Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
March 2012

How to Write a Scene

One of the most fundamental building blocks of fiction writing is the scene. A scene needs to have a beginning, middle, and end, in much the same way that a novel has a beginning, middle, and end. A scene asks a question and should answer the question asked at the beginning or it will feel like a pointless exercise. The gun on the mantelpiece does not have to go off in every scene, but something should go off in every scene. A scene needs to have tension rising, and then there needs to be some attempt to resolve the tension, even if it is unsuccessful. When you are beginning as a writer, it can feel unclear how to work with scenes, so this is a basic explanation of scenes for beginners.

To begin with, a scene has to be set. In film or theater, a scene is perhaps more clearly distinguished than in a novel because there is a physical location on set that has to be either moved or taken down. But it is useful for a novelist to think of a scene in the same way. The curtain opens, the scene has a particular location which is immediately apparent to the viewer. It can be outdoors, in which case in the theater, the scene has to be suggested by the dialog of the actors. In a novel you can describe the moors or the forest with a descriptive passage. If indoors, it can be in a bedroom, a kitchen, on the stair case, or in the dark basement. It's obvious in a play where the scene is set because there is an actual set. As a writer, you must take care to make it clear to the reader where your scene is happening, as well. But you have to use words. It doesn't need to take long.

If you look through your favorite novel, try marking with a highlighter the parts where each scene begins and how the writer indicates where the scene is set. It may seem unclear at first how the author is doing it, but if you look carefully, you'll see it is done subtly. The scene can be set very simply, like "in the kitchen" or "on the steps," or it can be set in more detail. Some writers will lovingly describe the furniture in a room because it can give hints as to the owner or decorator's personality. Some writers give an overview of the style of decoration. This choice is entirely up to you. You can describe a room in great detail if you think it is important. You may cut it later, but it might be useful for you to know even if the reader doesn't care. That's fine. Leave it in for now, but be aware that you are setting the scene.

If you are changing scene, you will often drop a line, using a hash tag (#) and then continue the next scene with that gap to indicate that there is a distinct change. There is no need to explain what you are doing with this gap. The reader understand this means a scene change in the same way that in the theater, there is no need for the actors to speak to the audience while the stage goes dark and the scene is physically changed. It's an unspoken convention and you just open the new scene when you begin on the next line.

You can also simply start a new chapter with each scene change. Depending on how long you want your chapters to be and what effect you want your chapter to have on your reader, you can choose how many scenes to fit into each chapter. In Young Adult, chapters are often very short, one or two scenes per chapter. In adult novels, especially in fantasy and science fiction, a chapter will often be twenty or thirty pages with multiple scenes told from different viewpoints. Each scene is set apart from the next either by a dropped line or if the scenes run together, you can simply go from one scene to the next without a dropped line. There are no actual rules about how many scenes you have per chapter. This is a stylistic choice and is up to you as the author. I have even read some novels where the author ends a chapter mid-scene in what seems an attempt to force the reader to continue reading past the chapter break. This can feel manipulative, but some authors manage it very well. I know some authors who do not write in chapters at all, but only in scenes, and go back at a much later stage to organize the written scenes into chapters for publication. Chapters are a far more artificial way of dividing the material of the novel than scenes.

When a scene is happening is as important as where it begins. In a play or a movie, there can be a card dropped or words scrolling that indicate a passage of time. Far more often, the actors simply use dialog to indicate how much time has passed, a week, a month, several years. Or it can be indicated by a clothes change or lighting or by makeup that ages the actor. But in a novel, this is the responsibility of the writer, not the characters or the make-up artist. In the same easy way that authors indicate the setting of a scene, the passage of time between scene is also inserted into the descriptive passage. Do the same thing with a different color highlighter in a favorite book and you will see how it is done. If a scene immediately follows the previous scene, there is no need to explain that, but if time passes, a writer will simply put in "Two weeks later" or "In the spring" or "the next morning."

I remember when I wrote my first horrible novel, I honestly had no idea how to do this simple task of expressing passage of time. In fact, I did not understand how scenes worked in a novel at all. One of my writing friends who was kind enough to be in a writing group with me read one of these first attempts and mentioned that it was obvious I did not have a good sense of what a scene was. I was a little stung by this, but she shrugged and said it was fine, I would figure it out. Everyone did. She didn't try to explain it in detail to me. She just mentioned the word and told me to look out for it, and I did, eventually, figure out how to write scenes. That first novel, though, I could only figure out how to write scenes that immediately followed each other, and it was hilarious because I ended up writing everything that the character did. I was perfectly well aware that everything a character did was not interesting to the reader. I just didn't know how to stop telling the story when the character stepped off stage, went to the bathroom, slept, put on clothes, and on and on.

