Last week I shared a guest essay on keeping suspense in your writing. One of the basic building blocks of fiction is the scene, and a well-written scene can contribute to maintaining tension in the story.
In fiction writing, a scene is a single incident or event. However, a summary of the event is not a scene. Scenes are written out in detail, shown, not told, so we see, hear, and feel the action. They often have dialog, thoughts, feelings, and sensory description, as well as action.
A scene ends when that sequence of events is over. A story or novel is, almost always, built of multiple linked scenes. Usually the next scene jumps to a new time or place, and it may change the viewpoint character.
Think in terms of a play: The curtain rises on people in a specific situation. The action unfolds as characters move and speak. The curtain falls, usually at a dramatic moment. Repeat as necessary until you’ve told the whole story.
So how do you write a scene?
- Place a character—usually your main character—in the scene.
- Give that character a problem.
- Add other characters to the scene as needed to create drama.
- Start when the action starts—don’t warm up on the reader’s time.
- What does your main character think, say, and do?
- What do the other characters do or say?
- How does your main character react?
- What happens next? Repeat the sequence of actions and reactions, escalating tension.
- Built to a dramatic climax.
- End the scene, ideally with conflict remaining. Give the reader some sense of what might happen next—the character’s next goal or challenge—to drive the plot forward toward the next scene. Don’t ramble on after the dramatic ending, and don’t end in the middle of nothing happening.
Scene endings may or may not coincide with chapter endings. Some authors like to use cliffhanger chapter endings in the middle of a scene and finish the scene at the start of the next chapter. They then use written transitions (later that night, a few days later, when he had finished, etc.) or an extra blank line to indicate a break between scenes within a chapter. (You'll find my essays on cliffhangers by clicking on the "cliffhanger" link in the list to the right.)
A scene can do several things, among them:
- Advance the plot.
- Advance subplots.
- Reveal characters (their personalities and/or their motives).
- Set the scene.
- Share important information.
- Explore the theme.
Ideally, a scene will do multiple things. It may not be able to do everything listed above, but it should do two or three of those things, if possible. It should always, always, advance the plot. Try to avoid having any scene that only reveals character, sets the scene, or explores the theme, unless it’s a very short scene, less than a page. Find a way to do those things while also advancing the plot.
A scene often includes a range of emotions as a character works towards a goal, suffers setbacks, and ultimately succeeds or fails. But some scenes may have one mood predominate. In that case, try to follow with a scene that has a different mood. Follow an action scene with a romantic interlude, a happy scene with a sad or frightening one, a tense scene with a more relaxed one to give the reader a break.
Don’t rush through a scene—use more description in scenes with the most drama, to increase tension by making the reader wait a bit to find out what happens. Important and dramatic events should be written out in detail, but occasionally you may want to briefly summarize in order to move the story forward. For example, if we already know what happened, we don’t need to hear one character telling another what happened. Avoid that repetition by simply telling us that character A explained the situation to character B.
Avoid scenes that repeat previous scenes, showing another example of the same action or information. Your readers are smart enough to get things without being hit over the head with multiple examples. If you show one scene of a drunk threatening his wife, and you do it well, we’ll get it. We don’t need to see five examples of the same thing. Focus on writing one fantastic scene and trust your reader to understand the characters and their relationship. For every scene, ask: Is this vital for my plot or characters? How does it advance plot and reveal character? If I cut the scene, would I lose anything?
See also Seven Essential Elements of Scene + Scene Structure Exercise by Martha Alderson from Jane Friedman. '
Next week: Connecting Scenes
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