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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:

  1. point of view (on whose shoulders are we sitting as we view the action?)

  2. setting (what is the most interesting place this can happen?)

  3. action (what physically happens)

  4. dialogue (subject of the dialogue)

  5. subtext (what do the characters avoid saying?)

  6. climax (pay-off moment)

  7. 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.


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