Scene and Un-Scene

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Today’s first-page critique raises the question of what makes a scene…and what doesn’t. Let’s have a look:

  1. The Envelope

Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face. The odor of furniture polish drifted into her nostrils as she sat alone at the conference room table. From the second floor, she had a clear view of the Bay Bridge. She took deep breaths as she watched the traffic.

Vanessa swiveled around when the conference room door opened. She witnessed Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slam a water jug on the table. Lindsey then turned around and calmly walked out of the room. Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file. Then she opened the voice recorder app on her phone and placed it on the conference room table.

She had five more minutes to wait before her four o’clock appointment with Mr. Henderson. He needed legal representation as the police viewed him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

Vanessa leaned back in her chair and looked through the glass partition at unoccupied desks. Most of the staff at Anderson & Smith LLP had gone home for the weekend. Even her boss, Mr. Smith, had left the office. She then exhaled before she folded back the cover on his file. She knew the crime scene photographs were gruesome. Her job as a criminal paralegal meant that she had to gather and examine the evidence.

Vanessa had worked at Anderson & Smith LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in San Francisco, for over two years. She earned her four-year degree in criminal justice from San Francisco State University. She attended forensic classes in college, and then she discovered she had no stomach for viewing dissected bodies.

Her job as a criminal paralegal on occasion took her to a crime scene. But usually, the Coroner had already removed the victim’s body.

The police viewed their client, Mr. Henderson, as a prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. He claimed to be home all evening, on the night of his wife’s murder, but there were no witnesses to confirm his story. Their live-in maid had taken a three day weekend to visit her sister in San Jose. The victim’s blood was all over the crime scene. Yet the police report stated that their client had no traces of blood on his clothes when the police arrived at his home.

***

JSB: Before we discuss the text, I want to say something about chapters with titles. I don’t like ’em. They might be okay for juvenile fiction, but I don’t see any gain in adult genres. It doesn’t do anything to motivate me to read on. Indeed, I never think about or even remember a chapter title as I read the actual chapter. It’s just clutter, and who needs that? (Give me your feedback in the comments.)

On to the text. We’re going to talk about the difference between an active scene, and exposition and backstory. A scene shows us action on the page; exposition and backstory tell us things about the story and characters. These latter elements are fine in their place, but their place is not on the opening page. (If you’re unclear about show and tell, I suggest you read Kris’s great post on the topic, and do some more self-study until you’ve got this issue nailed. It is absolutely essential for your success as a writer.)

Here, the first paragraph gives us a scene set-up, which is fine:

Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face. The odor of furniture polish drifted into her nostrils as she sat alone at the conference room table. From the second floor, she had a clear view of the Bay Bridge. She took deep breaths as she watched the traffic.

A couple of quick notes: clocks should be clock’s. I do like that you used the sense of smell. It’s underutilized in fiction. We then have Vanessa watching the traffic through the window. It’s a nice way to tell us we’re in San Francisco, but isn’t she looking at the clock? Simple fix. She can be listening to the clock. Or she can turn her head to look out the window.

These small physical matters are important. Many a time I’ve had an editor tell me that a character who had sat down early in a scene was now walking around. Readers notice these little speed bumps.

Vanessa swiveled around when the conference room door opened.

Here’s another speed bump and it comes from the misordering of stimulus and response. We never want to invert these. In the sentence above, the stimulus is the door opening. The response is Vanessa swiveling around. She should hear the door open and then swivel.

The great writing teacher Jack Bickham (whose book I credit with setting me on the road to publication) explains that a stimulus is something external, as if we were seeing or hearing it in real time. The response must also be external, something physical (note: dialogue counts as physical). And these must be in the right order.

Not: Audrey yelped. A shot had just been fired.

But: A shot rang out. Audrey yelped.

Moving on:

She witnessed Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slam a water jug on the table.

We’re starting to slip out of vivid, active writing now. This sounds like the author telling us what has happened. Scene writing needs to sound like it’s happening in right in front of us: Lindsey Harper, one of the firm’s secretaries, slammed a water jug on the table.

See the difference? And notice you don’t need to tell us Vanessa witnessed the action. If it’s happening on the page, and we’re in her POV, it’s a given that the scene is played out through her eyes.

Lindsey then turned around and calmly walked out of the room. Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file. Then she opened the voice recorder app on her phone and placed it on the conference room table.

