The Ingredients of Solid Scenes

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OK, OK, so I know this isn’t technically from WD mag on WD Mag Wednesday, but it’s from WD, right? After browsing some of the courses, I pulled this intriguing bit from the Novel Writing: Scene Fundamentals course as a nice breakdown for newer scribes (or as a good refresher) of, well, the key fundamentals of scenes. And as always, a prompt shall follow.


(If you’re interested in this WOW course or other ones, a fresh batch starts tomorrow and can be found here; enter the code JAN10 to grab a friend-of-Promptly 15 percent discount from this course or a slew of others.)


There is no magic formula for a scene. Like a recipe, each scene is going to require different quantities of the ingredients that comprise it, depending on the intention of the scene and the goals of the novel you are writing. To this end, scene writing is simply a breaking down of the different craft elements and an understanding of the way in which they intertwine. Many of you might simply rely on your writerly intuition to accomplish this balance, but for those of us who struggle with the “how much is too much” conundrum, it’s important to provide a clear checklist of what a scene should contain:

* Action: This is perhaps the most fundamental element of a scene. Something has to happen. And that something has to compel the eyeballs, as yours are being compelled now, to scan to the end of each and every sentence. Scenes function a bit as a chain reaction; one scene builds upon another, upon another, upon another until we get a full sense of the world inside your novel—or, as Blake might say, the grains of sand that make up your fictional beach. How is the action of this scene related to the overarching plot of your novel? Are you revealing in this scene that your lawyer, a main character, once considered shy and reclusive by the other characters and your narrator, is really a lecherous cad, making moves on his assistant and astounding the reader with new, unexpected information? Well, you sure can. But how do you do it? Does he call her into his office and make a speech, or does he just act creepy, smell her hair a bit when he thinks she’s not paying attention? Stare at her cleavage when she’s fixing the copier, maybe? Your call. But make it memorable, because this guy is secretive about his creepy activities. His actions might reveal his intentions, whether he wants them to, or not.
* Characters and their baggage: By characters, I don’t simply mean flat, two-dimensional characters. They must have a complex history, desires, and motivations. And by baggage, I mean that your characters must have histories and desires; they must want something—both in the short-term (the scene) and the long-term (the novel/story). A story about a barber in a hair cutting contest is much more interesting if the barber is blind. What stands in your character’s way? What understanding of the character will the reader take away from the scene that will help them decipher the rest of your novel? What will your characters say (dialogue)? And what are they thinking (indirect speech)?
* Setting: Each scene must make the physical setting jump off the page for the reader. What does the terrain look like? Feel like? Smell like? Remember, too, that setting is often used to create a mood or a tone of the scene. A story that begins “on a dark and stormy night” will certainly be darker in tone than one that begins on a “bright and fragrant spring morning.” Our lecherous attorney from Bullet Point Number One might be set most convincingly in a cramped, humid office space, dark and dank enough to make everyone hot and bothered, whether or not they share his sweaty desires. If he’s a twisted creep, after all, chances are he’s not a particularly gifted attorney with a spacious, wood-paneled office and expensive art on the walls. He’s an ambulance chaser with a poor record of catching those ambulances; or maybe he’s a divorce lawyer, but one that isn’t so great at keeping his hands off the merchandise. Does a big sign reading “Dewey, Cheatem, and Howe” light up the entryway in blinking neon? If it does, then that decision is part of your setting.
* Point of View: The POV character functions, in essence, as the reader’s eyes and ears in the fictional world. We see the story through the perspective of that individual character, or, to put in another way, we’re in that character’s “head.” Decide which POV character is the best fit for your scene. Who is going to provide the best perspective, details, and insights? And, importantly, will that character actually be present at your fiction’s critical moments? If you want the climactic courtroom scene to be described, bomb-filled backpack being discovered in the corner and all, your POV detective will need to be in the observer’s gallery of the courtroom. Or maybe the judge should describe the story … you get the picture, but your readers won’t get it if the POV character you’ve created for them can’t be available to them at the right times.
* Conflict: Have you ever listened to someone tell a story that seemed to go on and on and on with no real point or purpose? My Aunt Kathy recently told a story about her neighbor’s cat Pumpkin and how she’s always doing the darndest things. Pumpkin jumps up on window sills and takes naps in the old dog house in the garden. Pumpkin chases rabbits in the yard, and she likes to play with the other neighborhood cat, Sam, who is black and white. Kathy spent a full twelve minutes describing Pumpkin’s coat, which, would you believe, is orange? Have you fallen asleep yet? If not, keep in mind that this is how your scene will read if you have not thought to include a conflict or a complication in the scene. Maybe Aunt Kathy’s neighbor, Bart, is a dog person. Hates cats, as a matter of fact. And Bart doesn’t find Pumpkin’s intrusions into his rabbit farm to be amusing at all. Did Pumpkin’s owner ever actually sign the paperwork for that restraining order against Bart? If not, Pumpkin might be toast. Now you’ve got a conflict worth exploring.
* Text/Subtext: Hemingway once said, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.” What he means is that if what you’ve written is written carefully, your reader will be able to read further into your story, beyond what is immediately written. The adage “less is more” is useful when writing your scenes. Don’t give too much away; practice the art of subtlety. Remember, you are learning to trust your readers to read closely, to intuit that your antagonist is evil because of his dark and penetrating eyes or his menacing looks.



Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

A thud.
On the plane, everyone looks around.
Another thud.
And another.
Then, a knocking from below.


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