Good Scenes Require Specifics

Image: in a darkened space, a light illuminates a woman's eye gazing intently.
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Today’s post is the second in a three-part series by Sharon Oard Warner, adapted from her book Writing the Novella. Read part one here and part three here.

“You can’t write a novel all at once, any more than you can swallow a whale in one gulp. You do have to break it up into smaller chunks. But those smaller chunks aren’t good old familiar short stories. Novels aren’t built out of short stories. They are built out of scenes.” —Orson Scott Card

Scenes are about emotion and action; to elicit either one, you need specifics. Think about it: nothing happens in a vacuum. In my own experience, a long line at the grocery store is made more vexing by a lack of planning. Entering the store in a hurry, I have often bypassed the cart because my intention was only to buy an item or two. Most often, though, I pick up half a dozen “necessities” and arrive at the end of the cashier’s line with groceries tucked under my chin. Suppose I have a cold and have to cough or sneeze? Then what?

Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t imagine a bottle of merlot tucked in your protagonist’s armpit at the beginning of the scene, she can’t drop and break it at the end.

Preparation is key

Before you begin drafting a scene, take a few minutes to think through the specifics. A little preparation will make a big difference in the way your scene unfolds. In his excellent book, The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray describes what he calls a “Story Board.” Included are orienting details such as time and place, temperature and season, sounds, and smells. Additionally, Ray suggests making notes as to the characters involved in the scene, the subjects of the conversation, and the anticipated climax.

One of the joys of scene-writing is the element of surprise—and surprise for the writer augers surprise for the reader. We writers often learn the most about the characters when they are “on stage,” so to speak. For this reason, you may decide not to plan your scene to its conclusion. You may want to bank on a little inspiration. That said, if you are anything like me, you will be more inspired if you, the writer, have prepared the ground on which your characters stand.

Recently, I taught this technique in a graduate novella workshop, and the students who incorporated a short journaling session before drafting their scenes made noticeable improvements to their writing. One student credited scene preparation as the single biggest change agent in his drafting process. And it only takes a few minutes to brainstorm the specifics.

I recommend making notes, as necessary, on these aspects of scenes.

  • Location, general and specific: In the context of a larger story, where the city is already established, you will only need to specify the place—a bar, say, or a friend’s apartment. However, it’s not enough for the reader to know that the character has entered his best friend’s house. Does he drop onto the living room couch or settle in a kitchen chair? Envision the surroundings, take note of them in your journal. Are there sounds or smells to incorporate?
  • Season/temperature/time of day: Knowing what the weather is like can make a real difference in the texture of the scene. Most of us check the weather before we go out. Characters need to be aware of and subject to the verities of nature, just as readers are.
  • How many characters are present? The reader needs to know about all those who are present. Don’t wait until a character speaks to introduce him or her.
  • What are the characters bringing to this scene? Consider props such as cell phones, umbrellas, purses, pistols, and so forth. More importantly, think about where your characters are coming from and what sort of day they’re having. Often enough, our reactions to others are determined by our overall mood. What has happened earlier in the day can color everything that happens later.
  • What’s the business of this scene? What topics are likely to come up?

If it seems to you that this list is too lengthy, that your favorite writers don’t cover all this territory, I urge you to open a beloved book and scan a few of your favorite scenes for orienting information. See how much of it gets used, and how that information puts you, the reader, at ease. You can relax and enjoy the interactions of the characters because the writer has made sure that you, the reader, are grounded and comfortable.

Building a scene sequence

At major plot points, one scene may not be enough. At these junctures, you will often require something called scene sequences.

The concept of scene sequences will be familiar to anyone who has read or written screenplays as well as to those of us who’ve spent time in dark theaters munching popcorn. Movies are held together by scene sequences of several sorts. The most familiar, perhaps, are those that indicate the passage of time. Imagine this: a burst of fireworks segues to rumbling school buses and then to gusts of autumn leaves. What’s next? Well, of course, the quiet beauty of falling snow.

Syd Field devotes an entire chapter to scene sequences in his boo, Screenplay: The Foundation of ScreenwritingA sequence, he says, “is a whole, a unit, a block of dramatic action, complete unto itself.” Perhaps more to the point for fiction writers, however, is another point he makes, that the sequence is held together by a shared context or situation. In novels and novellas, the climactic scene often requires a change of some sort: in tone or mood, in location or chronology.

Think about the climax of Fahrenheit 451, for instance. Having floated down the river, Montag finds himself in the country, surrounded by itinerant intellectuals. He’s in a place he’s never been with people he doesn’t know, led by a chatty fellow named Granger. This long scene covers an indeterminate amount of time—a day or two or three—until it becomes clear that war is coming to the city. From a distance, the group of men watch as jets appear and drop their bombs.

The concussions that follow throw Montag and the others to the ground, kicking up dust that settles over them. Montag imagines Millie’s last moments and is overcome with grief. Suddenly, he recalls the place they met, something neither of them remembered earlier in the book. The story comes full circle—in the opening pages, Millie nearly died of an overdose; now, in its final pages, she perishes with the rest of the city.

In Fahrenheit 451, the climax scene builds slowly over a dozen pages. The pacing slows as Montag joins this group of likeminded men and acquaints himself with an entirely new environment. The tension builds as jets are spotted in the skies over the city. If you review that long scene sequence, you’ll find the early pages are preparatory, and the later pages conclusive.

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