Stop! Stop! You’re Making a Scene!
Welcome back to Firsts in Fiction, loyal listeners! Sadly, Steve couldn’t join us this week because of a scheduling conflict, but he should be back with us next week. For now, Heather and I take a look at the elements of the best scenes in fiction and how you can use them in your own writing. As always, you can listen above or download the episode here. Find Steve and Heather and me on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Stitcher.
Before we can find out how to make an incredible scene, we first must know what a scene is. For the purposes of this cast, we’ll refer to a scene as a dramatic unit that begins at one fixed point and ends at another. It depicts action, and that action can and often does include dialog. In a way, scenes in a novel or story are much like bricks in houses. Depending on how you stack them and lay them together and join them with mortar, this compilation of scenes will build together into something larger than themselves.
Scenes can be about action or reaction, but no matter what, something must happen in your scene that will move your story forward. If you can take the scene out of the novel, and the rest of the book still works and is not compromised, then the scene should be cut. If you can get rid of it, you should.
CHARACTER DESIRE AND CONFLICT: For a scene to work, you first need a character who needs something. There must be a motivation or an objective, even if it doesn’t seem tied to the main plot element. It can be a step in the right direction, or a necessary decision to keep them moving forward. Regardless, without character motivation, you have no scene. Additionally, there must be something standing in the way of your characters’ desires. Whatever it is they want, they can’t have it right away. This is simply called conflict or tension. Raymond Carver famously called this “menace,” and I love that word. It’s a fantastic way of describing tension–that feeling of something horrible looming just beyond the next page. That sensation will keep us turning pages, keep us reading long into the night. It’s the reason why people say, “I couldn’t put the book down.”
CONFLICTING DESIRES: Some of the best scenes in literature feature multiple characters, each with their own desires and motivations. However, they can’t all be satisfied because the desires of each character are at odds. These conflicting desires ratchet up the tension within a scene and make for some great drama.
OUTCOME: Scenes must have some sort of resolution. While it doesn’t need to be a neat, tidy ending, something, some central question, must be answered or in some way resolved. However, ending a scene with some unease, some frustration or irritation, will keep our readers turning pages.
SETTING (MYSTERY v. MURKY): Don’t forget that every story and every novel must have a setting. We often forget, when writing scenes, that we may need to orient our readers. They may need a quick reminder of where our viewpoint character is. A few details about setting will go a long way to help establish our scene and align our readers with our viewpoint character and his or her desires. Precise language will help set your scene, and it will also prevent you from having what’s called the “white room” scene, where the reader is given so few details, they imagine the characters in a white room. The lack of precise detail will only serve to frustrate our readers; it will in no way create “mystery.”
IT’S TIME TO ASK THE TOUGH QUESTIONS: When revising your scenes, be sure to ask yourself these questions to see if it holds it’s weight within your larger work:
- Is the scene relevant to the overall plot? Discovery writers (like Heather and myself) often write scenes for us to better understand our characters and plot. While good, they may not further the plot the way we want. If it doesn’t move our story ahead, we need to cut it out. Maybe we can save it for another work later, but for the work we’re currently on, if the scene isn’t doing it’s job, it has to go.
- Where are the countering desires at work? Once we know what our characters want, we must have something countering their desires, be that another character or some plot element. If you can’t identify what it is that is opposed to your character’s desire, you must restructure your scene (or drop the whole thing, if you can).
- Is the outcome of the scene repeated elsewhere in the work? It’s not uncommon, especially in a longer work, for us to write several scenes that accomplish the same purpose. It’s important for us to look at these and choose the best one to keep. The others can be cut.
- Does it wrap up all the questions in a neat bow? If so, you’ve given your reader an excellent opportunity to put your book down, which isn’t what you want at all. Instead, try to leave a few questions unanswered.
- What are the readers’ expectations of this scene? If you’re delivering the exact expectations of your readers, you’re probably not surprising them, and they’ll find your book predictable, and possibly boring. Instead, try to tap into what your readers are expecting, and find a way to deliver a satisfactory resolve that, in some way, twists what they anticipated. This shouldn’t be a poorly done twist-ending. Instead, it should follow Flannery O’Connor’s idea of the unexpected but inevitable ending.
- Have the readers been properly aligned with the scene? Do they know what’s at stake? If not, they should.
- Is there a negotiation or renegotiation of the roles as we know them? Good scenes often tell us where we started, but lead us someplace new. To do this, characters must negotiate and renegotiate with each other, be it for love, or power, or greed, or lust, or fear, or any combination thereof. Charles Baxter says we should have characters create themes that we ordinarily wouldn’t do ourselves.
- Does it further complicate the conflict? Does it resolve some aspect of the conflict? If your scene in no way deepens or resolves the central plot of your work, it’s not doing it’s job. Some of the best scenes are simply put there for things to get worse. When stuck for your next scene, ask yourself this: “In what way can I complicate the lives of my characters?”
- Does it reveal more about our character? If so, this is a more “reactionary” scene, which is fine, so long as it’s balanced with the active scenes. Better yet, does the scene have a balance of interior conflict and exterior conflict? Does it effectively “juggle” (as Jerome Stern says) the thought and action?
- Does your scene have some spice? Spice would be an interesting twist or turn of dialog, maybe an interesting description or dramatic set up. It can be a contrast between something mundane with something extraordinary. It’s nice to have a little, but not too much. You don’t want to over-season, but you still want to add a little flavor to the scene.
If we’ve left something out, or you want some clarification on a point, let us know. Until next week, good writing.