Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Importance of Scene

By David Sharp

If you think back to your favorite book, what do you see in your mind's eye? Is it the cover? Is it an outline of the plot points? The expert usage of punctuation, perhaps?

My guess is it's a snapshot of a memorable scene within the story. Bilbo Baggins riddling with Gollum, Inigo Montoya confronting the six-fingered man, Harry Potter seeking the snitch in his first Quidditch match, you get the idea. But it's very easy for writers to overlook the importance of scene in lieu of the more obvious elements of characterization, plot and setting.

Allow me to postulate: developing your ability to write in scenes is the most efficient way to elevate your writing. The scene is your reader's window into your story. What good are your immaculately developed characters if your reader can only see them through a brick wall of exposition? No matter what your story is, without proper scenes it has no opportunity to come to life.

So, what makes a good scene?

Scene is not the same as setting. 

It's easy to feel like we are writing in scenes when we divvy up the action by location. This is the chocolate farm scene and that is the SPAM factory scene. But a true scene is much more than the set of actions that take place at a particular location. A scene is defined by goals and conflict. The characters want to accomplish something and must overcome hurdles to attain it. By the end of the scene the characters have either succeeded or failed.

Simply put: something needs to happen. The goals of individual scenes will not be the same as the overarching goal for the whole story, but they will advance the characters toward that end. 

Scenes need momentum

Here is Philip. An amazing dog!
Well, not this moment, but pretty soon
he's going to be amazing!
The situation should not be the same at the end of a scene as it was in the beginning. Actions that only bring us back to the status quo are superfluous. Whatever takes place in a scene can move our characters physically, mentally or emotionally, but some movement must take place.

A pitfall here is in introductory chapters. It's easy to think that I don't need to supply momentum to something I've just brought into the story since it still has that new car smell. Nevertheless, no momentum equals flat exposition. I much prefer new characters to be introduced already in progress.

Scenes should be theatrical

Scenes naturally tend toward mood and style. Exposition tends toward info-dumping and facts. To get my mind in the right place, I try to focus less on what I need to explain to the reader, and more on visualizing the movie in my mind. How would the story be different with no internal monologue to communicate to my readers, but only what they could experience through a camera lens?

As a reader, I'm far more willing to accept info slipped into a moody scene than mood slipped into an informative explanation. I want to experience what's happening myself, or as close as I can come to it. Scenes are your best chance to draw in your audience. 

Scenes should connect to other scenes 

Scenes turn your story from this...
Every scene should leave readers with questions that pull them directly into the next. There should be no stretches of empty prose connecting one scene to another. If your book were a house, it should be all rooms and no hallways.

Even brief corridors of inactive explanation can lose your reader. If the characters decide at the end of one scene they need to go to the store, the next scene should begin in the store, not in the car on the way. (Unless they meet a dragon en route, or something. But outside of that...)

...into this!

My personal preference is to view a novel as an interconnected series of short stories. 

  • When you sit down to write a chapter, do you ever consider this may be the only part of your story some readers will ever see? Is it interesting enough to stand alone? 
  • Is it pulling its weight in relation to the rest of the story? After all, readers can only experience a book one scene at a time. 
  • If the only pay-off is at the end, how many readers will make it that far? I'm certainly not that patient. I need to experience all the little victories and tragedies along the way.

So on your own writing journey, when you encounter a fork in the road where you must choose between direct exposition and well-told scenes, take the scenic route.

Just you wait! In a few chapters,
he's going to blow your mind!
Here are some other resources to help you build a story out of great scenes:

What Makes a Good Scene?
-More akin to an infographic than an article, but great information in a concise format. 

-This one is written for screenwriters, but the points are applicable to any kind of narrative storytelling.

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