If you are telling a story you need to use scenes to do it. Whether your book is a work of fiction, uses the tools of creative non fiction to report on contemporary events or in a memoir, or seeks to bring history to life as a story well told your success will be accomplished scene by scene.
Scene is a simple concept first defined by the ancient Greeks as having three components:
- A person (or people)
- In a specific place
- Where something happens
It doesn’t seem that it would be too difficult to stick to those things in telling your story.
Renni Browne and Dave King in their book, Self Editing for Fiction Writers, explain the most common way writers go astray: “Of course, anything that can go into a scene can also be summarized. And since scenes are usually harder to write than summaries, most authors rely too heavily on narrative summary to tell their stories.”
To avoid reliance on narrative summary here are five questions to ask in planning the scenes that will tell your story best:
What emotional experience is the reader having in this scene? For someone to react emotionally to what they are reading they must have a direct experience. Talk to any writing teacher and they advise you to show don’t tell. The reason is simple. If you tell the reader about what happened they are removed from the experience and feel nothing, In a romance the reader should feel a sense of attraction. In a suspense story feels danger and urgency. If the character is making a crucial decision the reader the uncertainty and personal conflicts that precede the ultimate decision.
What’s the setting? If you are writing fiction you often talk about world building, creating a fictional setting so tangible the reader feels like she is there. In history you might call it a sense of place, but the reader experiences the same feeling. Be careful in setting the scene that you don’t focus too exclusively or too long in the setting because you’ll stop the action’s forward momentum and the reader will feel nothing. Blend carefully selected sensory details of setting with the action of the scene.
What is your point of view character’s goal in this scene? The whole point of the scene is that something happens. It will only happen if the character is strongly motivated to act to make something happen. If the reader understands what the goal is and why the character is motivated by it she can share your character’s emotions as events unfold. It’s important to recognize that you want to focus on the goal that will play out in the scene. When the detective in a murder mystery goes to the crime scene he doesn’t expect to find the killer which is his ultimate goal. Your scene should focus on his goal of gathering clues that may at some point lead him to the killer later. You don’t need to make the connection in the scene.
Who else is present? It’s a good idea to limit the characters in the scene to those who actually do something to advance the action in the scene or whose presence will be of significance later. Memoir writers and family historians sometimes try to include everyone who might have been present at a particular moment for no reason other than to report the fact. That slows the scene and reduces the drama of the events.
What happens? Begin as close to the end of the scene as possible. It’s a good rule that you begin at point in the action where the reader will understand what is happening. If one character is sitting around waiting for another to show up, think about starting your scene when the second character comes through the door. Use dialogue and action to carry the scene. Remember the show don’t tell advice. Interrupting the action with an extended flashback or interior monologue interrupts the flow of events and destroys the reader’s emotional experience.