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The Scene Defined

90 Days to Your Novel author Sarah Domet discusses scene construction.

Writing a novel is a bit like cooking a gourmet meal.

You know you must include your individual ingredients: character, plot, setting, conflict, dialogue, action, etc. But how do you know how to throw them all together? What balance must you strike to achieve the right flavor?

How will you put all these elements of your novel together in order to shape it? How do you draw out character traits and plot conflicts in a convincing and compelling way? How will you balance these elements to achieve novelistic harmony? The first step toward turning your outline into a first draft is acknowledging that novels are written scene by scene (by scene by scene, etc.).

The Scene Defined
Think of your favorite movie. Or better yet, your favorite book. What was your favorite part? Did you say the part in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when Tom returns to hilariously watch his own funeral? How about the part in The Lovely Bones, the knockout success by Alice Sebold, when protagonist Susie returns to Earth from Heaven to occupy Ruth’s body and finally kiss Ray Singh, the boy she almost
loved when alive? How about the part in Uncle Tom’s Cabin when little Eva—that heavenly angel—passes out locks of her hair before she dies? If you thought of a movie, do you remember the part in the movie Braveheart when William Wallace yells, “Freedom!” to a crowd of astonished onlookers? Or how about the part in Spider-Man when the masked hero first saves the life of Mary Jane? The two then share that famous upside-down kiss when Mary Jane rolls up half of that mask. (The magic here is that it feels relatively
normal—for the viewer—to want Mary Jane to kiss a strange man dressed in a full-body spider suit.)

All these “parts” mentioned above are actually just a single scene from each of these works. But what is a scene? How does one define it? Scene writing is often difficult to discuss—for both new and seasoned writers—because a scene combines all elements of fiction in harmony with one another. It isn’t just one aspect of craft—it’s all of them put together, artfully and thoughtfully, to achieve the same
kind of balance you hope for in that extravagant dish you prepare for your dinner guests. And how much of any single element (dialogue, setting, description, etc.) you need is going to depend on the particular purpose of the scene within the larger scope of your novel.

Consider this excerpt of a scene from the American classic The Great Gatsby, which has been labeled [in brackets] to show its discrete scene components:

I stayed late that night. [Establishes first-person POV] Gatsby asked me to wait until he was free and I lingered in the garden until the inevitable swimming party had run up, chilled and exalted, from the black beach, until the lights were extinguished in the guest rooms overhead. [Description of setting] When he came down the steps at last the tanned skin was drawn unusually tight on his face, and his eyes were bright and tired. [Character description]
“She didn’t like it,” he said immediately. [Dialogue]
“Of course she did.” [Dialogue]
“She didn’t like it,” he insisted. “She didn’t have a good time.”
He was silent and I guessed at his unutterable depression. [Description of action; Interior or indirect thoughts of
narrator; Emotion]
“I feel far away from her,” he said. “It’s hard to make her understand.” [Dialogue that characterizes (Gatsby is sensitive, longs for Daisy); Conflict (Gatsby can’t have Daisy)]
“You mean about the dance?” [Dialogue]
“The dance?” He dismissed all the dances he had given with a snap of his fingers. “Old sport, the dance is unimportant.” [Dialogue, Emotion]
He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago. [Emotion; Interior thoughts; Character history]

In this brief snippet of a scene from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, the reader learns a great deal in a short space about Gatsby’s deep longing for the unattainable Daisy. We learn that he’s trying to impress her with his parties; we learn that he’s failed; we understand the inherent conflict that presents itself at the core of the novel (unrequited love, a desire to return to the past); we learn that the first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, can often only guess at the interior thoughts of the protagonist, Jay Gatsby. And that tells us something, too, about how the novel is narrated to us, the reader. We hear the characters speak, directly from their own mouths; we know a bit about the setting, the plot, and the conflict—and even a bit about the backstory. And all of this, amazingly, in the span of approximately two hundred words! Now that’s the epitome of compartmental, and compact, writing—a delicate balancing act in which Fitzgerald juggles several components of fiction. Bravo, Scotty, you master of the novel.

All scenes must work to do something in your novel. By that, I mean: All scenes must have a distinct function and purpose within the larger narrative arc of your novel. Think of scenes as the individual bricks that comprise the house of your novel. Or as the single pearls that, strung together, form a beautiful necklace. Or how about the individual notes that combine to create a beautiful melody. Or
the days that form the month, or the weeks that shape a year. Or … or … We have an endless store of metaphors at our fingertips. Pick one you like.

Scene writing, however, is where writing your novel can get tricky, as the writer must master the art of gazing outward and downward, a bit like a quarterback, who is constantly looking both at his immediate surroundings, peripherally, so that he doesn’t get sacked by the defense, while his eyes are focused downfield for the pass. You, too, must always keep your eyes in two places at once: the
micro (the scene) and the macro (the novel). It is essential to constantly consider how each of the “parts” of your novel influences the overall trajectory of your plot and character development.

The poet William Blake unwittingly gives the novelist a bit of advice in his poem “Auguries of Innocence.” The poem’s first line could be speaking directly about the scene itself: “To see the world in a grain of sand.” What Blake means by this is that even something as miniscule as a grain of sand tells us something about the world at large. Or, to put it another way, the part reveals—or at least hints at—the whole. A scene works to accomplish just that; by showing your reader only part of the character, the plot, the action, and the development, you are working to reveal a larger, more intricate picture. Consider, for a moment, our example above from The Great Gatsby. In this brief excerpt, we can intuit what Gatsby is really like as a character. For one, he’s the kind of individual who would use the phrase “old sport,”
certainly antiquated now, but clearly situating Gatsby in the 1920s era of the novel. We know that Gatsby is hosting a party; yet he cares only for the one opinion that matters most to him: Daisy’s. With this scene, this small grain of sand, Fitzgerald provides a glimpse of the entire novel, hinting at both Gatsby’s desperation, his romantic nature, his obsessive personality, and, sadly, his ultimate demise.

Another literary master, Ernest “Papa” Hemingway, once famously noted, “If it is any use to know it, I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.” What Hemingway is talking about here, of course, is subtext. A well-crafted scene shows the reader only a fraction of what he needs to know, and leaves it up to him or her to intuit the rest. We know that Gatsby is a wealthy, 1920s-era fellow because he uses the phrase “old sport.” Fitzgerald didn’t need to tell us this directly. “Old sport” is also a term of endearment that reveals Gatsby’s affection for his young friend Nick. How might Gatsby have been perceived if he called Nick “old buddy, old pal” or “bud” or “Nicky”? In that case, Gatsby
certainly wouldn’t be Gatsby, now, would he?

I encourage you to think of each individual scene as an opportunity to reveal to your reader some new aspect of your character or your plot. So, for instance, if in one scene of The Great Gatsby we learn of Jay Gatsby’s lavish, though vacuous, parties, his fancy shirts, and his ornately decorated bachelor pad, in another chapter we may learn that he cares little for these things, instead devoting his emotions fully to Daisy, the one possession his money can’t buy.

With each scene you write, you should be able to answer the following questions:

• What is the goal/purpose for the scene?
• What characters are involved in this scene, and are they all necessary?
• What is at stake for my protagonist in this scene?
• What is the main conflict in this scene?
• How does this scene further develop my novel’s plot?

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