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?