Aaaaand… Scene!

So, craft won the vote, with creativity second place. The peeps have spoken and the hamster will reflect the will of the populace.

The building block of a story is not a sentence, or a paragraph, it is the scene. A story could be a single scene, it could be hundreds, but regardless of how long the story is the reader interacts with the narrative through a succession of scenes as they explore the world, get to know the characters and follow the plot.

Smooth and by the Numbers

A well-executed scene is like a well-executed special forces mission. Stick with me here. For success, the writer must identify the objective, choose the right gear, smoothly enter the fray and withdraw without any fuss. Some writers may have these factors pre-planned, others might go into the scene in ad-hoc fashion and improvise their way through. Often, it will be a combination of both, with a general idea of what is going to happen but the precise details not known until the fighting, I mean writing, commences.

And like a good military operation, the debrief is vital. When neck-deep in the white-hot turmoil of the scene, things happen that were unforeseen, and it is hard to keep a clear head. In the calmer moments of the read-through and edit, it is important to evaluate each scene, judge its success and make changes as required.

Hit Hard, Hit Fast

Highlighting the objective is perhaps the element most commonly overlooked. Writers will have an idea of what the scene will do to move the plot along, either in mind or already conceived in a synopsis. Narrative is not simply a matter of plot, but also character and setting. Every scene should include something that furthers the reader’s understanding of all three.

A scene may be heavily weighted in favour of one element or another, but it should never neglect the other two. This is not as difficult as it might appear, because by the nature of writing every scene takes place somewhere (setting), shows the characters (er, character!) doing something (plot).

The two things I see occurring frequently in novice fiction are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Sometimes the writer will produce a scene that is purely plot-driven, and forgets to immerse the reader with the setting or involve the characters in any way other than as vehicles for the plot. On the flip side, sometimes the writer will lavish love and care on the setting and characters, layering description and dialogue into a wonderful tableau, but will totally forget to move the plot on at all. The scene becomes a nice bit of window dressing.

The way to counter this is to ask yourself questions either before or during the scene (and after whilst editing). Does the reader have a sense of where the scene is taking place? In what emotional state are the characters in the scene, and what effect do the events of that scene have on that state? What has the reader learned about the story that they did not know before the scene started?

Most importantly, what reaction do you want the reader to feel as they read the scene?

For example, you may wish to create sympathy for a character, or turn the reader against him or her.  A setting-heavy scene might be conceived to induce a sense of wonder or dread or excitement. Sometimes a scene is needed to draw plot threads together, reminding the reader of everything that is going on, the stakes at play and the consequences of the characters’ failure or success.

Just as the underlying story is built on a platform of conflict, so each scene must serve to further or resolve those conflicts. This may be internal and straightforward – an enemy to be physically overcome – or it could be external and complex – characters confronted by emotional and moral problems brought about by themselves or other characters – and everything inbetween. The conflict can be an argument, a death, a piece of news, a birth, a fight, a terrible realisation, or any number of other things. A scene that has no inherent conflict is just stuff happening, not a part of the story.

Boots on the Ground

Often the most daunting part of a scene is getting it started. It can be the dread-inspiring barrier of the blank page, over and over, throughout the whole story. I often know what needs to happen in a scene and why, but can sit around doing nothing for ages as I work out the best way to guide the reader into the action. There are several ways to introduce each scene, and though it would be awesome if there were hard and fast rules regarding which worked best in which situations, writing isn’t that simple. The important thing to remember is to ensure that you don’t fall back on the same solution every single time. Repetition will make you look lazy even if you aren’t.

In media res is used to describe a story that starts in the middle of the action, and it can be used for individual scenes as well. The opening lines plunge the reader into the thick of what is going on, and then as the scene unfolds the narrative backtracks to fill in the blanks of what the reader has missed. It’s a good technique to use if the reader has a firm idea from previous scenes as to what is going to happen; if it’s inevitable that a fight is going to happen from what occurred two chapters earlier, for instance, then it should not be too confusing for the reader to be thrown into that fight once it is well underway. The downside with using this opening too much is that the story will become a patchwork, jumping forward a lot and then retreating to explain the missing parts in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back manner. Overuse can also mean that the narrative cause-and-effect is continually reversed, so that the reader is left with seeing lots of effect without having a good understanding of why things have happened. To get around this, the writer has to use exposition to fill in the blanks because they did not take the time to explain things as they were going along.

