Deeper Thinking About Writing Your Scenes

by Larry Brooks

Deeper than what, you might fairly ask?

Perhaps, deeper than you’re thinking about them now. Because too often, newer writers (in particular) begin writing a scene without a clear intention for that scene. As a means of discovery (finding and vetting story options), this can be viable and legit…

… but unless you rethink and recast the scene once you do understand the purpose of a particular scene – its mission, if you will – chances are that scene will become a liability.

New writers tend to forget that next step.  The scene rambles, then it finds (perhaps stumbles upon) its purpose… then it’s on to the next scene.

If you have a bunch of scenes created this way, you may have tanked the whole novel on this one issue of craft alone.

Scene writing is its own core competency, separate from – yet every bit as essential as – the other primary core competencies you need to manifest: 1) a conceptually-rich premise, 2) character, 3) theme, 4) structure and 5) writing voice, including dialogue and the general nature of your narrative.

That’s six core competencies (categorically) in all.

If this was an athletic contest of some kind, scene writing would be where you actually manifest your skills and instincts on the field/court itself, while the others reside in the realm of preparation and training, strategy and game plan, teamwork and aggression.

Obvious? If you could read enough manuscripts under development, you’d see that it isn’t.

One of the stories I was coaching recently had this little wrinkle: the main character’s quest was interrupted by a flashback scene showing the hero as a boy delivering newspapers, falling off his bike and being laughed at by a group of girls standing on the opposite corner.

Then the reader was taken right back in the thick of the hunt for the adult hero’s blackmailer.

That little flashback was actually well done, but it was like a helping of turkey sage dressing plopped onto the plate that was otherwise a steak dinner. I kept waiting for it to connect to the main dramatic spine of the story.

I read on. And on. It never did.

I asked the writer why this scene was even in the story.  He said it was there because he loved it. This had actually happened to him, back in the day, and he’d never forgotten it. Yeah, I countered, but why is it in this story, in which the hero has no adult issues with women laughing at him, or with any childhood issues at all?

He said he thought it contributed to characterization. He said he thought it was cool.

It didn’t. It wasn’t. It a distraction, the slamming of a Pause button. His answer to my question was a defensive scramble, a rookie rationalization, rather than logic that fit into the professional level of craft understanding.

You know that truism about killing your darlings? This was a case study for that.

The scene didn’t have a purpose in this story. It was strategically indefensible. It contributed nothing to narrative exposition… which is something that all of our scenes must accomplish (with a caveat that this contribution may read differently in the contextually-unique opening setup scenes, an awareness of which is a subtlety that separates new writers from proven pros).

Scenes are, by definition, strategic in nature.  

When a story works, its scenes have a reason to be.  A purposeful mission to fulfill. And, a context that helps define the mission based on where it resides within the story.

There are many ways to boil this down into a storytelling principle, like this:

Every scene in your novel needs to move the story forward at an expositional level. The riskiest scenes are when the writer defends it as a tool of characterization, rather than a tool of exposition that is informed by characterization.

The best scenes accomplish both.

The question becomes this: how does your scene move the story forward, literally, by injecting new information or nuance into the narrative?

My advice, to both planners and pantsers: don’t write the scene until you know. Or if you must, don’t label the scene as “final” until you have a good answer.

So how do you know? One word: context. By understanding what has happened before the scene… and, with equal clarity how the scene will tee up what happens after it.

Putting that evolved clarity into your scenes often becomes the primary value-add of the revision process.

Here are more questions you should ask about your scenes:

What single element of exposition does this scene contribute to the narrative?

Is there, in fact, more than one expositional mission for the scene? Hopefully not by your design. There shouldn’t be multiple scene missions in an expositional context (one scene showing a car crash and a drug deal and a sexual encounter… not a good idea), especially after the Part 1 setup quartile. If so, consider creating separate and sequential scenes, even a series of scenes, to deliver them.

