Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making a Scene

I am a firm believer that the basic building block of a story is The Scene, and that stories are most strongly told when composed of scenes. I am always surprised when I see a writer say that they aren't sure what, exactly, a scene is.

A scene, in my opinion, meets five criteria:

1. It is dramatized, not summarized.
2. It takes place in the "story present," seeming to happen in real time for the reader.
3. It has a beginning, middle and end and is clearly set apart from the surrounding prose.
4. It is a single, self-contained event in a single, discrete location.
5. The situation for the characters is different at the end of the passage than it was at the beginning.

Let's look at a passage that advances the story:

My journey seemed tedious--very tedious: fifty miles one day, a night spent at an inn; fifty miles the next day. During the first twelve hours I thought of Mrs. Reed in her last moments; I saw her disfigured and discoloured face, and heard her strangely altered voice. I mused on the funeral day, the coffin, the hearse, the black train of tenants and servants--few was the number of relatives--the gaping vault, the silent church, the solemn service. Then I thought of Eliza and Georgiana; I beheld one the cynosure of a ball-room, the other the inmate of a convent cell; and I dwelt on and analysed their separate peculiarities of person and character. The evening arrival at the great town of--scattered these thoughts; night gave them quite another turn: laid down on my traveller's bed, I left reminiscence for anticipation.

This passage moves the plot along. You could say there is action even: the narrator is traveling across country, and we see her thoughts along the way. But it is not a scene, because:

1. It is not dramatized, but is a summary of action.
2. It does not take place in the "story present," and fails to happen in "real time" for the reader.
3. It has no dramatic arc (no beginning, middle and end) and is not set apart from the surrounding prose.
4. It is not a single, self-contained event, but is part of a longer summary of events, nor is it in a single, discrete location.
5. The situation for the characters is the same at the end of the passage as it was at the beginning, except that the narrator has apparently traveled and spent a night or two at an inn.

Plot is advanced, but that's not enough to make this passage a scene. It is, rather, a transitional passage between scenes. It's connective tissue, as it were.

Here is another passage from a page or so after the one above:

"Hillo!" he cries; and he puts up his book and his pencil. "There you are! Come on, if you please."

I suppose I do come on; though in what fashion I know not; being scarcely cognisant of my movements, and solicitous only to appear calm; and, above all, to control the working muscles of my face--which I feel rebel insolently against my will, and struggle to express what I had resolved to conceal. But I have a veil--it is down: I may make shift yet to behave with decent composure.

"And this is Jane? Are you coming from Millcote, and on foot? Yes--just one of your tricks: not to send for a carriage, and come clattering over street and road like a common mortal, but to steal into the vicinage of your home along with twilight, just as if you were a dream or a shade. What the deuce have you done with yourself this last month?"

"I have been with my aunt, sir, who is dead."

"A true Janian reply! Good angels be my guard! She comes from the other world--from the abode of people who are dead; and tells me so when she meets me alone here in the gloaming! If I dared, I'd touch you, to see if you are substance or shadow, you elf!--but I'd as soon offer to take hold of a blue ignis fatuus light in a marsh. Truant! truant!" he added, when he had paused an instant. "Absent from me a whole month, and forgetting me quite, I'll be sworn!"

His last words were balm: they seemed to imply that it imported something to him whether I forgot him or not. And he had spoken of Thornfield as my home--would that it were my home!

He did not leave the stile, and I hardly liked to ask to go by. I inquired soon if he had not been to London.

"Yes; I suppose you found that out by second-sight."

"Mrs. Fairfax told me in a letter."

"And did she inform you what I went to do?"

"Oh, yes, sir! Everybody knew your errand."

"You must see the carriage, Jane, and tell me if you don't think it will suit Mrs. Rochester exactly; and whether she won't look like Queen Boadicea, leaning back against those purple cushions. I wish, Jane, I were a trifle better adapted to match with her externally. Tell me now, fairy as you are--can't you give me a charm, or a philter, or something of that sort, to make me a handsome man?"

"It would be past the power of magic, sir;" and, in thought, I added, "A loving eye is all the charm needed: to such you are handsome enough; or rather your sternness has a power beyond beauty."

"Pass, Janet," said he, making room for me to cross the stile: "go up home, and stay your weary little wandering feet at a friend's threshold."

I got over the stile without a word, and meant to leave him calmly. An impulse held me fast--a force turned me round.

"Thank you, Mr. Rochester, for your great kindness. I am strangely glad to get back again to you: and wherever you are is my home--my only home."