Too bad Lindsey left, because she’s another character, has just done something annoying, and that’s fodder for conflict. If you’re not showing us some form of conflict, you’re either not writing a scene…or the scene you’re writing is a yawner.

She had five more minutes to wait before her four o’clock appointment with Mr. Henderson. He needed legal representation as the police viewed him as the prime suspect in his wife’s murder.

This is pure exposition, the author telling us what’s happening, and why. I have a little axiom: act first, explain later. Readers will wait a long time for information if something interesting is happening. What if Lindsey had hung around and we got this instead:

Lindsey slammed the water jug on the table. Some water splashed out, landing like raindrops on the client file.

“Hey!” Vanessa said. “Careful.”

“He’ll be here in five minutes,” Lindsey said.

Vanessa grabbed a couple of tissues from the box on the table and started sopping up the water.

“Show him right in when he gets here,” Vanessa said.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure.” 

Lindsey shrugged and put her finger on one of the water drops on the table. “I just thought…”

“Thought what?”

“Because of what happened last time.”

I don’t know what they’re talking about, of course, because I’m not the author. But I do know this is a scene and that I want to read on to find out what’s happening!

Let’s skip to this:

Vanessa had worked at Anderson & Smith LLP, one of the top criminal law firms in San Francisco, for over two years. She earned her four-year degree in criminal justice from San Francisco State University. She attended forensic classes in college, and then she discovered she had no stomach for viewing dissected bodies.

This is exposition combined with backstory. It should now be clear to you that it’s not a scene happening in “real time” on the page.

The police viewed their client, Mr. Henderson, as a prime suspect in the brutal murder of his wife. He claimed to be home all evening, on the night of his wife’s murder, but there were no witnesses to confirm his story. Their live-in maid had taken a three day weekend to visit her sister in San Jose. The victim’s blood was all over the crime scene. Yet the police report stated that their client had no traces of blood on his clothes when the police arrived at his home.

All tell. “But,” you say, “readers need to know all this to make sense of the scene!”

Nay, not so.

Indeed, it’s better to hold back as much information as you can, as it creates immediate mystery. Readers will keep reading to find out what’s going on.

So when and how do you reveal crucial information? Here’s one technique: confrontational dialogue. In a tense exchange it’s easy and natural to slip in some exposition. Let’s put Mr. Henderson in the room with Vanessa:

“Let’s get this over with,” Henderson said.

“This is going to take a little time,” Vanessa said.

“You have twenty minutes.”

“Mr. Henderson, they’re going to charge you with murder. I think we need—”

“I didn’t do it.”

“And that’s why we have to—”

“Do you think I did it?”

His slate-colored eyes glared at her.

“I’m just gathering information,” she said.

“Not what I asked.”

Vanessa’s throat clenched. She took a breath and said, “You’re our client.”

“You think I took a butcher knife and cut my wife to pieces?”

By substituting dialogue for pure exposition, you are forcing yourself to write an active scene, which is the basic unit of readable fiction. So remember:

  • Act first, explain later
  • Keep stimulus-response transactions in proper order
  • With the exception of necessary description, try nixing all exposition and backstory on the opening page
  • Set the crucial information inside tense dialogue

All right! That’s enough for today. Over to you, TKZers. If you have some suggestions for our author on the submitted text, please chime in.

***

If you want more in-depth fiction craft teaching, my one-day seminar “Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down” is on special right now. Usually $197, we’ve knocked $100 off the price. Check it out here!

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46 thoughts on “Scene and Un-Scene

  1. Brave Author, you’re learning from a master. In our critique group, we call reversing stimulus and response “Cart before the horse.” I think this scene is one that you write for yourself, to get a feel for the characters and what’s happening. You need it, but your readers don’t. On the next pass, you apply the advice JSB so generously hands out.
    I can’t add anything to his feedback other than “it’s” instead of “its” in the opening sentence, and you don’t need the hyphen in ‘second hand’ which gives it an entirely different meaning.

    You’ve got a good story premise here. I’d want to know what happens next.
    —And, to JSB – I don’t like chapter titles. I skip over them.

  2. Great critique, Mr. Bell. I could have made those very same mistakes…I always learn here at TKZ. I especially like act first, explain later. It’s more fun to write a scene that way. That was my maxim as a teenager. Got me in trouble a few times, though. 🙂

    Agree with everything, but I would add something. This might be pure nit-picky, but Vanessa’s eyes watched the second-hand tick it’s way around the clocks face… jarred me a bit.