If there is no obvious mission for a scene, why are you considering this scene at all? If the answer serves anything other than the dramatic forwarding of the story… pause and rethink.

If your scene is there simply to create or reinforce setting and show characterization (which can work early in a story, and not all that often), or to fill in blanks that the reader is fully capable of filling in themselves, consider adding that context to scenes that do have a  clearer narrative mission as the main purpose and point.

Knowing the scene’s mission, you can now cut into the scene (begin it) at the last possible moment, avoiding obligatory chit-chat that doesn’t setup the “moment” the scene delivers.

Ask yourself how the scene changes the story. If it doesn’t, look closer at it. Your entire story arc needs to appear as a sloping line, either up or down, it should never be cruising along at one dramatic altitude.

Is your scene part of a dramatic sequence?  

Each beat of a sequence that contributes new information is worthy of its own scene. Consider separating scenes in a tightly unspooling sequence by using skipped lines (white space) as transitional devices between them.

Do you know how to set up a scene to empower the scenes that follow?  Seek to understand how, and when, each scene connects to the whole.

Where in the scene does its moment of revelation (fulfillment of the mission) occur?  The later the better… even down to the last sentence. Which means, you are writing lean-and-mean on both ends of the scene itself.

After the mission is clear… then what?

Once the mission of a scene is identified, the questions sound like this: What is the best creative strategy for this scene (cut in as late as possible, dramatize the key moment, transition out at the height of the drama)?

Does it leverage previous scenes, and thus remains bound in alignment to them?

When you are clear on the mission of a scene, and when that mission contributes momentum to the forward motion of the story, only then do the artistic options for it become fully clear.

 

 

 

 

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book “Story Engineering” was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the “#27 Best Books on Writing,” in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

7 thoughts on “Deeper Thinking About Writing Your Scenes

  1. Sounds like the author you were coaching needed to stay in the phone booth with the gorilla.

    I finished the first draft last week, and it needs serious trimming. I’m looking at each scene’s function in the story to see if it belongs there.

  2. Nice overview, Larry. I’m reminded of what the film director John Huston once said, that a successful movie is made up of three GREAT scenes, and no weak ones. A lot of truth in that. Learning to spot and then fix or cut a weak scene is an essential skill for the budding writer.

  3. Great advice, Larry! Especially this paragraph:

    “Ask yourself how the scene changes the story. If it doesn’t, look closer at it. Your entire story arc needs to appear as a sloping line, either up or down, it should never be cruising along at one dramatic altitude.”

    The first time I really SAW (and understood) story structure was the circus tent visual in your blog way back in 2010. Those sloping lines rising and falling from tent pole to tent pole finally made everything click into place.

    Probably the best lesson I’ve learned from you and the rest of the wise TKZers is every single scene, setting description, character trait, weather detail, etc. must move the story forward. If it doesn’t, cut it.

  4. Good morning, Larry

    I don’t usually have the opportunity to comment on your posts, because of my day job. I wanted to stop by this morning to tell you how much I appreciate your three books (Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix). They were turn-on-the-light, ignorance-dispelling for me, especially in regards to concept and premise.

    Great post on building scenes. I would add (and I know you will correct me if I’m wrong) that the scene’s mission is not necessarily the lead’s objective/mission, as in JSB’s LOCK system for building scenes.

    Have a great Memorial Day!

  5. I read once that writing a book is like a chess match. You have to be able to see 23 scenes down the line to the checkmate. Each chess move is a scene. Ever since then, I’ve beta read for lots of people who don’t understand this. They move the knight because it’s pretty and the bishop because they want to go diagonally right now. There’s no rhyme or reason, and the checkmate only works because they bumped their castle sideways when they thought nobody was looking.

  6. This is why I’m a disciple Larry.

    Developing the ability to hone your manuscript to a razors edge by spotting these elements even as your WIP gets better and better, and the mistakes get fewer.

    That is the real skill. Your teaching is like batting practice with Ted Williams.

    Hope You’re Well Larry,

    George Glennon

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