Last week, I received this [very] brief email from Bobby, a viewer of my YouTube channel: “can you make a future video on how you write scenes and the length they sometimes are?”
I responded to him that of course, I’d be delighted to do a video on the topic, but then I realized that I wasn’t entirely sure what constitutes a “scene” when it comes to a novel. In a screenplay, scenes are self-described by slug lines:
INT. – LIVING ROOM – DAY
But novels aren’t formatted that way. We use paragraphs and space breaks to denote POV switches, but that’s because we can deploy the thoughts and perspectives of characters occupying the same space, a powerful tool that does not exist in a screenwriter’s ditty bag.
According to The Writing Cooperative, “A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action or dialogue. You can think of a scene as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, you’ll start a new scene when you change the point of view character, the setting, or the time.”
I’m not sure I agree with this. If George and Martha are having a fight, and we cut away to Midge’s POV as she listens to the argument and passes judgment on them, that seems to me to be the same scene, but from different POVs.
This is what happens when you’re a home-schooled writer. I don’t have the vocabulary to explain much of what I do, and the more I search for it, but more irrelevant the vocabulary seems to the actual process of writing. Thus my philosophy, “Think less, write more.”
But I still owe Bobby an answer, and for the sake of this post, I’ll rename what The Writing Cooperative defines as a scene to be a space break. And I mean that literally–an extra space on the page to indicate a switch to a new POV, or even to a parallel story line.
Gilstrap’s Rules For Space Breaks/Scenes
- There are no rules. Use whatever works for you. That which works for me in my writing may very well suck in your writing.
- Know why your characters are doing what they’re doing in this scene and how this interaction contributes to the larger story.
- If the scene does not develop a character or propel the plot (preferably both, and at the same time), it does not belong in the story.
- Know whose point of view is the most dramatic for the presentation of this action.
- If Character M’s POV is the key to action that occurs in the second or third act, Character M needs at least one POV scene earlier in the story. The reader will feel cheated if an otherwise secondary character steps into the spotlight for that One Important Reveal.
- Each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
- In the scene I’m writing in my current WIP, Hellfire (July, 2020), we’re introduced to Grant, who will become a significant character in the story. He’s in jail as we meet him, and he anticipates good news very soon (the beginning). When the news arrives, it is entirely different than what he expected (the middle). And then it hits him just how really bad the news is (end). I haven’t finished the scene yet, but I expect that it will all play out in 7 pages or so.
- Conflict, conflict, conflict.
- Two people who like each other and are in agreement do not advance a story. Our own James Scott Bell refers to this as Happy People in Happy Land and it is first on his list of “The Five Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)” [We can discuss the choice of an ampersand in the title later.] Taking him completely out of context, he also believes that the best novels “have the threat of death hanging over every scene.” The linked article is really worth reading. You know, when you’re done reading this.
- Strive for consistent space break/chapter break lengths.
- This is an imprecise science at best. I shoot for chapter lengths of 12-15 manuscript pages, with two space breaks per chapter (maybe three). I do this because I write long to begin with, and I think 40 chapters is about right. One chapter per space break interrupts the “fictive dream” too frequently for my tastes. (And 180 chapters is silly.)
So, that’s my cut at Bobby’s question. It’s your turn, TKZers. I haven’t done the video yet, so what am I missing?