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New Writers Ask: What is Scene Craft and Why Should I Care?

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

This was a question asked of me by a ghostwriting client. Scene craft is something that has become organic enough for me through years of experience that I’ve ceased to think about what goes into it. It was beneficial to have to sit down and consider what he was asking. Sort of a reality check.

Scene development is sculpting with words. You start with a wire frame and layers of substrate before the clay even goes on.

 

Then you build that final layer up until…

 

voila!—you have a …

… whatever it is you’re trying to create.

 

I find that just thinking of writing this way, makes it easier to cultivate patience, which, for me, is key to the craft of writing. So, pick a metaphor that works for you and go with it. 

Many new writers operate under the assumption that they should be able to throw down a finished scene on the first pass. Some can. And some believe they can, then wonder why their work isn’t received as they think it ought to be. 

This is an important conceptual point: Scene craft is an iterative process for most of us, meaning it requires going over a scene repeatedly until it fulfills its role in your story. 

Ray Bradbury proposed a two word mantra that had a profound effect on my scene craft: DON’T THINK. He went on to explain that what he meant was: Don’t edit as you write. Get the bones down without digging about for the exact turn of phrase or singularly appropriate word. Once those bones exist, then come back to it, add layers of muscle, sinew, flesh. Return as many times as it takes for it to be complete and effective.

In order to create an effective scene, I think it’s important to have a relatively clear idea of where you want to go with it. That doesn’t mean knowing every color you’re going to use ahead of time or even all of the elements that are going to be in the finished piece, but knowing, on some level, the basic shape of the thing you want to create. 

You can start by asking questions of your creative self:

  • Self, what do you want the scene to accomplish? 
  • How do want the reader to feel while reading it—what emotions do you want to evoke: fear, excitement, love, anger, confusion? 
  • What do you want the reader to know after reading it—that is, what do you want to reveal to them?

When I address these questions, it helps me set a goal or purpose for the scene that I can hold in mind as I write it. Whether my goal is to reveal new plot elements, develop character, or raise questions, holding the purpose of the scene in mind gives my creativity a focus, which allows me to shape the scene organically. 

There’s a delicate balance here, I think, between being clear on the goal of the scene while being open to other goals arising.

A story is a series of scenes that all work toward an over-arching goal—a story arc. Within that over-arching goal, there will be a set of internal goals—character arcs within the overall story that contribute to the whole. Part of making scenes consistently good, I think, is being so aware of your overall story arc, and of the story arcs of the individual characters and of their relationships, that you craft each scene leading up to your final chapter with those elements in mind.

The challenge is in being able to build your character arcs in such a way that, when they intersect in a scene, your characters already have something to do and say that then advances the story. You don’t have to put words in their mouths, the words arise as a function of each character’s circumstances, knowledge, goals, fears, loves, etc.

For example, the point in a story where your protagonist meets his love interest for the first time requires that in prior scenes, you have painted his character vividly enough that his scenes with this new character are not being used to tell his core backstory. 

Why? Because trying to tell chunks of a character’s backstory in a scene that contains a crucial piece of emotional story arc interrupts that arc and makes for a cluttered, ineffective scene. In trying to serve too many goals, it pulls the reader’s attention in different directions and detracts from the emotional color and shape of the scene. It can also obscure important information you want the reader to take away from the scene.

 Though I’ve seen many new writers try this impossible contortion, the facts are these: A series of info-dumps does not a story make. You can’t tell the reader everything at once, nor should you want to, because one of the most essential elements of storytelling for the reader is the sense of discovery.

How do you avoid snatching away the reader’s delight in discovery? Next time, I’ll share some things I’ve learned over the years. 

Authors

1 thought on “New Writers Ask: What is Scene Craft and Why Should I Care?”

  1. One of the things I learned when I thought I was writing romance: Showing that the heroine is kind to animals and children is not enough to make a scene work. The goofy great dane who has to wear sunglasses because of eye problems has to earn his keep. If he runs off and wraps his leash around the legs of the hero and thus forcing a meeting between the protagonists is moving the romance plot in the right direction.

    Every scene needs to earn its keep.

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