So, if you have set your scene and indicated the passage of time, what else does a scene need? Characters. In a film or play, it is obvious to the audience which characters are in the scene, which characters come on stage as the scene progresses, and which characters leave. It is not as obvious in a novel because, of course, your characters are not actually people who are moving around. It is your job as the author to make it clear when the characters are coming on stage and when they are leaving. It is as simple as saying, "John knocked on the door and Mary opened it. John stepped in," to move a character onto the stage, so to speak, of the novel's action. When John leaves, all you have to do as a writer is say "John left."

You can certainly fancy up the words if you'd like, but as with dialog tags, often simplest is best. Your reader is used to how novels are written and the eyes slide over the words that are frequently repeated. This is actually a good thing in most cases, because it makes the novel reading process go more quickly. I strongly disagree with writing teachers who teach students to use more "interesting" words. "Said" with a character's name is almost always the best way to indicate speech. Likewise, simplest is best for other scene indicators. When you first introduce a location, you may want to spend time describing it in words, but the second time, be as brief as possible in reintroducing it. When characters leave the scene, it is perfectly acceptable to simply say, "he left."

A character can be simply introduced by a name and you can allow the reader to figure out who that character is as the character interacts with other characters. You can also take a few sentences as soon as a character steps on stage to introduce the character if you'd like, describing their hair color or manner of speaking, their clothing or accent. I think Sue Grafton of the Kinsey Milhone series is an expert at quickly introducing characters with a couple of sentences, but if you look at your favorite book again, you will see clearly how the author chooses to introduce characters. An introduction can be done in the mind of another character who only tells one perspective, and then the reader can infer everything else. A character can be introduced literally as one character steps aside and introduces two other characters to each other. If the characters already know each other when the scene begins, of course, you cannot do this. You can make the reader figure out how they know each other, as long as you have a fairly small number of characters in a scene. The larger the number of characters, the more careful you need to be that the reader knows who you are talking about when you mention them or they speak. Again, you don't have the obvious visual clues for this that you would in a film of play.

However you introduce the characters who enter the scene, after they are introduced, you should choose a single name (or possibly name plus title or simply 'the boy' if there is a reason a name is unknown and the character is minor) to refer to that character ever afterwards. Do not switch back and forth between different names, as this is confusing to the reader. In a play or film, I think it's important that actors look differently because I get them confused otherwise. In a novel, you can choose names that are very distinct in order to make it clear that characters are very different. Sometimes writers will use a rule of thumb that all main characters in a novel should have names that start with a different letter. I would go a step farther and say that the more distinct you can make their names, the better. If they are from different parts of the world, use names that indicate that. One character can have a short, single syllable name. Another character a two syllable name, and another character a much longer name. Try to make the names pronounceable, as well. Some readers don't bother to pronounce a name in their minds, but many do.

OK, now you have a place and a time and characters who are in a scene. What next? A scene needs to have a reason for being included. You don't include every scene that happens during the course of the novel. There are scenes that aren't interesting and you simply don't include those. You want to choose to tell the scenes that are vital to the plotline of the story and to the development of the characters. Be careful that you don't leave important scenes happening off-stage and then other characters relay the information to the audience. The most important scenes should happen on-stage, that is, as they are happening. Be aware that this may force you as the author to choose a different point of view than you might have originally expected. Not all characters are going to be on stage for all scenes. So you may have to change your pov character in order to show certain scenes. I admit, there are certain cases in which it can be effective for an important scene to happen off-stage, but as a beginning writer, you will want to be really careful about using this trick because it can lead to the reader feeling cheated.

If you know that the scene you want to write is an important one, and you know the pov you are going to tell it from, then what else do you need? An impetus, something that starts the action moving forward. You can start a scene with characters sitting in a bar or waiting, but you want to quickly move to something interesting that will happen. This doesn't have to be action necessarily. A scene can and often will be moved forward entirely by dialog, and by the way in which your characters will move each other through their speech. Different characters want different things. Some characters will say what they want out right and try to convince another character to give this to them. Sometimes characters are unaware of their own motivations, though not often. Younger characters perhaps. More often, characters simply don't say what their real motivations are because revealing themselves will make it less likely others will do what they want. The evil villain doesn't always say he wants to bring down the world, but that is what he is trying to do. Even if the other characters are not clear what motivations are working in the scene, you as the author should know and the reader should be able to reasonably guess.

