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Scene It!

2008 Anna Furtado

Scenes—Building Blocks
In fiction, scenes are the basic building blocks of the story, and each scene is a little story unto itself. An important scene may be dramatized by the use of dialogue with gestures and actions, a description of the setting, characters' thoughts, or some combination of several of these things. Other scenes may be written as narrative-the presentation of necessary information that moves the reader to the next scene.

In a scene, we "watch" the action and/or dialogue as the writer "shows" us something. Every scene has a result, an outcome. Characters in a scene show us their immediate goals. They reveal what they're willing to do to accomplish those goals, and in doing that, they also reveal themselves and their attitudes toward other characters and their environment. A scene may even show a character's failure to accomplish a particular goal. When the heroine is thwarted, she must try again, probably with a different approach, in another scene. Or she must modify her short-term goal. Failure often reveals more about the character than success does.

When trying to decide whether to dramatize a scene or to present it as narrative, consider whether the scene shows some key traits of a character or includes important plot movements. If so, present the scene in dramatic fashion. This emphasizes the importance of the scene and gives the reader a stronger feeling of being part of the story. Less essential information can be consigned to narrative.

During a first draft, the writer may not recognize which scenes should be dramatized or which can be treated as narrative. The importance of each scene may only become clear in the context of the completed story. Keep this in mind when editing subsequent drafts. Perhaps a certain brief narrative should be expanded and dramatized to convey important information. On the other hand, a dramatization with a long dialogue may serve no purpose and can be condensed to narrative to convey some basic information yet move the story forward speedily. (This is where we writers often have difficulty letting go of scenes that are actually backstory and aren't necessary to the story itself. Ask yourself: Is the scene telling me, the writer of the story, something only I need to know? Or is it imparting information the reader needs to know?)

A new scene should be a logical result of the previous one. If a scene doesn't fit this description of inevitability, consider that either the scene is unnecessary or it may be misplaced in the story.

Conventionally, every scene is approached and experienced from a single POV character who interacts with other characters in the scene and with the environment in which she is standing. The POV character's perceptions of other characters and/or her surroundings inform the reader of what's taking place in that scene. Short stories usually have a single POV character. Novels may have several POV characters. It's important for authors to avoid jumping from one character's POV to another character's POV in the same scene, often referred to as "head-hopping." Using POVs of multiple characters in one scene tends to weaken the impact of that scene on the reader and should be avoided.

When writing a work of fiction, I create a Word file using a table like the one below.

Chapter/Scene    POV Character       Summary                  Comments     
Chapter 1
Scene 1
Catherine  (Brief summary
of chapter)
Edited 12/3/07
Chapter 1
Scene 2
Fiona (Brief summary
of chapter)
Edited 12/4/07.
Need to update the
name of Fiona's horse.

The use of the POV Character column keeps me honest. It doesn't allow me to head-hop from one character to another within a scene. If I can't figure out whose POV a particular scene is in, I know I need to make some adjustments.

I don't use the Comments column during the first draft, but in later drafts I use it to keep track of where I am in the editing process. I also use it for notes as a memory jogger if I need to go back to earlier chapters and revise them because of something I've written in later chapters. This allows me to continue in my current train of thought with only a brief interruption, but ensures that I won't forget a vital piece of the story.

Scene Starts
Scene openings can make or break the story. Beginnings need to grab the reader and pull her in. If they don't, she may quickly decide the laundry has more appeal. One technique to hook the reader is to start in the middle of an action, preferably one that makes the reader want to find an answer to a question.
Example: If the letter didn't come today, Bess's heart would break. She opened the mail box and felt inside.
Hooks: What's in the letter? Did it come? Why will Bess's heart break?
Description, if done well, can also draw the reader in, but emphasis must be placed on writing that description very well. A better method to capture the reader's attention is to write the description into the action. This is a sure way to prevent boredom.
Example: Sunlight streamed through the whispering trees and painted shifting golden splotches on the path. Surely only good things could happen on such a beautiful summer day. Bess approached the rusted black mailbox in fits and starts, torn between running to find the answer and dawdling to slow the receipt of bad news.
Length of a Scene
Some scenes are pages and pages long. Other scenes may consist of only a paragraph or two. Length of a scene is determined by the purpose for that scene. Scenes with a focus on exposition or descriptive narrative, should be shorter in length. Those that have a great deal to tell about an event, or a character within an event, and those that portray emotion, or contain a great deal of suspense, should be longer. In the end, the author must decide what length feels right for each scene.

Number of Settings per Scene
Ideally, a scene should contain only one setting. One event occurs in one place. For example, two characters interact at a kitchen table while they each have a glass of wine.

