavender- grows outside the protective walls of the mansion.
The house belonged to a prosperous wine merchant who was stupid enough to marry a Jewish woman in secrecy. The blackshirts carried his bruised body out and gave the estate to a high-ranking SS officer.
The new master shall be prepared for me. X always smells of soap and clean clothes. He’s never over the top and uses no aftershave although he can buy the most beautiful commodities.
X hasn’t touched me- not yet.
I pay the driver whose stub of a wife is the official source of rumors in the village of Grimaud. Everyone knows what I’m doing with the enemy, but he doesn’t seem to despise me. He’s is too occupied with my long legs as I step out and straighten my dress. I check my silk stockings, but spot no runs.
The white fur shawl is a bit over the top. It’s summer, but I chose to wear it tonight for luxury. The things he buys for me… they feel jinxed. I am superstitious.
I touch my hair which is done up. The silver comb is still in place but a curl has escaped, and it tickles my neck. Madeleine did a good job though. My hair has always had a will of its own.
My fingers are cold and sweaty when I clutch my handbag. My heart jumps against my ribcage as the mountain of a guard- Hans- comes to the gates. He adjusts the machine gun strap on his shoulder, and the iron latch lifts with a screech.
I lower my eyes and smile at him as I step into the yard. The corpse of the fox tries to strangle me. The gravel moves like quicksand around my high heels. I couldn’t run if I wanted to.
The Grimaud night wraps me into its caresses. I smell the orange flowers and the jasmine. The air is dark velvet, and the pointy shapes of the cypress trees are like teeth in an open maw.
My feet move on their own until I reach the bottom stair. I shiver in my new evening dress as I stand behind his ornamented door. I cannot bring my hand to grab the brass ring of the door knocker shaped like a lion’s head. The mask of a cold temptress spy slides aside, and Just Emily Durand is left standing on the doorstep of her apparent lover, Stűrmbannfűhrer X. Just Emily feels a pressing urge to urinate.
I never asked for this.
I took a bus home from Nice where I work as a secretary at the Palais de Justice. A knock on my door brought my heart into my throat when I was changing into more comfortable clothing. I knew it wasn’t Gestapo because they would have broken in and waited for me in the darkness of my own kitchen.
Marcel’s men were young and robust. They were handsome in their woolly scarves and sweaters. The boys, Alexandre and Victor, used the same knock as Felix always did. I offered them some cheap red wine and made sandwiches with black-market butter. They said that they didn’t know where Felix was, but if the Gestapo had taken him, the wave of arrests would start soon. I knew that Felix bought cigarettes on his way back home from work. The landlady had talked to him on the market square. That was two weeks ago. He never came home.
I didn’t promise them anything. I attended the first meeting, and things just started rolling out of control from there. These resistance men said that Marcel- their fearless leader- chose me. He picked me because no German could resist my charms. My hair is naturally curly and has the vivid color of the flame. My skin is fair and freckled. Some decent underwear and tailored clothes enhance my figure which is the shape of an hourglass.
Allah prepared me from the smokeless fire, but I’m a creature of flesh and blood, not of the immaterial spirit. The resistance doesn’t know my real nature. No one does, not even Felix whose bed I’ve shared for two years.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not confident- to the contrary. I’m shy and unsure of myself. I’m only nineteen years old in this body. Seducing is easy. Keeping up the mystery is hard when you get peeled like an onion, one veil of magic at a time.
This Strűrmbannfűhrer X- this pompous man- I met him in the corridor of the Town Hall of Nice. Such a simple coincidence; a young secretary ran into him in a great hurry. She scattered her papers and files all over the place. He was a gentleman. He helped me pick up my things, and he met my emerald eyes which concentrated all my efforts. X is almost fifty years old and a widow. He fell for me in a split second.
X used to teach history at the Berlin University before the Great War. I’ve read the file which the Red Lily resistance cell has on him. I cannot see him lecturing about history to pimple-faced German youth of the roaring twenties. He’s too dangerous and calculative for that. Maybe the Partei molded him to its own liking; taught him to torture and kill.
To the contrary what people expect of a Djinn, I feel pain. I can be killed. It just takes a specific form of weaponry. All X needs to do, is open the Quran which sleeps on the top shelf of his enormous library, next to the Latin Bible and a compilation of ancient Hindu scriptures. I picture him wearing his slacks with the perfectly straight seams and his pullover. He moves the ladders on wheels to the correct position. He climbs and looks over his broad shoulder just before his fingers touch the flaky leather back of the Quran.
I hold the ladder for him, and I do not avert his eyes.
He knows what I am.
I could tip him over. He would break his back.
I banish the thought because I must pretend that I’m a simple gold-digger: a young woman ready to sleep with an older man for money, safety, and black-market items.
Marcel expects results. He wants military intelligence, and he isn’t a patient man. He said that I could bail out at any moment. I don’t believe Marcel. I am like the mouse running through the maze. I run around the next corner, a dead end.
The door opens after the second knock. I step onto the marble floor of the lion’s den. I grab my left hand because it trembles.
May Allah help me!