Here is a simple scene you might work with: John wants a date with Mary, so he asks Mary on a date. Mary either says yes or no to the date. If she says yes, John tells her where the date will happen, adds how excited he is about it, and then leaves. End of first scene. If Mary says no, John will have to decide if he is going to accept no as an answer. He can argue with Mary. She can argue back or not. John can stomp out angrily, tell Mary he will never speak to her again. Or John can tell Mary that he will get her to agree to a date someday and leave her with an anticipatory smile. Then the scene is over, though there hasn't been the same kind of resolution as in the other choices.

This is a dialog heavy scene, but it starts with something John wants. John tries to get what he wants. He does not have to get it in order for the scene to be over, but he has to have finished his attempt. You as the writer can make it clear that John will try again, or not. But you cannot end the scene, for example, before Mary answers John. You could potentially end the scene with John rehearsing what he is going to say and do, and then backing out. Or you could have John get talked out of it by another friend. But you cannot end the scene with John deciding to ask Mary, and then not showing him trying. You can't skip to the next scene with them together, I don't think. You want that beginning, middle, and end that is the typical shape of a scene. You should not start the scene after John has asked the question and then tell everything that has happened in a descriptive paragraph and then just have Mary's answer. That is not a complete scene.

In a more active example of a scene: Harry challenges Peter to a duel. Peter takes out his sword and Harry does the same. They clash swords now and again in whatever form of realism you choose to write your fight scene. Harry appears to be winning. Then Peter appears to be winning. Or Harry is obviously the stronger swordsman and Peter is just fighting for his life. They may be silent throughout the entire scene, or they can talk a la The Princess Bride as they fight. But the scene ends when the battle is over. Harry throws down his sword and says he will fight no longer. Or Peter gets cut through the heart and dies. Or Harry forces Peter to his knees and to say that he has lost. Then Harry leaves and the scene ends. The scene does not end before the battle ends. It does not begin when they are already in the midst of fighting, in my opinion. You show the reader why the scene begins, let the scene unfold, and then end the scene when something has been resolved. A question is posed by each scene: Will Harry get what he wants, for instance. Will he kill Peter? Will Peter prove that he is the better swordsman, after all? The scene ends when that question is answered.

In movies and sometimes television, there is a current style to switch back and forth mid-scene between different locations, so that multiple scenes are being told at the same time, minute by minute. I think this works far better with a visual medium than it could with words. You have to reset every scene if you try to duplicate this in a novel. There may be some authors who manage it successfully, but I don't recommend it. You can switch after a scene is over to another important scene and it will have much the same effect of heightening the tension if you keep only writing scenes that increase your stakes.

Most of the time, after a tense scene ends, you will want to have a reaction scene, often a scene where the main character is alone and simply thinks about what the previous scene meant. Sometimes when the main character is with a friend who knows what has happened, there can be a conversation about the more active scene previously. Don't overdo it, but I think this is one of the best things about novel writing. You cannot get this effect on film. Even with a voice over, which can feel heavy-handed, you have a difficult time expressing a character's real thoughts and feelings in film. It has to be all conveyed through an actor's facial expressions. In a novel, you can delve deeply into the character's mind after an important scene has passed. During the scene itself, you can tell what a character is thinking and feeling, of course, but you want the scene to unfold quickly so you will often let most of the real implications of a scene wait until the scene is over and a character reacts.

As a writer, you can choose what order to tell your scenes in and how much of each element, description and dialog and action and reflection you will choose to use. These choices will end up being your style in your particular novel. They are your seasonings and only you can decide what you want as your final product. Other people may give you their opinion that you are using too much description or too little dialog, but ultimately, this is a choice that you must make. Some authors want a novel that moves more sedately. Some want a novel written at a fever pitch and there will only be reflection at the very end. Some novels lovingly describe every detail with poetic nuance. Other novels like Robert Parker's Spenser books, have three words of description that works and the rest is told in dialog in very short scenes. There is no good or bad here in terms of the house your novel builds, so long as you are using the right blocks. Good luck and keep writing.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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