However, if characters are moving (in a car, on a bus, in a plane, running from danger), the setting may change as they journey from one end of the scene to the other. For example, two characters put on their heavy winter coats and strike out on a long walk. When they leave the house, the sun is shining on the cold winter day, but as they continue to walk, dark, ominous clouds form and a storm overtakes them.

Scene and Sequel
There are actually two parts to writing a scene: scene and sequel, which can also be thought of as a sort of cause and effect. A scene makes a statement of a goal, introduces a conflict, and then has the character fail to reach her goal. In sequel, the character experiences emotion regarding the aforementioned failure, reviews and analyzes the event in order to come up with a new plan, then makes a decision on how to proceed.

Writing master Dwight Swain has developed his own method of teaching writers about Scene and Sequel. His technique is well explained by Randy Ingermanson at his Web site (see Additional Reading below). The following is a brief summary of his method using my own story, The Heart's Strength, as an example.

A Scene (external/objective) has the following three-part pattern:
1. Goal
Fiona wants to tell Cate that she is in love with her and she hopes for reciprocation.

2. Conflict
However, Cate is under the scrutiny of the Churchmen from Spain as a sinner and blasphemer. Because of unfolding events, Fiona cannot act on her resolve to tell Cate what she thinks of her.

3. Disaster (Failure)
The Churchmen act and in doing so become a serious threat to Cate and Fiona's relationship.

The POV character, Fiona, has a goal at the beginning of the Scene. It is clearly definable, and the character will take action to achieve the goal. In this case, Fiona finally sees that if she doesn't let Cate know she's interested, she'll never know whether she has a chance with her.

When the priests take action before Fiona has a chance to talk to Cate, this is a disaster. In this case, Fiona is so shocked and appalled that she has to be led away by another character in order to start her own process of evaluation (see Sequel below).
A Sequel (internal/subjective) has the following three-part pattern:
1. Reaction (which also has a three-part pattern)
  • Feeling: instant, reflex action to events
        Fiona is shocked at the priests' actions.

  • Reflex: instinctive reaction; this happens a little slower than the initial Feeling.

        Fiona's reflex action is to move to Cate's side in an effort to protect her.

  • Rational Action and Speech: either acts or speaks as an expression of his intense emotional reaction.
        Fiona remains stoic and will not respond to Cate's godmother's pleas for them to leave.
2. Dilemma
Fiona is baffled when finally dragged away from the scene. She doesn't understand why they are abandoning the people they love.

3. Decision
As a new plan is revealed, Fiona realizes that she must change direction and she now makes a decision to embrace a new plan.
Sequel is, in fact, a recovery of sorts from the disaster of the Scene. It's a falling back and re-grouping. David Swain says that a character cannot go from one goal to another without first taking some time to be affected, then re-evaluating where she needs to go next.

In the Reaction part of Sequel, I mentioned Feeling, Reflex, and Rational Action and Speech. It isn't necessary to have all three elements of Reaction. However, it is necessary to keep any combination used in the correct order, as presented above. A character would not have their rational action or speech come before their initial reflex action to the events.

Once the initial Reaction is over (a classic example: after looking at the body of a woman who was the object of a gruesome murder, the young police officer throws up in response), the character must now start to sort through the Dilemma and try to figure out what her options are. In the case of my story, Fiona is so single-minded that her godmother has to help her see the alternatives. However, eventually, Fiona must come to her own Decision about what she will do next—which then begins a new Scene, followed by a new Sequel.

Scene Endings
Scene endings are tricky. How do you make sure that the reader will turn the page, read the next scene, start the next chapter? When using the "scene and sequence" technique, the character will most likely be considering her next course of action as the scene ends. If something of what is about to happen next is presented to the reader at the end of the scene, it will draw the reader in to the scene following it. The question will beg to be answered: will the character accomplish her new goal?

We have come full circle in looking at a single scene. In order to complete a story, the writer must now return to the beginning of this article, to start the next scene. As each scene builds on the previous one, the story unfolds, causing the reader to turn page after page.

Additional Reading:
Advanced Fiction Writing Web Site by Randy Ingermanson--

The Ebb and Flow of Fiction by Mike Klaassen--

Small Addictions Web Site-- articles on writing techniques

Writer's Digest Books: How to Tell a Story by Rubie and Provost

Writer's Digest Books: Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Anna Furtado is the author of The Heart's Desire—Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles (a Golden Crown Literary Society Award finalist) and The Heart's Strength—Book Two of the Briarcrest Chronicles. Anna is also a featured columnist at Just About Write and contributes book reviews to JAW, as well as at the L-Word fan site in the literature section.

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