A variant of this approach is the opening line of dialogue. Having a character say something is a nice and simple way of kicking off a scene. This works well if you don’t envisage there being a lot of dialogue in the opening. Why’s that? Because at some point you will still have to tell the reader where the characters are and what they are doing. It comes around to the backtracking I just mentioned, and if done too late the dialogue is left hanging in a vacuum, a conversation without context; but if there’s ongoing dialogue it will get broken up by the description of the scene and lose its flow. Often writers will get around this by drip-feeding the description of the scene and characters through the dialogue. This can work well if what the characters are saying and doing merge together naturally and the dialogue is used to segue into the description.

For instance, the characters may have arrived at a new location. One of them says, “Well, would you look at that.” This gives the writer a route to describe what to look at. That’s a crude example, but by having characters interact with their environment, the dialogue and description can blend together.

This is not a good approach if the dialogue is very important. If you want the reader to concentrate on what the characters are saying, it’s not a good idea to be constantly interrupting their focus with snippets of other information or dropping in a big block of description part-way through. For this reason, one of the best methods of opening a scene is with simple description.

“It was a dark and stormy night…” is a cliché, but its heart is in the right place. There is nothing wrong or lazy about opening a scene with a paragraph or two that does the simple job of describing the setting, the present characters and their actions. Just remember that the description is not purely a one-way dump of information for the benefit of the writer; there may be purely mechanical requirements of time and place but that does not preclude being evocative or talking about the characters. It is possible to mix up this description, so that the physical is related alongside the emotional, laying out not only the place but the state of the characters and their relationship to their surroundings. Don’t just describe the front of the haunted house as the characters walk up the path, describe their sensations and feelings as they do so. Our experience of our environment is only a small part physical, our perception constructed also on emotion, memory and motive.

Lastly, there is narrative voice, or what might be called an info-dump or exposition. A lot of writing guides will tell people to avoid these at all costs, but frankly they are wrong. Sometimes the best way to move the reader along to the cool part of the scene is to be up front about what’s happened, how we got here and why. I say this not because pages full of exposition are good writing, but because pages full of pointless dialogue and action trying not be exposition are not good writing either.

We’ve all come across those sections in stories where the characters are clearly talking to each other about something that they would have no need to discuss in-world, purely for the benefit of explaining things to the reader. It’s poor. As a writer, do not be afraid of your narrative voice. You are not restricted to using characters as your mouthpiece. If the army had to stay in camp for twelve days because of blizzards, just tell the reader and get on with the cool stuff, don’t labour the point by having a whole scene of characters in a blizzard talking about how they can’t do anything. If you are going to include that scene, it has to have some impact on the story greater than conveying a piece of simple information – back to what I said at the start about each scene adding to setting and characters as well as plot.

Gear Up and Roll Out

Having identified the objectives of the mission, you have a number of tools at your disposal to achieve them. The perspective you take, the amount of dialogue, the style and quantity of description all perform different tasks to better or worse effect. Choosing which tools to use is at the heart of writing.

One huge consideration is the matter of perspective. The whole story may have a generally applied perspective which must be adhered to – first-person being a prime example – but even with third-person the style of perspective used, or the number of different perspectives employed, alter the scope of the scene considerably. In general, the more personal the scene, the narrower the perspective; the larger the scene, the more omniscient the voice or the more numerous the character perspectives required. In short, if you’re inside the character’s head the reader will be getting a very narrow, personal view of events, which is good for depth but not for breadth, unless your character is in the advantageous position of having a good view of what’s going on. On the flip side, a wide-angle lens of the scene gives good overview but tends to gloss over the finer points of what the characters are doing.