    I re-read it a couple of times, picked up on the missing apostrophe, but also asked myself what else Vanessa would use but her eyes to watch the second hand.

    Sounds like the beginnings of a great story, though, one I’d probably read. 🙂

  3. Anonymous, brave author, you are fortunate to draw Mr. Bell for your critique today. The advice seems spot-on.
    .
    I also caught that use of smell, with the furniture polish. That’s great (I always forget to even try).
    .
    I thought Lindsey’s quick exit was a lost opportunity. Why did she SLAM the jug on the table? Do Vanessa and Lindsey dislike each other? I wonder why. Office politics? And why a water JUG? That has me wondering.
    .
    I have nothing beneficial to add to Mr. Bell’s critique. Your first page introduces a story I think I’d enjoy. Best of luck to you!

    • I agree re Lindsey. Why have a NAMED character come on camera until their presence does something to add to the conflict (as Jim shows in his rewrite) or moves the plot forward. And FWIW, I, too, dislike chapter titles.

  4. Brave Author, he’s given you excellent advice. Try writing an entire scene using all dialogue and body cues. No exposition. Just the bare bones. It’s a fun exercise.

  5. For some reason, I have been struggling lately with what is showing, and what is telling? The editorial comments have helped me a lot.

    Two questions about scenes, Mr. Bell.

    Is the current practice of writing novels with many–sometimes many, many–scenes likely to continue? I’ve always enjoyed stories with huge, powerful scenes, as in the books of Herman Wouk. I sometimes feel that the use of many scenes somehow dilutes the power of a story. Am I wrong?

    My next question is, what do editors and editors think of novels that arrive without the many scenes they’re currently seeing?

    Thank you.

    • I made a huge blunder in my question, Mr. Bell.

      I meant, is the current practice using many, many CHAPTERS in novels likely to continue?

      Sorry.

      • Yes, Jim, the Patterson Effect (turn one long chapter into 3 or 4 shorter ones) is likely here to stay. Why? Because readers seem to like it and, let’s face it, attention spans ain’t what they used to be. Long, immersive chapters (e.g., Wouk, Michener) are best reserved for historical fiction and epic fantasy, but should be broken up with the occasional space break (that will help get around potential editorial resistance on this matter).

    • Even though I consider myself minimally impacted by shortened attention span compared to others (I’m sure the degree varies for everyone), I do find that I like shorter chapters. I’m currently reading a historical mystery series where the chapters are not super-long, but longer then I have in recent years become accustomed to. It makes me a bit impatient, especially now that I have to read in small snatches due to life, whereas years ago, that wasn’t quite as much of a problem.

      I do want to be clear that the slightly longish chapters does not impede my enjoyment of the books, since I keep checking out one after the other. But I don’t see harm in shorter chapters–especially when they are written using the kind of advice and tips we get here at TKZ about making every scene count.

      I have on occasion read books where the chapters seemed ARTIFICIALLY short–and found myself wondering if the author had attention problems. But that doesn’t happen often.

      • RE: the chapter titles–I don’t care about chapter titles, but I read mostly historical & I very often find myself wishing that the author would ground us with a date/season or some other time identifier at the chapter’s opening. It’s annoying to have to guess the time frame.

  6. Agreeing very much with JSB. Especially:
    * Nix on the chapter titles. Although I do use them for my four Parts. That way I can list and link those in the TOC (ebook) and skip the endless list of chapter numbers.
    * I was really waiting for the dialogue between Vanessa and Lindsey about that water jug. As JSB describes, that’s a ripe bit of conflict to perk up.

    Best of luck author! I’ve been in your shoes here 😉

  7. Definitely agree that the scene needs to be a lot more active. I was also distracted by minor editing issues (things like “Vanessa’s eyes watched…” as if her eyes were behaving independently from her body, and things like “it’s vs its”, clocks vs. clock’s, etc. Although Vanessa was the only one in the room w/the exception of the brief entry by the grouchy secretary, Vanessa was mentioned by name 5 times. I can see reinforcing that the reader gets the name if there are multiple characters, but she was the only character whose name we really had to keep straight.

    If this is the opening of a book, it sounds like it needs to jump forward and start just a bit later (I keep having to re-learn this lesson with almost every manuscript!).