This passage meets all the criteria for a scene:

1. It is dramatized, not summarized.
2. It takes place in the "story present," seeming to happen in real time for the reader.
3. It has a beginning, middle and end and is clearly set apart from the surrounding prose.
4. It is a single, self-contained event, in a single, discrete location.
5. The situation for the characters is different at the end of the passage than it was at the beginning.

Think of a scene as real physical action that you can imagine, that's written to be read at more or less the same pace as it would happen in real life.

When I put together stories (no matter of what length), I write in scenes. I make a list (at least in my head) of all the events that must happen in the story, and how these events effect the characters, and then I make a list of scenes that will tell this story by encompassing the necessary plot events and character events into dramatic action. Those scenes make up the bulk of the writing, and everything else is transitional passage or the minimum of exposition that I can get away with. If I'm feeling poetic, I might add in a page or two about eel fishing, but in general, my stories and novels are sequences of scenes.

Do you make an effort to write in scenes? If so, how do you define "scene?" If not, why not? What is the basic building block of your stories?


  1. Perfect examples from a great classic, Scott!

    I asked my husband a few months ago what exactly made a scene, and he described it in about the same way you have. He's an actor, so scenes to him must be what you describe, or nothing would happen on stage except a narrator reciting events.

    I rarely write transitional passages, especially in my latest novel. If there's a transitional passage, it's about one short paragraph, and leads right into a scene. Scenes, to me, show much more than tell. As we've already discussed, sometimes there is a need to tell, as in the transitional passage you've shared with us here. There's other ways of telling, of course.

    Great post!

  2. excelent post!
    My whole book is based on scenes. I havent put any transitional pieces in my book yet and scenes usually last two chapters for me. scenes are kind of like a mini stories to me. There is a begginning then there is a problem. Then the next chapter i usually have a climax then the resolve.
    I love scenes more then transitional pieces because I enjoy reading them more then a transition and I always like to be right there with the protaganist seeing and feeling everything that they experience.

  3. Great examples.

    The one manuscript I'm getting ready to query . . . in about a month or so . . . is pretty much scenerific!

    Each chapter represents one night in a month. Example: Chapter 1 = April, Chapter 2 = May, Chapter 3 = June. The events that take place in the chapters occur on one night, so the entire chapter is basically a series of scenes that might start out in a restaurant, but end up in a bar (sometimes) at the end of the chapter.

    Each chapter is . . .

    - dramatized
    - takes place in the story present
    - has a beginning, middle, and end
    - breaks down into a series of events that happen in the chapter
    - the situation for the characters is different at the end of the passage/chapter than it was at the beginning of the passage/chapter.

    Since the manuscript takes place from three perspectives, the chapters are broken down into three specific sections with clear separation so the reader understands they're switiching from Character A to Character B to Character C.

    In many ways, this manuscript was an experiment showing 2 years in the lives of a group of friends. Like Lady Glamis, transitional passages are brief, rarely more than a paragraph or two.

    Thanks for the great info on scenes.


  4. Good post, excellent examples.

    I outline in scenes. For each one I define the POV and the primary plot point covered.

    I do think that there are times when your scene can consist only of a middle and an end, although this may pertain more to some genres (action / suspense) and less to others (literary / romance). In such a case the beginning is implied.

    One example I read about this (that I cannot cite because my browser crashed two days ago and I lost my bookmarks when I re-installed Firefox) goes like this:

    In a scene where two people are going for a run, start with them on the run. You don't necessarily need to go through the exposition of them putting their shoes on, driving to the park, etc.

  5. Rick: I agree that you don't need to give each scene's backstory, as it were. I also tend to go with the screenwriters' motto of "in late, out early" when writing scenes.

    I also think that writers can do extraordinary things with transitional and expository passages. Some of my favorite bits of writing are the places between scenes, so I'm not dissing those. But scenes are sort of the cake, and everything else is the frosting between/around the layers of cake. I like cake, and I like frosting, too. But if you can't actually bake the cake, you've only got frosting. That's a horrible, weak analogy, so I think I'll stop typing now.

  6. I "outline" in scenes as well. I take the plot, and write out summaries of all the larger scenes that I see happening along the way, then add in the minor scenes that move the plot forward between the major ones as I write. I really don't write many transitional passages anymore - that's the part I "skim" when I'm reading, so I just leave it out completely unless it's absolutely necessary to the story. More fun for me to write = something I'd want to read (and hopefully others might too)!

  7. Scott,

    This is a layer cake. I think in regard to in late / out early, the truncated parts (i.e. the beginning, and in some cases the end) should be there through assumption or direct implication. To this extent they must exist within the framework of the scene even if they are not directly contained in the prose. This may add more to the literary element of the writing by telling parts of the story through what is not written.

