Saturday, June 18, 2011

What Makes a Scene?

A Charleston Scene
A scene is one connected and sequential action. The scene should advance the plot and develop the characters. It must have consequences. What happens as a result of this scene? How would the story be affected if the scene were left out? If the story remains the same, the scene should probably be deleted.
Four questions need to be answered at the beginning of a scene:
1. When—the current time and, unless it’s the opening, how this scene relates in time to the preceding scene
2. Who—the reader needs to know whose POV this scene is in and who is affected by the event in the scene.
3. Where—the physical setting, so it isn't floating in space.
4. What—the problem/event that will change the status quo (This is definitely needed early in an opening scene, but it can be more subtle in later scenes)
Shem Creek Scene
Based on number 4, the affected character needs to be faced with a decision. This is what  makes the hook. How does the character react to the problem? Fight or flight? Does seven-year old Lucy run home to Mama or does she decide to do something about the bully next door? She can run now but a strong character usually decides to act. She may resolve to carry her father’s brass knuckles or take martial arts lessons as long as her decision is to act. 
Each scene should have a goal.  It may not be known to the character, but should be known to the writer. The scene must also have conflict and build toward some future event.
If there is a break in time or point of view, a new scene is required. If I said
With the phone tucked under her chin, Janet poured the casserole into the dish and continued talking. She shoved it into the oven, nodding as she listened to her friend.
 She opened the door to find Bill with his arms full of packages.
This is jarring and makes us wonder if we missed something.
But if the break is very short, a change in location or time may be handled with a transition, such as
With the phone tucked under her chin, Janet poured the casserole into the dish and continued talking. She shoved it into the oven, nodded, and hung up the phone.
A few minutes later, she opened the door to find Bill with his arms full of packages. Her stomach knotted. Another shopping binge. How would she pay for it all?
A scene at Boone Hall
This shows a brief time lapse, but we are still in Janet’s POV in mostly continuous action. It could be a new scene or continue the current one if the scene with Bill is related to the phone conversation or the earlier part of the scene in some way.

What are your thoughts on scenes and scene changes? Does some common practice bother you? How do you handle new scenes?
By the way, the pictures have nothing to do with the blog.--just scenes from my recent, lovely week of travels.


Polly said...

I'm faced with a difficult change of scenes because three weeks pass in my story, and I don't want to write those three weeks. I sub-headed the time change under the chapter heading, but I wish there were some less obvious way to do it.

bj said...

As a reader who is not a writer, I find your attention to the writing process simply fascinating. Of course those inappropriate jumps in a scene have annoyed me. Now I know why. Letting us go backstage and watch the writer's process is a great favor to the reader. Watching a writer's mind at work is like peering through the fence at one of those huge big city construction sites. Oh! So that's how it's done.

Ellis Vidler said...

Polly, why not say something like "The next three weeks passed quietly, and then the dam broke (or whatever)"? I know you can think of something good.

BJ, first, let me correct you--you ARE a writer, a good one. I think you lack confidence and are too easily discouraged. But thank you for the nice words.

Sandy Cody said...

You have a real knack for breaking the process down in a concise, easy to understand manner. Good job.

I'm editing a ms. I thought I had finished and am adding brief scenes at the beginning of some chapters from the victim's POV. I don't want much, just enough to make the reader understand his life and death, so they're too short for a chapter of their own. Like Polly, I'm putting in a date whenever I switch. One day, I think it's brilliant, the next, a confused mess. Ah, the joys of revision!

Ellis Vidler said...

Sandy, don't we all have those moments? When what we've written goes from wonderful to wretched in a flash? You're right--the joys of revision.

Writing this blog forces me to think things through and clarify what I think. I have something in mind, but then when I write it, it gets muddled.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Ellis,

Each point you've made is excellent and helpful to other writers.

jenny milchman said...

This is a great post--reminds me of Jack Bickham on SCENE AND STRUCTURE (he's one of my favorite writers on writing). I love the picture scenes, too!

Ellis Vidler said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. I need constant reminders for myself. It's so easy to slip off the track.

Jenny, That's something I've missed. I'll have to look for for it. Thanks.

Vicki Lane said...

Excellent post -- love the four points!

Ellis Vidler said...

Thanks, Vicki. I need to post them over my computer.

Anonymous said...

My husband, who is also a writer, and I were talking the other night about conflict - in fiction, that is. And how each scene moves the story along. It is so easy to have a scene just because it is good and we like it, but if a scene doesn't really contribute, it doesn't have a part in the novel. Sometimes this can be difficult to face, especially when we are fond of it.

Star said...

Very interesting Ellis. I love to read a scene, whether it moves the story on or not (LOL). I just love descriptive passages. If we don't put them in, then how do we understand past times? Your four points are very informative.

Ellis Vidler said...

Star, sorry I didn't see this till now.
I often have to go back and add more description. I'm inclined to gloss over it the first few times around, but in places it really adds to the scene. It takes me a while to see the holes--and the muck.

Ellis Vidler said...

Rebecca, that's one of the hardest things, to accept that it doesn't have a place and delete a scene you love. Mine are called Outtakes and I keep them in a file for each book. Once in a while I find a need and can resurrect one in some form in another story.