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New Writers Ask: What is Scene Craft and How Do I Get Some?

“How would you define scene development and what is the key to making it consistently good throughout a novel?”

If you’ll recall, this was a question from a client who struggled to understand how to know if a scene was good, bad or meh. Last time I discussed some of the elements of scene craft;  in this episode of New Writers Ask, I share some of my personal learning about effective scenes.

I write each scene with the awareness that every scene builds upon the ones that come before and contribute to the reader’s understanding of the scenes that come after. This may seem obvious, but I have encountered many writers who view scenes as a series of isolated or encapsulated events (or info dumps). This can lead to the writer trying to shove too much information into each scene. Which can lead to a variety of problems:

  • Word SaladThe reader is overwhelmed by the amount of information before he has a mental place to put it. It’s like handing a home decor designer all the drapes for a house before the windows have been cut in the walls … or there are even walls in which to cut them.
  • The narrative flow of the story is undermined.
  • The reader doesn’t get to experience a sense of discovery because they’ve been told what’s what.
  • The characters fail to transform because the reader’s been told who they are up front.

One of my early editing clients wrote a scene in which his hero came to a town he left years before to reunite with a friend whose daughter had telegraphed him that someone was trying to kill her father. The hero goes into a cafe, where the owner recognizes him. The cafe owner proceeds to tell him about the Big Bad who’s most certainly behind the attempt on his friend’s life. My client had literally started this character’s exposition with, ”I think you should know…” then wrote multiple paragraphs about Big Bad’s big badness.

Two things:

  1. The cafe owner was not in a position, realistically, to know any of what he told the hero … especially given the writer’s repeated reminders that the Big Bad was highly secretive and no one (but the café owner, that is) knew what was going on behind the walls of his estate.
  2. My client spent the next 200 pages trying to walk that revelation back, ultimately losing track of who knew what when.

Scenes are the building blocks of a story; they are meant to build toward a complete structure. When you plant a suspicion in a scene in chapter two, trust that it will be an element in a scene in chapter twelve whether you intended it to or not, because the reader will read the rest of your story looking for the place that element fits and that suspicion pays off.

 

So, when I begin a scene, in the back of my mind are such elements as:

  • where the characters in it have been and where I need them to go
  • what we know about them
  • what we don’t know about them and wether this the right place to reveal it
  • what needs to be in the scene in order for it to get the story to the next step, and 
  • what emotions I want to evoke in the reader. 

My question going in is: What do I want this scene to tell the reader about the characters—not just the ones who are in the scene, but possibly characters who are off-page as well? 

The challenge is to hold all that in mind, yet not insert it mechanically into the scene. If I know the characters and their circumstances well enough, I don’t have to manufacture dialogue—they do it. I don’t have to tell the reader about the characters—I let their words and actions and reactions do the telling. I’m just making a transcript. 

If I find a scene difficult, it may mean I need to fill in my characters’ blanks a bit more, both in my own mind and on the page, before I approach the scene. Here are some things I’ve found helpful to the process of crafting scenes.

  • Write important items down on sticky notes (real or digital)—such things as a character’s fears, hopes, ambitions, goals, feelings about the other characters, etc.
  • Put them where you can see them as a point of reference as you work. 
  • As you write each scene, you may wish to add things to your notes. I still use stickies (mostly digital) for plotting purposes. They help me visualize relationships between characters and their behaviors.

Which brings me to another point about effective scenes: They have a sense of organic spontaneity about them. They feel like life, not a play. The characters aren’t acting, they’re interacting.

To sum up: Developing a scene is, in part, knowing what you need to accomplish, what elements will accomplish it, and what words you can use to enhance the reader’s appreciation of how those elements fit together, not detract from it.

The state of your characters at the end of a scene should be different in some way from their state at the beginning. In other words, there should be some advancement of the character along their arc—i.e. knowledge or insight gained, conflict sparked and/or conflict resolved, questions answered and/or questions posed.

Be aware that every scene sets up for one to come, and connects to the scenes that came before.

Be aware that every scene contributes to the reader’s perception of your characters. Each scene will make use of what you’ve already shown the reader and shape their expectations of the characters in future scenes.

If you finish writing a scene and have no idea where to take your characters next, revisit previous scenes. You may find the missing elements aren’t in the scene you’re writing because you didn’t plant the seeds for them earlier in the story.

Happy scene crafting!

Authors

1 thought on “New Writers Ask: What is Scene Craft and How Do I Get Some?”

  1. One of my early critique partners used color coded 3X5 note cards held together on a notebook ring. Each point of view character got their own color, so at a quick glance she could tell if she hand lumps of one person as narrator and then a clump of the next character etc.

    Borrowing from Jack Brickman and Dwight Swain, each card contained the
    Where does the scene come from: if you are on page 300 and the source is page 1, there is something missing.
    Goal:
    Conflict:
    Disaster:
    NEXT STEP:
    Purpose: This step needs to be much more than shows hero is kind to dogs and children.

    When I borrowed this system to help me structure my book I added in pencil (because things change) the page and chapter # so I could find them again to check for details or add something. I also marked the cards with post it notes if I thought of something later that I needed to fix. Subsequent drafts should remove all the sticky notes.

    This system helped me learn to how craft scenes and entire books. I eventually discarded my note cards, until I started a mystery and had to keep track of time and keep events in chornological order, when I introduced a red herring and mentioned real clues.

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