    Even though I read it, and Mr. Bell repeated the relevant paragraph later on in this blog post, it still didn’t sink in to me how long Vanessa had been a paralegal (i.e. the stated 2 years). Because when I finished reading the page my thoughts were: “I have no idea how inexperienced or experienced this character is at her job,” and also that, despite her taking deep breaths, etc. I came away having no genuine sense of what her emotional state was.

    I was befuddled as to why the water slamming secretary bit was in the scene at all, because it led nowhere. (And as a person who works as an Admin. Assistant, I was appalled at their unprofessional behavior–and that it went unaddressed.)

    I can read between the lines with the ‘telling” that the author has a tension filled story waiting to be told, but the tips in this blog post will help the author get the most bang for their story-telling buck.

  8. First, congratulations to the author for his/her courage to put the work out there for criticism. “Reprove a wise man and he’ll be wiser still.”

    From JSB’s critique: “Indeed, it’s better to hold back as much information as you can, as it creates immediate mystery. Readers will keep reading to find out what’s going on.”

    I like the technique of dropping the reader into the action so he/she has to figure out what’s going on. It engages the reader and makes them part of the story.

    Personally, I like chapter titles. I use them in my just-on-the-cusp-of-being-published novel, Dead Man’s Watch. To me, they are another little hook you can hang a story on.

    I also noted the “it’s” mistake, but those things are easily taken care of by a good editor.

    • Yes, the part about holding back info to create mystery is exactly what I needed to hear today. I love it when a TKZ post clicks with what I’m puzzling over at the time. I have an opening scene that I’m working on that I now realize was getting ready to slip into the “giving too much info too soon” mode.

      I love TKZ. You all (bloggers and commenters) are so helpful!

      • I vote against. The only time I want to see any chapter “heading” is when I need to be oriented to a different time period…say, “Six months later”, or “three years earlier”. Just my opinion, though.

  9. Wow, absolutely great critique Scott. Your analyzation and explaining made this an outstanding learning opportunity. Thank you. Thank you to the author as well for sending in their piece. Having your work scrutinized by the best and read by so many is a frightening experience.
    I agree with Deb Gorman. Vanessa watched the the second hand tick… It stopped me abruptly. When we watch the protagonist doing something it takes us out of her head. This can be okay if it’s on purpose and that’s what we are aiming for, but I’m not sure the author meant the reader to be distanced away from the protagonist here.
    I would need to think on how I put it, but I would be interested to see what you think Scott and anyone else as well.
    ? Vanessa fidgeted. The second hand on the wall clock ticked away while she watched the traffic from the second story window…. Hummm maybe something like that?
    Story wise, this could be intriguing. I want to read the rewrite.

  10. Brave Author, you received the gold standard of critiques from JSB. You are so lucky!

    I heartily second Jim’s recommendation of Jack Bickham. His craft book, Scene and Structure, drove home to me the difference between an active scene and what he calls the “sequel.” The sequel is the character’s reaction to a preceding scene, as s/he realizes its significance. That causes him/her to make a new plan/action which leads to a new active scene. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/Scene-Structure-Elements-Fiction-Writing-dp-0898795516/dp/0898795516/ref=mt_other?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=

    Chapter titles? I like ’em. Maybe a carryover from reading Nancy Drew as a kid. I like the teaser aspect and often refer back to see if the writer kept the promise s/he made at the beginning of the chapter.

    I’m surprised how many readers here actively don’t like them. Always learning something new at TKZ.

    • We’re breaking about even on the chapter title, Debbie. They do seem a bit “Nancy Drewish” and perhaps that’s how I think of them in adult fiction.

      Yes, scene and sequel! That’s what really helped me, too, back at the beginning of this journey.

  11. On chapter titles, only on rare occasion have I found them interesting or useful. Numbers give me a sense of progression. I do have an author friend who uses titles during the early drafts as a tool for focus on the purpose of a chapter/scene while writing. That makes some sense to me, but not enough to adopt the practice.

    As for the first draft, it takes some courage to show your work to friends and family. It takes a lot more to show it to professionals. So well done brave author. This has the potential to be a fascinating read. JSB offered sage advice. The reaction before action trip-up is common and easy to fall into. I keep three bulletin boards over my desk—one is goals, one is motivation, and the one in the middle above my monitor is craft (especially items I catch myself struggling with). One of the cards on it reads “Action Before Result/Response”—one of the first pieces of advice given me by Christian suspense writer Regina Smeltzer when I was a member of her critique group many years ago.

