Writing in Scenes, Part 1

People shake their heads in bemused wonder. How do you get a novel written? How can it possibly be done, given how–well, long it is?

Getting pecked to death by a duck

If you think the answer is one page at a time, I’m going to try to convince you otherwise. One page at a time is daunting and relentless. And one page at a time drains the creative power of those longer, meaningful units of drama that will fire you up.

Scenes are miniature stories, compressed pieces of fiction that, brought together in a book, relate to each other. Aside from the fact that they are the inescapable building blocks of stories, they have the additional benefit of making a writing day manageable. Your attention is focused on that specific scene. (Of course you have the larger structure in mind; you’re working on foreshadowing, planting clues, revelations and other global issues.)

Writing scenes provides a sense of accomplishment for the hours you invest each working day. Thinking of your novel in terms of anything smaller than a scene is like getting pecked to death by a duck.

What makes up a scene?

Scenes are packets of emotionally laden drama that depict events occurring in one place at one specific time. One of the most important decisions a novelist makes is what to “bring on stage,” and what to cover in narrative bridges. There are different schools of thought on what justifies a scene. Robert McKee, in Story, emphasizes turning points. Others feel the writer must significantly forward the plot. I find these both useful goals, depending on the scene. In addition, I add the criteria of tension or conflict. Why should the reader care about these pages if there are no meaningful obstacles?

Writing in scenes will help steer you away from pace killers like long musings on the part of your characters, and short, disjointed spasms of dramatic action. Think about it: if your scene is composed of a character sipping tea or a bourbon and thinking about how confused or upset they are, you do not have a scene. Nothing new happens. You can certainly have characters acknowledge that they’re confused or upset, but it should not be the main thing that happens in that scene. Bear with me, more on what a scene is, below.

Avoid episodic storytelling, where the scenes feel independent or only loosely connected. One way to do this is to make sure that the inciting incident of the scene–or the thing propels the event to happen–is embedded in a previous scene. This isn’t complicated; it just means that you’re establishing cause and effect in the events that you portray.

The size and impact of scenes

Not all scenes carry the same freight of plot and character. Some are big scenes, such as a mid-point scene or the scenes that close the main sections, or acts, of your story.

Big scenes are are subject all to themselves. I’ll treat this topic in my next post. But even for less critical scenes, make sure that each one has emotional impact. We are looking to hook the reader’s emotions, whether of tenderness, fear, loathing, or curiosity. One of the keys in creating emotional heat is to be sure your point of view character strongly cares about what’s going on because of who they are and what their life has been. This requires that your main characters have very deeply held desires or fears. You have set the stage for deep desires in the backstory of each character, whether you reveal these old defining moments to the reader or not.

And don’t mistake your character feeling things for the reader feeling things. That is, just because your character is upset and drinking straight from the Smirnoff bottle doesn’t mean you’re hooking the reader. The key is action with emotional content.

*Setting up the scene

If your instinct tells you that the upcoming scene may be boring, plan the scene elements in advance:

  • point of view (on whose shoulders are we sitting as we view the action?)
  • setting (what is the most interesting place this can happen?)
  • action (what physically happens)
  • dialogue (subject of the dialogue)
  • subtext (what do the characters avoid saying?)
  • climax (pay-off moment)
  • exit line (your first off-the-cuff idea)

This can take five minutes or twenty. Then, when I write, I happily abandon the plan if inspiration strikes. (*Thanks to Robert Ray, author of The Weekend Novelist and The Weekend Novelist Rewrites.)

Three hundred pages to go? No problem! I’m just concerned with the scene in front of me.

9 Responses

  1. Livingsword says:

    Hi Kay,

    I am very pleased to have found your webpage as I have just started to read one of your books on my Kindle (and I am an aspiring novelist).

    It seems that we use a similar process (I hesitate to say “we” as I would not put myself in your league, nevertheless creative processes are what they are).

    I’m particularly interested in how you describe scenes here. I like to ponder and develop scenes in my mind over a period of time, developing the skeleton, then will sit down and flesh it out writing a dozen pages or so. Then I will go back and provide those essential touches that percolate realism (hopefully the tension is already there as it is essential) refining dialogue, continuity…I suppose this would be the pecking duck (but not Peking duck 😉 As I like to write speculative fiction the way realism is invested into the story is particularly essential.

    I very much enjoy developing the architecture of the story and implementing the structure…and then this turns to real joy when the creativity spontaneously interjects additional concepts etc during the actual time in front of the computer. I find the magic is built into when the ideas meet the characters who take on a life of their own.

    I have more than a few questions that you have brought to mind but here are three…

    Is it better to front load tension or provide layers of tension for “time released” resolution? I like the longer story arches but have found it helpful to write more “cliffhangers” to enhance each chapter.

    Most readers are now used to shorter forms of writing with the dominance of reading web pages, how do you see this affecting the topic at hand, scenes?

    Narrative vs dialogue…is it better to begin or end scenes with either of them? Or does it really matter….

