Crafting Scenes: What’s Too Much or Too Little?

Crafting scenes presents the novice writer with a number of daunting questions: What is a scene? How long should it be? How do I know when to end a scene? How does a scene differ from a chapter?

Years ago, I attended a fiction writing workshop at a local library. Author Dan Pope gave a piece of advice that stayed with me. “Always start a story ‘in scene,’” Pope said. A story can start with a detailed description of a beautiful mountainside or a breathtaking castle, but you will
quickly lose the reader if there’s no scene or action taking place to sustain interest.

We talked about plot and story in the previous post. Think of a scene as the smallest unit of your story. Scenes have many purposes. Chief among them is to advance the story. Other purposes include:

  • Introduce characters
  • Define motivations or goals of the main character
  • Create suspense
  • Develop the theme
  • Portray conflict among characters
  • Relate important information to the reader

In his book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, Raymond Obstfeld writes, “The word ‘scene’ comes from theater, where it describes the action that takes place in a single physical setting. This same principle holds true in fiction: A scene might begin when characters enter a location and end when they leave, or it may take place in a single location regardless of how many characters come and go. The emotional power of a scene depends on not distracting the reader from what’s going on.”

Regardless of the purpose of a scene, Obstfeld writes, “[w]hat’s important is that the writer (1) knows why that scene exists and (2) justifies its existence by making it memorable.” Obstfeld recommends writers ask themselves when they finish reading a scene, “So what?” Does it matter to the reader what happens? Is the scene really necessary?

Where do you begin a scene? Some favor beginning a scene in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, or the most dramatic part of a dialogue or narrative. Others take a linear approach; they begin the scene at the beginning of the action and carry it through to the end. Wherever you start a scene, the key is to draw the reader into the scene. Hook the reader. If the physical setting plays an important role, you can begin with that, but I am leery of long descriptions of setting. Keep it short and relate the setting to the theme. It’s a snapshot, not a photo album.

How long should a scene be? As long as it takes and not one word longer. Again, the purpose of the scene is a critical factor in determing its length. A suspenseful scene may need to be longer to set up the suspense and build the tension. A scene with the purpose of establishing a character can be shorter.

Another aspect of scenes is selecting a “point of view” (POV) character to relate what is happening. Unless you choose to write in the first person, every scene is told from one character’s point of view. The POV should be selected to maximize the impact of the scene. Let’s say you have a scene wherein everyone in the room knows a secret except one person. You could maximize the impact by relating the scene from that character’s point-of-view.

How does a scene differ from a chapter? There are a number of different viewpoints on what constitutes a chapter. Some say each chapter should end when there’s a shift in the story. Others like “cliff-hanger” chapter endings. Some structure chapters around POV characters. A chapter could
contain just one scene or multiple scenes. My first novel included a deathbed scene that continued over several chapters. My view on chapters is that they should contain a specific element of a story. Some writers don’t add chapter breaks until they complete a first draft. There’s no rule on the number of scenes per chapter, but when I read a novel where each chapter consists of just one scene, the story has a choppy, disjointed feel.

Crafting scenes is a topic too complicated to be covered in a single blog post. For more detail, I recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

What is the ideal length of scenes? How do you approach crafting scenes?

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Crafting Scenes: What’s Too Much or Too Little?

  1. You’ve got an excellent topic to work with, CG. Scene absolutely matters. When I was writing Burritos and Gasoline I imagined each scene as if it were a movie playing on the big screen. If the scene didn’t hold my attention, I reasoned, it wouldn’t hold the readers attention either. Consequently, the second draft of the novel had a considerable amount of content cut out. That was difficult, because I enjoyed the parts that came out of the book, but they weren’t necessary for moving the story along. They were just scenes. And showing a new character who serves no real purpose to the story is potentially tedious to the reader.

    I’ll alway struggle to some extent with writing any scene. Even though I may enjoy the scene tremendously and find it enjoyable. That doesn’t mean it’s critical to the story – so it might just have to go before I’m done with the book – and I will be the only one who ever knew it was there.

    I do enjoy my little secrets.

    • Jamie,
      I struggled with crafting scenes for years. The concept of in media res,or starting in the middle, really helped me. I believe the first draft is where you let it flow and then when you review it, you figure out where the scene should begin and end. I cut the first four chapters out of my novel, Small Change. I thought at the time I was losing some critical backstory but the only thing I put back in was the little vignette about how the family financed their vacations with the “small change” jar. That was kind of essential, since it’s the title of the book. Also, what you cut helps you to figure out what the essence of the story is.

    • Jamie,
      I struggled with crafting scenes for years. The concept of in media res,or starting in the middle, really helped me. I believe the first draft is where you let it flow and then when you review it, you figure out where the scene should begin and end.I cut the first four chapters out of my novel, Small Change. I thought at the time I was losing some critical backstory but the only thing I put back in was the little vignette about how the family financed their vacations with the “small change” jar. That was kind of essential, since it’s the title of the book. Also, what you cut helps you to figure out what the essence of the story is.

  2. I just stumbled upon your blog CG. I’m coming bank tomorrow. But for right now, I’ll just jump in with a short addendum to your post.

    The length of a scene depends on its purpose. A transition scene that describes only one action may be three sentences. A confrontational scene where dialogue finally resolves a leading question may take numerous pages. Sometimes scenes have two or more sub-scenes within them where characters come and go, each defining a resolution or triggering another dramatic question. These scenes might also me longer.

    But as you said, a scene has to be as tight as we can possible write it. I always start a scene at the last possible moment where the reader can enter it and figure out what is happening, even if the setup info is revealed later in the scene. In this respect, it’s like “real life,” where I might walk into a conversation and then try to pic up the threads without asking questions.

    Finally, I always try to leave a scene where another dramatic question opens more plot possibilities, nudging the reader to turn the page. The most important aspect of any scene, as you already stated, is to keep the tension in place, whatever that may be. And keeping the tension up, takes skill!

    Irv

    • Irv,
      Thanks for your comments. You added some great insights. I especially like your point about leaving a scene where another dramatic question opens more plot possibilities. This is similat to the cliff-hanger ending of a chapter. I also like your point about sub-scenes within a scene. In my novel, the climactic scene involves the revelation of a deep family secrety, but I needed to tell it through dialogue from several poiint-of-view characters talking to the main character (it’s first person).

      I very much appreciate your sharing your insights with me and I will check out your blog.

      Chris

  3. Chris, I like The Scene Book by Scofield. She uses some less popularized examples and does a good job of explaining tension points or beats.
    –Doug

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