    • I like your bulletin boards, Douglas. I use sticky notes. When I see something in my craft that I need to correct, I’ll write a note and stick it where I can see it. Eventually I put these in a document of “reminders” and clear them off, until a new crop appears.

  12. I like chapter titles. I like to use them as clues and try to figure out what’s coming next in the story. But yeah, I know a lot of people don’t like them.

    Brave Writer, I love a good murder mystery, so you already have me intrigued.

    My favorite line is “Vanessa blotted the spilled water off her client’s file” because it tells me Lindsey simply left the mess for Vanessa to clean up. Now I wonder what’s going on between Lindsey and Vanessa . . . jealousy or a feud over a parking spot?

    My biggest issue with this opening is a lack of conflict (other than the spilled water). I like JSB’s suggestion of introducing information and providing conflict through dialogue, especially his example of bringing Mr. Henderson into the scene.

    Overall, I like the multi-sensory details and the setting in this opening. It just needs a little more work (like all of our first drafts do!). Good luck on your continued writing journey, Brave Writer.

  13. Brave Author, if you implement James’ advice about more showing that will definitely keep me reading. He and other commenters have discussed the misplaced and missing apostrophes.

    I do feel you’ve started the story too soon, especially with the Lindsey scene. If she “slams” the water jug down, why isn’t it important to know why? Does it have to do with staying late or does she hate that the firm represents this client? If you take time to explain her abrupt action you’ll be pushing the real story farther down the road. If you don’t explain, there’s not much reason for her drama. Vanessa has to meet her client to get the story rolling, so get there as soon as possible.

    Chapter titles don’t do much for me. I’m engrossed in following the chapter-ending cliffhanger into the new action and rarely even glance at the chapter number or title.

    Do watch your use of “then.” I counted four instances within this first page. Characters can move from one activity to another, and events can happen one after the other, without that qualifier.

    Keep working on tightening your scenes, and note your “favorite” words like “then” and eliminate them in edits. You’re on the right track. I’m interested in what happens next.

  14. Thanks James Bell, I always look forward to your posts. (And thanks Brave Author for putting yourself out there).

    Chapter titles work for me if they’re ironic and create subtext.

    Never consciously considered stimulus followed by response, but we all sense it when the author has it backwards. In this case, I think the author did the same thing with the intrusion of Lindsey. We learn why Lindsey might be angry a few paragraphs later – it’s Friday, and most staff have already left. Yet even if we knew WHY, her anger does nothing to complicate Vanessa’s life or the plot.

    Loved your dialogue example between Vanessa and Lindsey – with one caveat. In deep POV, it drives me nuts when authors withhold information that the character clearly knows. I don’t expect a Murder She Wrote summation, but I do expect an emotional response and some clue as to the vicinity. Care to weigh in on this?

    • Thanks, Sue. I don’t know if I’m clear on what you’re asking about the Lindsey/Vanessa exchange. I always think it’s better when the characters do NOT tell each other what they both know. That strays toward what I call an “expository cheat.” I like mysterious references that are fully revealed only later. Let me know if I’m reading you correctly, and thanks for the feedback.

      • Sorry, the confusion was created on my end. Not advocating an “as you know Bob” exchange, but an inner response/reaction/revelation from the MC when in deep POV. Also not advocating an “interior” info dump following provocation.

        I think readers (not other characters) should be privy to what the MC knows/thinks (reliable or not) – or why else choose deep POV?

        For instance, your last line of dialogue ““Because of what happened last time,” requires the MC to have a strong inner reaction. If she withholds “why” going forward, I think that’s a cheat.

        IMO, deep POV is difficult because it precludes everything the MC can’t know, but also requires including what the MC does know. (Not all at once, but when provoked).

        Hope that makes sense. And sorry if this got waaay off topic.

  15. Perhaps because I am also an admin assistant, I was fascinated by Lindsay and curious about what was going on with her.

    I imagined doing that with past and present bosses.

    Past Boss – “What the h is wrong with you?”
    Present Boss – “What’s the matter, Baby?”
    None of them would have let that pass.
    And I can’t imagine not apologizing, but I’m Southern and we are excruciatingly polite.

    Lindsay must be the boss’s kid, otherwise she’d be fired.

    Vanessa is not interesting to me. She doesn’t do anything.

    Everything I learned about stimulus and response I learned from Jack Bickham. Great teacher.

    And just how much water do those people drink that they need jugs of it?

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