Scenes are the basic building blocks of a novel. Like bricks in a wall, if you build them in the right order, you end up with a solid structure. But the same bricks can be used to build a functional out-house, or a thing of beauty. So just how do you construct a scene that works beautifully? [Wall picture]
You have an idea for a scene in your story? Great, just dive in and write your heart out. When you’ve finished you sit back and relax, right?
Wrong. Only after you’ve finished that initial first draft does the real work start. Now you need to knock it into shape by editing.
Writing is not really in the act of putting pen to paper, or tapping out characters on a blank screen; the art of writing is in the editing and re-writing.
In the early days of writing I attended a local writer’s conference. In one workshop I was told, by a moderately successful author, that when you finish writing all your scenes you shuffle round the order of the scenes until it makes a good story. I didn’t agree with that view then and I fundamentally disagree with it now.
Stories are no more a collection of random scenes, than scenes are a set of random actions or dramas.
Scene are stories.
Each scene is a mini story in its own right, so to work properly, just like any story, each scene must have, as a bare minimum, a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Or to put it another way every scene needs a three line plot. This consists of:
- A premise – what is the scene about.
- A complication (one per scene) – (But) what difficulty do the characters have to overcome and how do they overcome this complication.
- A trigger – How overcoming the complication triggers the next complication that needs to be overcome in the next scene.
Too formulaic for you? That’s fine, stop reading right here.
There are many ways to create stories – this just happens to be what works form me. I could be extremely odd and unique in the way I tackle stories, but given the feedback I get from people who reader this site, I prefer to think I’m just one of a type: the planner/process type of writer. If you like to construct stories the way I do, then you might just find something useful or helpful – I will be thrilled if you do.
For a more complicated scene I prefer to use a variation on the classic eight-part story arc. Each chapter may be a single scene which follows this story arc, or may comprise of several simpler scenes, each with a beginning. Middle, and end, that together form the story arc.
First, a quick reminder of the classic eight-part story arc:
Stasis: The way things are now, particularly the way the Protagonist is now – perhaps lovelorn.
Trigger: Something happens to kick the story into motion – maybe a new boy arrives at school.
Quest: This causes the Protagonist to go in search of something – treasure, love or acceptance maybe.
Complication: The Protagonist meets one or more obstacles on the journey which have to be overcome – perhaps a competitor or a love rival (Personified Antagonist) or a situation that pulls them apart (Situational Antagonist).
Choice: The Protagonist has to make difficult decisions to overcome the complications (Protagonist decides to confronts the Antagonist).
Climax: The decisions have consequences which lead to the dramatic highpoint of the story (Protagonist actually confronts the Antagonist).
Reversal: The most important stage of all to create a satisfying story and the most often left out – Show what changes the quest, complication(s), choice(s), and action(s) have produced. These could be physical or in terms of your protagonist’s character – the Protagonist has stood up to the Antagonist and won/lost, but the love interest switches allegiance out of Admiration/compassion.
Resolution: The way things are now – Protagonist and love interest are deeply in love.
Here is how I adapt the above seven-point story arc to work on a scene basis:
Stasis: You only need to set he scene again if time has moved on from the last scene or the action has moved to a new location or a new character. For instance, where the first scene of a chapter does not follow on directly from the last scene of the previous chapter, though, even if it does it is still useful sometimes to summarize.
Trigger: If the flow of your scenes is working right (more about scene flow below) the trigger for this scene should have been in the previous scene for this character or situation.
Quest: What is the scene protagonist looking for in this scene. Different scenes can have different protagonist and antagonists. This is where the sub-plots and side characters live out their own stories in a novel. I always like to plan this out in advance so I know who is doing what when.
Complication: Every scene needs a complication or a difficulty, however minor, to be overcome by somebody. The complication or difficulty will have been set in a previous scene or be the consequence of what happened in a previous scene.
Choice: One character, in each scene, will make at least a minor choice of some sort, even if it is just a choice to take action, allow an emotion or feel a feeling. Make sure you show that choice to your reader as this is part of each character’s individual development.
Climax: The high point in the action, drama or emotion, normally near the end of the scene.
Reversal: Not normally necessary for a scene unless the scene is all about a character’s critical choice and its consequences. Every character should have some sort of story to tell as part of the novel. This could be show as scenes in a flash back that led to the stasis of the story, or be part of a sub-plot that interweaves with the main plot. One thing I like to do, is focus on the personal story or development of a side character over half a dozen scene or more. Somewhere in that mini story arc will be a critical choice, reversal, and new stasis for that character. Sometimes the character change will be so subtle is it hardly noticeable, but this sort of detail all adds to the depth of the novel and helps [build meaning into your story].
Trigger: Unlike the overall Story Arc, most scenes end not with a Resolution, but with the trigger for the next scene in the character’s scene flow. This keeps the story moving and the reader turning the pages. The trigger would normally by a consequence of the complication or difficulty tackled in the scene. If it is the last scene in a chapter, then classically the trigger could be a cliff-hanger to the first scene in the next chapter or the next scene involving that character. Crucially, you must have a good grasp of your scene flows.