  8. Rick: Yeah, you have to set up the next scene, but you don't have to set the scene, if you know what I mean. I think that a lot of the time, you can just show the moment of change in the scene. Though sometimes, a long, languorous scene is exactly what's required for the story. It all depends. The way we structure our scenes is directly related to tone, pacing and voice.

  9. This is a very interesting post, Scott. I also believe in writing mostly with scenes, but my definition of a scene is a bit different and more flexible than yours.

    I'd say that a scene takes place in the "story present," as you put it, that is has a beginning, middle, and end. For me, a scene can have multiple events, but the most distinct scenes seem to have only one. And, I also agree that the situation for the character is different at the end of the scene.

    Your first criterion, the difference between dramatization and summarization is not as clearly defined as I see it. Reading the two scenes here, I'd say that both contain dramatization and summarization. I've always looked at summarization in terms of degree anyway. Everything is summarized, and it's just a matter of how much it is summarized. And, I'd say that both scenes have sections that don't take place in real time, the second having some passages that feel slower than real time.

    I guess, for me, the most important things that defines a scene is whether or not it is self-contained (and even that is a matter of degree) and whether or not the situation for the character is changed. By that more flexible definition, I think I write mostly in scenes--or at least when I don't I'm critical of the result.

  10. Davin: Well, you know how it is. I didn't want to have a definition of "scene" that was too vague to be useful. I think that the most important hallmarks of a scene are that it is dramatized, and that there is a change in some character's situation.

    It's all summary, and it's all abstract and artificial, and I agree that there is a big spectrum of possible ways to summarize. But recently I asked a writer to make a list of the scenes in her book, and she had no idea. I also noticed during my last rewrite of "Horatio and the Danish" that I had a chapter that was nothing but a chain of summarized events, with little or no action in the "story present." I rewrote as much of it as I could into scenes. I think readers feel more active and pay more close attention to dramatized action than to summary. All the usual caveats apply, of course.

  11. Excellent post on scenes. Lucid and compelling. I write scenes then shuffle them around and join them up in a readable order.

  12. Michelle: I picked "Jane Eyre" because I hear that people aren't reading it these days, which is a shame. The chapter which follows this excerpt is one long scene (the one ending with the lightning splitting the tree).

    Sometimes transitional passages are really hard to write, even it they entail nothing more difficult than getting a character from one physical location to another. Someone should write about transitions.

    M.D.Hobson: Scenes last two chapters? I'd be interested in reading that to see how it works.

    Scott: I'm really interested to see your book. The three POV structure fascinates.

    Jamie: That's pretty much how I outline, too.

  13. Scott, the lightning scene you mention is one of my favorite scenes in all of classical literature (well, what I've read so far). It was one of the first moments I realized layers and deep symbolism in writing.

    I'm not sure transitions are my strong point, but I could take it on sometime. :)

  14. How do you balance, scene, exposition and backstory in the book as a whole? Is there different techniques for this? For instance a scene smack dab in the middle of a period of exposition or backstory. Would that work? I just don't know about the placement of scenes as apposed to the rest of your work. Any suggestions?

  15. Amateur: Those sorts of questions can't have general answers, because so much of that has to do with the sort of book you're writing, the sort of things you want to talk about in the book, and your own voice as a writer (or your narrator's voice if you have a first-person narrator). All of that's no help, so now I will fall back on generalizations.

    I'd write as much of the book in scenes as I could, ditch as much backstory as possible, and keep the expostition to a minimum, introducing facts at the moment they are necessary for the reader to understand the action. That's the first draft. When revising, I'd feel free to expand things and add in exposition and digressions where they seem to work according to my personal aesthetic.

    "Balance" is a very personal thing that seems to evolve over time for each writer. Junot Diaz' "Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" is almost all exposition, and the few dramatized scenes interrupt monologues, not the other way around. But it works.

    Also: Davin has a new photo. Isn't he a handsome fellow?

  16. I had to change my picture since we've apparently changed to a more colorful format. I'm just trying to keep up with my co-authors!

  17. Davin is very handsome, yes. So are you Scott, from what I can gather from your photos... you have yet to look into the camera. Why is that? You know that when we meet I'm going to have my camera with me, and I'm going to take pictures of you. Looking at the camera. :)

  18. I appreciate this post as thinking in scenes is a relative new concept to me (picked up from James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing in the Write Great Fiction series). It's also a concept that I've never seen addressed in my creative writing classes. It strikes me as an obvious approach and an easy way to build a story, so I'm not certain why it's not taught more often. I especially think it applies to new writers, who can often get stuck on framing a larger story and trying to figure out how to pull it all together.


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