It is possible to shift perspectives within a scene, though think long and hard about this, and whether the change of perspective is in fact a change of scene. I think very visually, almost cinematically about scenes. Changes of perspective can be achieved by imagining a mental camera pointed at the action. It can move around and show different things, but it also has a zoom function. As an example, one of my first short stories, The Faithful Servant, starts by following a flock of carrion birds over the aftermath of a battle, spiralling down until the protagonist comes into view, at which point his perspective can take over. Conversely, you might start with a close-up shot (remember that’s emotionally as well as physically in terms of description), which then opens out to reveal the wider scene; which in turn could then shift on to somebody else.

Choose how to reveal the information within the scene appropriately. It is at this point that the show-don’t-tell maxim starts to make itself felt. Once your perspective has settled on a narrower front, the characters’ words and actions become the description, showing how they feel as well as what they are doing. Don’t over-qualify by showing something and then telling the reader the same thing. If a character is crying, you don’t have to mention that they are sad. If they are laughing, it literally goes without saying that they are amused.

Just as each scene has its part to play in the overall story, each line of description, each exchange of dialogue should serve to either enrich the setting, move the plot along or develop the reader’s sense of the characters. In particular, when writing dialogue remember subtext and the simple fact that real people often don’t say exactly what they mean or precisely what they are thinking. You can use this to build internal conflict, as characters show their feelings or hide them, have moments of honesty or deception. What they say, what they do and what they think may be contradictory, and as the narrator you manipulate this to paint the picture you want the reader to see; you can choose to give the reader information the characters are not privy to; you can outright misdirect your reader; you can present different versions of events from one scene to another. As a writer, you are not beholden to explain everything; just enough will do nicely.

Get to the Choppa!

One of the greatest challenges I face when writing is not how to start, but how to stop. Having identified your objectives, chosen the right tools, you hit the ground running and execute a perfect scene. The only problem is how you get out of their before it goes pear-shaped. Having an effective exit strategy means that you end the scene where you want to; it doesn’t drag on past its usefulness and it doesn’t get cut short before the job has been done.

All of the comments about starting a scene apply equally to ending one. The final line of dialogue, the last poignant description, the parting comment or cliffhanger make an incredible difference. Whether the scene ends on a high or a low, on a dramatic revelation or a moment of conclusion, all ties in to what the scene was about. The way you end the scene will probably have more impact than they way you started it, because it is the final impression left on the reader before you move elsewhere.

For this reason, the chosen exit strategy must be based firmly on the objectives you set out to accomplish. Do you want to make the reader sad? End on a low point, everybody in tears, the future bleak. Do you want to shock the reader? End with something unexpected and then get the hell out of there. Do you want the reader to be contemplative, concerned, laughing, relaxed, tense? The final few lines will reinforce your efforts throughout the previous scene if done well, and completely undermine it if chosen poorly.

And with that, I shall leave you to ponder…

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Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 1:22 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for the ‘sand table’ walk through. 8) It has given me some “food to chew on”, and i appreciate you taking the time to share it with us.

  2. Very good post! It’s really helpful for me especially as I’m currently struggling with the last part, how to end something. It’s sometimes difficult when you’ve become attached to characters, I find, to end the story, as you feel that they haven’t ‘done enough’ yet. Thanks for some more exceptional writing advice.

  3. That may have been the best use of “all pear-shaped” I’ve seen around–with the scene literally bloating out swelling beyond its bounds, as I saw it.

    Excellent post, Herr Thorpe. Snappy and succinct, yet chock full of useful wisdom and examples. There may not have been much that I hadn’t already figured out with my own dabbling in the craft of writing in here, but the synthesis of it all, collected and in one place, makes it invaluable. It’s for stuff like this that I keep on wandering back here.

    Well, this and the exciting news.

    Phalanx must be proud!

  4. [...] the craft of writing, and the things I’ve learned since starting out as a neophyte with BL. Gav Thorpe beat me to it, though, and as he’s been at this game a lot longer than me, I reckon [...]


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