If you are anything like me, once you have an idea of where your story is going, you will probably have started to write out some of the key scenes along the story arc. Let’s face it, that’s the fun part; that’s why we write.
Now you need to tie all the scenes together and plan how you are going to get from one scene major scene to another. The key thing to remember is that every scene in a story arc, subplot, or character development, except the first, must be the direct consequence of what happened in another scene. Often this is the scene before it, but not always.
If you can’t work out a particular scene flow then work backwards. What has to happen in scene Y in order for scene Z to happen, what has to happen in scene X for scene Y to happen, what needs to happen in scene W… you get the idea.
Avoid Unexpected Surprises
Another technique used in scene flow is called pre-figuring. In a scene I have just written for my latest book, Coggler’s Brood [link to ch7], the protagonist, Nina Swift, has just tricked someone by pulling out a concealed Derringer (mini pistol) from an inside pocket. This scene is the first time I have mentioned the Derringer, so the possibility of such a trick is nowhere in my readers mind which makes it an unacceptable surprise. I now need to revisit an earlier scene, in which I introduced Nina’s weapons [link to ch 4], and include the Derringer so it is pre-figured into the story.
Hang on a minute; aren’t stories meant to be full of surprises? Yes they are, but the best surprises come either from the twists and turns of your plot or from character choices. The aim of pre-figuring is to make the reader slap their forehead and go, ‘Of course, why didn’t I think of that?’ Which is a much more satisfying response, both for the reader and for the author, than simply springing a surprise.
This technique is also called the Proverbial Shotgun technique. Named after it’s classic use in cowboy westerns films, where in the descriptive shot of a bar scene, the camera happens to zoom in on a shotgun hung behind the bar. The existence of this weapon has now been raised in the consciousness of the viewer, so it MUST be used by the end of the story. If it is not used there is a risk that the viewer, or in your case your reader, will feel deprived or short-changed.
As you are both the creator and editor of your story, it is easy to re-write an earlier scene, as I am doing, to include the shotgun or add in a completely new scene showing your character knows how to use a shotgun.
The Pre-figuring/Proverbial Shotgun technique has an evil twin, called ‘Deus Ex-Machina’ (God out of the machine) – a cheap story device introduced to rescue a failing plot line: If the shotgun is suddenly produced to resolve a critical plot-line, without having been shown first, readers may feel cheated, because they never had the opportunity to anticipate this scene. In my scene from Coggler’s Brood, mentioned above, the Derringer could be considered deus ex-machina, until I have pre-figured it into the story in an earlier scene.
So if your character is suddenly going to jump on a waste cart to escape a horde of flesh-eating zombies, it is always best to show the characters doing something with the waste cart in an earlier scene.
Secrets of the Scene Brief
We all have aspects of writing we are good at and other areas we need to work on. The Scene Brief is a writing process borrowed from script writing that enables me to focus on writing different aspects of my scenes at different times by layering techniques one on top of the other. This is how it works:
- Consult your scene plan, story board, or whatever you are using to keep your novel on track, to remind you of the key elements of your scene.
- Re-read the previous scene that triggers this scene.
- Write the first draft of your scene just as it comes to you. Put the scene aside for a bit before going on to the next step.
- Re-read your scene plan, story board, or whatever you are using to keep your novel on track, to remind you of the key elements of your scene.
- Next work through the technical aspects of the scene filling out any of the steps of the story arc, character arcs, or sub-plots you missed, and rearranging any elements of the scene to make it flow correctly.
- Re draft your scene, packing in as much color and description as you can using all five senses, together with characters’ thoughts and feelings. Also, add in as many similes, metaphors, and back-story as you can – you won’t use all this material in your final draft, but you will be surprised how much you do use. Editing stuff out is much easier than editing stuff in.
- I like to write visually, so I add in an additional layer where I include camera instructions – zoom in for this detail, swing round to catch that action, pan out for the whole picture. For a zoom I slow the action down and add in the detail from the scene brief, for a pan shot I edit out most of the detail and write with a broad brush.
- Finally, bring it all together by reading the scene out loud: cutting out any excess action, description, similes, metaphors etc and editing for spelling, grammar, and word/sentence flow.
I hate reading aloud my own work, especially when my family are around – which is most of the time. Instead, I copy and paste the scene/chapter into a word document on my laptop (I normally write in Scrivener), and use the free text to voice function to read back my work for me using an earpiece. See my Fast Writing Process article or Infographic for more detail.
Sound rather labored? It is, but any craft is labored until you become proficient in it. The more you practice layering your scenes like this, the more natural the scene brief technique becomes, and the more the layers coalesce. Having started writing scenes using this clunky process, I can now get all of this detail into three passes for each scene/chapter: draft, pack & correct, final sound edit.
I would love to hear what techniques you use. Share the knowledge by leaving comments on this page.
How do you plan your scenes or make them flow?
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