Making a Scene

This week in my writers’ group we’ll each be sharing a scene. Scenes are the building blocks of stories. We might even continue this topic next month, since it’s so important to fiction writing. Since I was charged with researching reference material, I thought I’d share some of what I found.

What’s a Scene?
A scene is action that occurs in a certain location within linear time (in the moment) that moves the story forward, reveals characters and has an arc to it. Unless the characters are traveling during the scene, the moment we change location or setting, we’ve started a new scene. Also, if we jump in time or skip any time period, we’ve begun a new scene.

Scenes usually dramatize interaction among characters, but they almost always dramatize at least one character in the moment, even if the events are part of a flashback. Scenes tend to include narrative, description and dialogue.

Summary should be minimal. Some say summary, explanation or background material should never be more than 20% of a scene, but unless it’s done so well it sparkles and doesn’t slow things down, less is always better. When writing coaches urge us to “show” rather than “tell,” they mean to write in scene rather than summarizing action or events. If we write good scenes, we won’t have to summarize; readers will draw their own conclusions. And when we write in scene, we pull readers into the narrative, exposing them to the experiences the characters are going through.

Scenes can evoke emotion and reaction, suspense and excitement. They can make us connect with characters. Summarizing can’t. Leave summarizing and explanatory writing mostly to nonfiction writers — in fiction and memoir we’re going for scene.

What Scenes are NOT

  • Scenes are not an opportunity to take your character on a long, leisurely detour into situations or with characters that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s dramatic action goals (that’s a character profile or vignette)
  • Scenes are not passages that explain something or lecture to your reader (that’s a pace killer)
  • Scenes are not long histories of people and places (that’s dull backstory and summary)

What Makes a Good Scene?
It should have real-time momentum. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences situations and scenarios. Consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding or an experience. The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward and ends in such a way that he or she just has to know what happens next. Like any good writing, scenes should be heavy on strong verbs and light on adjectives and adverbs.

A Stylized, Sharper Simulacrum…
Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to “go deep” and end up describing the living daylights out of a character, her feelings, or the setting. Instead, think of a scene as a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality. By stylized we mean that nothing in our scene appears by accident; we have crafted every moment, every interaction, and every image. To the reader something may seem benign, but we know nothing is.

By sharper simulacrum we mean the scene offers a heightened, more fulfilling version of real life, with all the boring bits excised. In our bid to create a realistic experience, we don’t list every single action or detail in our scenes, such as the mundane, dull, insignificant moments and boring pleasantries of real life. We include only those that lend themselves to character and plot development and are rich with tension and suspense, those that contribute to the feeling of not knowing if things will play out in the character’s favor or if antagonists will prevail.

Point of View
We should never change point of view during a scene. Stay in one character’s head and see the world through those eyeballs only. If we want to change point of view, we need to start a new scene, or — even better — a new chapter or section.

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. This way, scene by scene, we tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music. Like a piece of music, the rhythm and pace of the prose is important. We need to pay attention to the intensity and dynamics of a scene and where it’s placed in the story. Is this a key scene where tension grows to a fever pitch, or is this a spot for a little break in the intensity? Think of how music expands and ebbs; the softer parts have a purpose, often to create contrast and catch a breath in preparation for the crescendos to come.

There’s much more to the story (so to speak), so more on scenes later…