[Note: this is part-1 of a two part series]
Something that a lot of writing books don’t teach beginnings writers is how to write a scene.
It sounds counter-intuitive. Aren’t scenes the basic building blocks of fiction?
But there are a lot of tools that you need to learn in order to write a scene at all: characters, dialogue, setting, conflict, motivation, how to write complete sentences…
The fact is, learning how to write well is a lot. A lot of everything. And a lot of the things that you can do sort of by instinct, you can’t do on purpose, at least not at first. So the question of “how to structure a scene” gets pushed back for “someday you’ll need to learn this…but not today.”
I reached the point of “someday” several years ago, in 2012. Taking the advice of longtime professional writer Dean Wesley Smith, I started noting down story structure and typing in what didn’t make sense (which was a lot).
What I’ve noticed is that almost every scene, barring those in some very experimental literary novels, uses very similar tools, repeated in different combinations. You may have heard of them: beginnings, middles, and endings.
The beginning of a scene contains all the information the reader needs to know in order to comprehend the scene that follows. No more, and no less. This information includes the setting, character, and situation in enough detail that a reader can pick up the book after six months and be able to resume reading—with pleasure!
Because writers spend so much care and attention reading books, they tend to assume that other readers spend a lot of care and attention on reading. Alas, most readers only read about four books a year, or about one book every three months. And they forget stuff.
The beginning of a scene should establish new characters, new settings, and new situations in enough detail that the reader feels like they have left this reality and entered into the book. The beginning of a scene should also re-establish continuing characters, settings, and situations in enough detail that a reader who has put the book down can quickly get back up to speed.
There are three tricks to this:
• Use a lot of sensory detail from the character’s point of view.
• Only use the POV character’s observations and attitudes in the scene; nothing that fits the writer but not the character can remain.
• Don’t repeat the exact same details for re-establishing character, setting, and situation.
You don’t need to write a lot of details. If the details are accurate, consistent, based on concrete sense details (and not vague, lazy generalizations), and have variety, the details can quickly yank a wayward reader back into the story.
The middle of the scene contains the conflict. In the beginning, you tell the reader what sort of conflict to expect. In the middle, you carry out that conflict.
There are several tools you can use to carry out conflict. These are the ones I know about:
• The character tries to do something and fails. (“Try/fail” is often used as a blanket term for all of these types of conflict.)
• The character tries to do something, succeeds, and things still get worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
• The character tries to do something and is interrupted. (Interrupt.)
• The character tries to do something, but the outcome isn’t known yet. (Suspense.)
Each one of these elements, you will note, keeps the character on the hook somehow—and keeps the reader wanting to find out what will happen.
A scene can consist of one lengthy conflict, several shorter conflicts, one long and one short, and so on. A fight scene might have a dozen short conflicts as the fighters try, then discard, different tactics. A scene in which two old lovers try to convince each other that they don’t love each other anymore might be a dozen pages long.
If you’re paying close attention, you may notice that each separate conflict in a scene has its own beginning, middle, and end—the same way that in a good movie, you’ll see shots of characters standing around in the scene so you know who’s in the room and where. A fight scene that’s just a blur of weapons and movement gets to be old very quickly.
Click here for Part-2
DeAnna Knippling has two minor superpowers: speed-reading and babble. She types at over 10,000 words per minute and can make things up even faster than that. She has been officially constrained from drinking Ovaltine per her doctor’s orders since a tragic incident involving a monopoly game, a blender, a cemetery, and a school play at age eight. Her first job was hunting snipe for her father at twenty-five cents per head, with which she paid her way through college; her latest job involves a non-disclosure agreement, a dozen hitmen, a ballerina, a snowblower, three very small robots, and a disposable dictator in South America. If she told you which movie was based on her life, she’d have to kill you. Her cover job is that of freelance writer, editor, and designer living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her husband, daughter, cat, more than one cupboard full of various condiments, and many shelves full of the very best books. She has her own indie small press, www.WonderlandPress.com, and her website is www.DeAnnaKnippling.com.