The Building Blocks of Scene

Image: a long line of people with shopping carts
Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash

Today’s post is the first in a three-part series by Sharon Oard Warner, adapted from her book Writing the Novella. Read part two here and part three here.

Imagine you’re standing in the express line at your favorite grocery store. 

On your way inside, you bypassed the cart corral. Now, as you wait at the tail end of a longish line, you’re regretting it. Here you are: juggling a frozen pizza, a cucumber, and a package of paper napkins. Tucked under one arm is a weighty glass bottle of Merlot and under the other, a bottle of red wine vinaigrette.

Overhead, the fluorescent lights flicker. The line isn’t moving, and you are weary. You close your eyes for maybe a second, and when you open them again, a whip-thin, tattooed man has slipped in line ahead of you, a jar of pickles pressed to his chest. The young woman queued up behind you hisses over your shoulder:

“So, are you going to let that go?” Her question is loud enough for bystanders to hear.

The interloper’s back stiffens. He cocks his head and makes an odd clicking noise with his tongue that sounds menacing.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” asks the strident young woman. Is she addressing you or the interloper? From the front of the line, half a dozen faces swivel in your direction.  You feel yourself blushing. If there’s anything you hate, it’s for someone to make a scene, especially when you are forced to be part of it.

Making a scene on the page

Reflect now on what your mother meant when she said, “Don’t make a scene.”  She was asking/pleading with you not to do anything in public that would draw the attention of others. If there aren’t bystanders on hand to gawk, well, it isn’t really a scene. Note that “making a scene” need not be embarrassing or distressing, though that’s usually the case. Sometimes, a public display is carefully orchestrated—as in attention-getting marriage proposals and flash mob performances. The common denominator in all these situations, be they negative or positive, is emotion. Whatever is experienced by the participants—fear, jealousy, embarrassment, awe—is transferred to the audience.  Such experiences tend to be memorable.

Scenes are the building blocks of narrative, regardless of the form that narrative takes. Anyone who writes short stories, novellas, novels, memoirs, screenplays or dramatic plays must be proficient in crafting compelling scenes. All the significant moments in any narrative get conveyed through scenes. In fact, the decision to write in scene or in summary is decided based on importance. If the event or moment is noteworthy, chances are you will want to develop it through scene. What’s less important ends up being summarized.

As someone who has grown up in a culture obsessed with fictional narratives, you have been exposed to hundreds of thousands of scenes—beginning in your babyhood when, if you were lucky, your parents read to you at bedtime. From there, you have learned to read for yourself, and, if you want to write stories, you must have fallen in love with them. You have attended plays, gone to movies, watched television, played video games, all of which are dependent on scenes. So, you know their makeup well. But you have partaken of them, and now you will need to be able to take them apart.

Creating a public display of emotion, one way of describing what it means to “make a scene,” can and often does happen spontaneously, but creating scenes on paper usually requires considerable planning and forethought. In The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer, author Sandra Scofield defines scenes as “those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action.” If the scene is compelling enough, the reader becomes a bystander of sorts, and characters come to life.

The building blocks of scene

Some of what I am about to explain may seem self-evident, but I know from my own experience as a reader and writer of fiction, a creative writing instructor, and a book reviewer, that writing a compelling scene is hard work. I also know that well-constructed, compelling scenes are essential to the success of narrative prose.

So, let’s begin with the basics:

  • All scenes have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
  • Most scenes are preceded by orienting information: who, what, when, where. Readers can’t relax and enjoy the proceedings until they have their bearings.
  • Scenes are composed of action, description, dialogue, and thought. In any given scene, one of these components may well dominate while another recedes. (Think about it: Sometimes, we are doing a lot of talking, other times a lot of thinking.)
  • In general, the longer the scene, the more critical it is to the overall narrative.  Most often, plot point scenes will be among the most developed scenes in any narrative.
  • Readers enjoy scenes more than they enjoy summary. (Don’t believe me? Take note of your reading habits. Do you rush through exposition or page ahead to see when the next scene takes place? Most of us do.)
  • Scenes are rarely provided in their entirety. We writers skip over the niceties—the hellos and goodbyes, the chitchat and weather talk. We use summary as well as other techniques to fast-forward, slow down, or pause.
  • Longer fictional narratives will usually include one or more scene sequences. A sequence is a group of three or more related scenes that take the narrator/protagonist through a significant piece of action. An excellent example of a sequence is the opening of Fahrenheit 451. Montag burns books, is surprised on his way home by Clarice, discovers his unconscious wife, calls the EMTs, and finally takes a lozenge himself to get to sleep. As in this example, sequences will themselves have a beginning, middle, and end.
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