Writing “In Scene”: Part I

One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received came from author Dan Pope, who offered this nugget: “Always write ‘in scene.’” This gem has stayed with me to this day. Why? If story is the most important aspect of the novel, the scene is the building block upon which writers construct the novel.

An 80,000-word novel may need as many as 40 scenes, assuming an average scene length of 2,000 words. That’s a lot of scenes. To come up with 40 scenes, a lot has to happen. Understanding what a scene is and how to craft one are vital skills for the writer. But what does “writing in scene” really mean? Here’s an example off the top of my head of a beginning to a novel:

Ben always feared snakes. It was an irrational fear, really, but it went back to his childhood. If he lived on a farm surrounded by wild animals, he might have felt differently about snakes. But he didn’t. Ben grew up in a typical suburb. One time a snake escaped from his neighbor’s garden. He ran and got his brother, who took a heavy shovel and killed the snake. The snake may have been dead, but the fear remained in Ben. The only thing Ben feared more than snakes was girls. The thought of picking up the phone and asking a girl out on a date sent waves of terror through Ben.

This is a badly flawed start to a story. First, it’s all telling and no showing. Secondly, it is not set in any time or place. Typical suburb? Where? What part of the country? Did he live in a ranch house or a colonial? Who were his parents? His friends? The killing of the snake lacks detail. What does the neighbor’s garden look like? How big was the snake? What color? Did it writhe toward Ben? Did Ben run away screaming? How did his brother kill the snake? Did he chop it into pieces? This bland description doesn’t tell the reader what emotions went through Ben’s head. The transition to his feat of girls is abrupt. There is no timeline. The reader can assume Ben is much older when he reveals his fear of girls. Is it related to his fear of snakes? The reader has no idea.

What we have here is the start of a character sketch, but it’s not the start of a novel. So what do we mean when we say to “write in scene?” Here are some of the basic elements of a scene:

• Interaction among one or more characters, usually involving conflict and tension.
• Set in a specific time and place, or in some cases, moving from one place to another.
• Something happens or is about to happen.
• Contains action/narrative/dialogue.
• Advances the story.

But a scene must go much deeper than these basic elements. Scenes need one essential quality–what author and blogger KM Weiland refers to as “scene and sequel” – or action and reaction.

In the next installment, I will explore the deeper meaning an author must embed into each scene.


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9 responses to “Writing “In Scene”: Part I

  1. patrick

    David Mamet said: Get into the scene late, get out of the scene early.
    Seeing he’s in the news, it’s worth mentioning that a great in-scene writer was Elmore Leonard. He almost never editorialized, gave background or description. He tells you what people say and do to each other. You work out what it all means.

    • Patrick,
      Yes. I like to start a scene “in media res,” or in the middle of the action. Elmore Leonard was a master scene-builder with an uncanny ear for dialogue. Thanks for your comments.

  2. I’d never heard of the average 40 scenes a book with 2,000 words each, but it sounds about right. I think that’s fantastic advice. I might put that on the wall behind my computer. “Always write ‘in scene'”


    • Katie,
      Thanks for your comment. The 40 scenes assumes each scene is 2,000 words, but in my first novel, there was a scene that went on for 35 pages. It was about 7,500 words. That’s the problem with averages. There is always the exception. But the advice to “write in scene” has always stuck with me. Thanks for stopping by.

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  4. Thanks for the tips you have provided here. Cheers!

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