This Business of Writing

How to Write a Scene in a Novel

In The Craft of Writing on February 18, 2010 at 9:00 am

Great! You’ve developed these wonderful characters who stand primed to flit about your magnificent setting and boy-oh-boy do you ever have an idea for a storyline. Well, it’s all for naught if you can’t compile these things into scenes and string those scenes together to make your story awe your readers.

Imagine a lustrous string of pearls. The first gemstone compliments the next which balances with the rest and strung together they lay upon a woman’s neckline to bring forth her natural beauty and give her a radiating sense of elegance. Now imagine that necklace where the jewels are a hodgepodge of odd sizes, hues, luster and even quality. All of a sudden we’ve taken the best of nature and the best of man and made them into something unpleasing. The same thing happens with your story if you don’t create your scenes as well as you’ve created your characters and your setting.

One secret many find useful is to write the last scene first, and the first scene second, at least in outline form. If you know where you need to go, the steps to get there will become much more obvious. Now some people recommend you consider what the characters want to happen, what they need. Personally, I disagree. Determine where you want to go and what steps you must take to get there and the characters will follow your lead.

Let’s get started.

First outline what you need on hand to create an effective scene. It requires emotion, action, dialogue, characters, conflict and setting. (Did I leave anything out?)

Next, determine what has to happen in a scene to move this part of the story toward the next. Ask yourself, “What must happen now?”
Don’t worry about what could happen or what should happen.
Be concerned only about what must happen. At this time, use only two or three sentences to write your scene. That’s all you need at first.

Now that you know what must happen, figure out who must be in the scene to make it work. Put only those characters necessary into it and leave everybody else out.

Next you determine where this scene takes place. It may be obvious after you asked yourself what must happen, but if it wasn’t, fix the setting into your mind. Consider having things happen in places that one might think out of place. Consider a teacher and high-school student discussing the child’s grades. You’d assume this would happen in the classroom, most likely after class, right? Why not have this discussion taking place at a racetrack or better yet at a bar. Now that would perk the scene up, wouldn’t it?

Okay, we’ve got what must happen, who’s in the scene and your setting. Now consider how it all ties together. A classic secret is to begin a scene as late in the scene as possible. Regardless, this next beginning almost calls out for recognition as it naturally piggybacks off the ending of the previous scene. However, give this a bit of thought, too, and see if you can’t punch up your creativity just a bit. For example, your student and his teacher are talking at the races when one scene ends. The next scene might typically start the following day in class. What if this second scene started on a Saturday as they watch the school burn down? The oddity of your settings may just give your novel a unique and imaginative spark. After all, why should all the surprises come at the end of a scene?

The next thing I’d like you to do is visualize your scene as if it were in a movie. If you can see it working visually, it’s probably got some strength to it. Try this first with only the characters’ physical actions and nothing more. When you close your eyes and “watch” your scene take place, look for those areas that stutter or slow the pace. Those are the parts that need work. After you’ve “seen” it play out, go through this process again, this time with the dialogue. Does it “hear” as well, too? If not, you know what needs work. Do this a third time within your setting in mind and you’re good to go. Visualization is the real secret to a good scene.

Okay, you wrote your three sentence scene and you’ve “watched” and “listened” to it and it feels good. Now’s the time to pen what some people call a scribble draft. It doesn’t have dialogue, setting or anything beyond simple physical actions. Make is a bare-bones outline. It’ll look something like this:

Jack runs down the hill.
Jill runs after him.
Jack falls down hill, dropping his bucket.
Jill does too and screams as she tumbles.
Both land in a heap at the bottom of hill.

After all that, now guess what you get to do? Yep, first draft. Now’s it time to put fingers to keyboards and clack away.

We’re now to our last step in writing an effective scene. Now that you’ve gotten a few scenes strung together. Reread them and ask what’s the worst that could happen if this scene or that were omitted in whole. If the basic storyline is unaffected by the missing scene, it’s unnecessary and should probably be cut from your manuscript.

Yep, it’s a lot of work, but you’ll get that beast wrestled to the ground and your story will emerge. Good luck.

By the way, read back to step one and you’ll see I recommended you first write out your scenes in just two and three sentences. If you do, put all these mini-scenes on the same piece of paper, a file of its own. Make a copy of that document before you expand them into full scenes. This is the start of your synopsis and the beginning of your outline. (You’ll thank me one day for this tip!)

Until we speak again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze
Author of the soon to emerge novel, “Born to be Brothers”

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