  2. Great Post. It’s good to know how to break down the process. Writing a novel does seem overwhelming most of the time. This is very helpful way to look at chunking it down and actually doing it. Understanding that we should spend time planning and thinking holistically about the entire story, but when its time to write, just to focus on the scene at hand. Thanks.

  3. Kay says:

    I like what you said, “when the creativity spontaneously interjects additional concepts (while writing.)” Those occurrences, so common, are the drug that keeps me writing. It’s just addictive.

    1. Front load or timed release? You must do both; thus one is always working on the macro story and the scene at the same time. I have some trouble with cliffhangers, I must admit. Carefully done, I think its good to suggest a question at the end of a chapter; too obvious, and it seems so manipulated. The real challenge for scene tension is to keep the outcome of the scene in doubt. I spend some time on this topic in this post.

    2. Are readers growing to prefer shorter scenes? You may be on to something, but I don’t know how to make scenes be the length readers like except to write in a more straight-forward way and cut the fat. Thus, scenes should be as tight as possible, but no tighter!

    3. Beginning writers would do well to begin in dialogue often. Ramping up to the point of the scene with descriptions is a major beginner error. It can fatally slow the pace and is often boring no matter how well-written. But the “where to use dialogue” question doesn’t lend itself to a rule. The scene will have it’s own internal requirements.

    thanks for writing.

  4. Kay says:

    Yes, Gregory. Sometimes, even after ten published novels, I wonder how in the world I’m going to do the next one. this is very common among established authors. It just never goes away. But “scenes” help.

  5. Orlando says:

    Interesting way to look at the structure of writing. I never thought of it that way, though in all honesty, I’m not one to plan the things I write, in stories or in essays. I tend to wing it when it comes to writing. Looking at this post, and at Livingsword’s comment, I just realized I have a long way to go as a writer. I have a million thoughts, questions and comments whirling through my head, and, overwhelmed, I’m not sure where to start.

    Let’s see, with the novel I’m writing at the moment(though I regret to say I haven’t written anything in almost 3 weeks 🙁 ) the main story arc is already played out and written in my head. When I write, I feel like I’m just writing to get to the next big scene, and its equally exciting and frustrating to write what I sometimes feel are just fillers. I usually succeed in not looking so far ahead when I have what I have in front of me, but the excitement mounts everytime I think of it. I need to learn more control.

    If I find myself stuck, then I take a step back and look at what has happened already to figure out what happens next. I’ve already seen what is going to happen. What stumps me is how things ever got up to that point in the first place.

    Would you say that putting too much time on what the character thinks is a bad idea? Even if his thoughts are relevant to his actions and who he is? I’ve let a person read what I wrote so far, and she feels that I spend too much time on scenes and that at certain points, she pretty much thought, “ugh, hurry and get on with it already!” I haven’t edited anything yet, but it has me thinking about the rest of the novel, and whether it will follow the same pace.

    Also, are chapters supposed to be a certain amount of pages? I’ve had chapters that are close to 30 pages in length, and others that are as short as 8 pages. It seems odd to me, but who knows.

    How do you set up dialogue with more than two people? At this point in the novel, I have mostly had to deal with 2 and 3 person conversations, but is there a way you would recommend handling conversations with up to six characters? More? I ask because I had to write one such scene earlier, and I think it went ok, but might have been better. Somewhere inside me, I have a feeling I’m going to struggle with this in the future.

    Oh and finally, what exactly is the front load tension and timed release resolution Livingsword talked about? I feel that I’ve probably done it before, but I want to be sure and clarify.

    Thanks for this post. It was really insightful 🙂

  6. Kay says:

    From what you’ve said, I recommend you take a look at story structure. One of the best teachers on this topic is Larry Brooks. I treat Larry’s ideas in two previous posts. Story Structure Demystified and Can Writing be Taught. Buy his e-book. It’s cheap.

    I do think there is a difficult trade-off between the ideal fast pacing and characterization as revealed by internal thoughts. Think of a successful novel that is very close to your own… (you should be able to give 2 or 3 examples in your genre of novels like yours.) Then read them with a view as to the balance with internal thoughts and outward event.

    Chapters can be very long. They can contain more than one scene. Stitch them together by skipping an extra space and making them part of one chapter. I’ve seen very short chapters but for some reason I find them less successful because they encourage the reader to stop reading at that point.

    I would avoid conversations with more than 3 people. They become extremely confusing to write and also to read. Sometimes you must have a group of people involved in the scene, but it will then be a challenge to keep your focus. Who has something to lose in this scene? Who has the climactic moment? Keep a tight rein on this and you may be able to pull off a big cast in a scene.

    As for “timed release.” I think the person on that post just made that term up. I thought he was referring to tension that is built over several scenes or scene sequences or whole novel. You have enduring story mysteries and problems that ebb and flow (Will Hamlet kill the king?) But then you have the “local” problem, the problem in the scene that creates tension because the reader does not know the outcome. Thus I said in my response that you must do both. (Here is another reason to minimize internal musing: it generates very little tension. Any tension you Do build is diluted when the character retreats to thinking.

    Good luck! Get Larry’s book!

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