What is the Ideal Length for a Scene?

I’ve run across a problem recently when writing my work-in-progress. I’m writing scenes of wildly different lengths. Some scenes are a couple of pages long. Other scenes go on for 10 or 12 pages. This bothers me because I believe ideally that scenes should be of relatively equal length. Which leads to another discussion about chapter length, but that’s a topic for another day.

Before we tackle scene length, let’s discuss how to develop a scene. There are so many great resources for fiction writers on scene development. Here’s a good overview from Janice Hardy’s excellent Fiction University blog that focuses on the process of writing a scene.

My friend, Cathy Yardley, expands upon the three elements a scene must contain: Goal/Motivation/Conflict. And she adds a fourth element—Disaster. The sturdy Goal/Motivation/Conflict template that many writers employ is a tried and true approach to scene drafting.

KM Weiland, in her blog and craft of fiction books, goes beyond the Goal/Motivation/Conflict structure and discusses the concept of Scene/Sequel. Each scene leads to a sequel. The scene portion contains a goal, a motivation, and a conflict, but Weiland adds a fourth element, Reaction. And that’s where the Sequel comes in. In the sequel portion, Reaction leads to a Dilemma for the character, which leads to a Decision. And that decision leads to a new Goal. She was written extensively about this concept, but here’s a basic overview. This post features a helpful Info-graphic.

Let me share my process. I start by deciding on a scene goal. What is the overall purpose of the scene? What am I trying to achieve? How does the scene advance the story? What is the goal of the featured character in the scene? I say featured character because each scene is not necessarily told from the POV of the main character. Though there is some disagreement on this point, I believe every scene should be told from the point-of-view (POV) of a character. When choosing a POV character, I subscribe to the adage that it should be the character most affected by what happens in the scene. What’s the POV character’s goal? What’s the POV character’s motivation (both internal and external)? How will the conflict arise? Who, or what, will be the cause of the conflict? Does the conflict arise naturally from the preceding events or actions?

Next, I ask myself how two questions: how is the conflict resolved? Should the conflict be resolved at all, or should it be deepened? Or, should I make things worse for my character? That’s what keeps readers interested and deepens the story. If every conflict gets resolved to the satisfaction of the main character, it makes for a very short, and boring, story.

Now that we’ve gone down the rabbit holes of process, structure and scene development, let’s get back to my original question. How does a writer determine the ideal length of a scene? The short and easy answer comes from some advice I received years ago and I don’t recall the source. The advice was this. “A scene should be as long as it needs to be to achieve its goal.” That answer doesn’t provide much in the way of specific guidance on scene length, but there is some wisdom there. So if you’ve got a scene you believe is too short, ask these questions:

  • Does the scene clearly define the goal in a way that the reader can understand? Does the scene goal advance the story?
  • Have I adequately shown the motivation of the characters in the scene, not only the POV character, but those who stand in the way of the POV character achieving her goal?
  • Does the source of the conflict arise organically from the events or actions that have preceded it? Have you laid the foundation for the conflict through foreshadowing or earlier events? If the conflict comes out of the blue, will it be a major part of the story going forward?
  • Will the conflict be resolved by the end of the scene or will it deepen? If it is resolved, will its resolution lead to new problems or obstacles for the main character?
  • Apart from questions related to Goal/Conflict/Disaster, there are “logistical” issues the writer must consider. What is the setting where the scene takes place? Does the setting enhance the impact of the scene? For instance, if there is a long simmering family feud, does it boil over at mom’s wake? Or at a family reunion or otherwise joyous occasion? Who is in the scene? How much time has elapsed since the previous scene? Are there actions or other factors that will impact the scene (a car chase, geographic barriers, etc.).

What I’ve found is that when I get to the revision process and discover a scene that’s too short, I haven’t fully developed the elements of the scene. Scene development is a complex topic. Books have been written about it. It’s impossible to cover the topic in a single blog post, but I hope I’ve answered the question I posed.

Do you struggle with scene length? Are you finding your scenes are too short? Too long? What are you doing about it?

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: “Moonglow,” by Michael Chabon

In the waning days of World War II, the US government launched a military campaign called Operation Paperclip. The United States was engaged in a frantic competition with the Soviet Union to capture one of the key spoils from the defeated Germans, the renowned aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun. The Americans won and von Braun eventually developed the Saturn V rocket for NASA.

The quest for von Braun provides some of the key scenes in Michael Chabon’s brilliant memoir-style novel, Moonglow. Chabon billed Moonglow as a memoir, but he slyly noted in an Author’s Note, “I have stuck to facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Where the author took liberties, Chabon wrote, they were taken “with due abandon.”

How much of the novel is fact as opposed to fiction is immaterial. Moonglow raises troubling questions about the horrors of war and the scars it leaves on those who survive, as well as the enduring power of love, and the slippery fault line between truth and memory. The main character, Chabon’s grandfather, is never assigned a name, nor is Chabon’s grandmother.  The grandfather, a richly developed character, delivers his story in the form of a deathbed confession to “Mike Chabon.” Painkillers have loosened his grandfather’s tongue and his lurid stories range from his time in the Army to how he met his wife, from a brief stint in prison to his obsession with space travel.

What is most poignant about this story is the enduring relationship between Mike’s grandfather and his grandmother, a bond formed out of the wreckage of World War II. His grandmother, a most sympathetic character, was a refugee whose family fled their home during World War II and perished in the Holocaust. There are numerous references to her horrific childhood. As a pregnant teen-age girl (Mike’s mother), she was taken in by Carmelite nuns in France. She later emigrated to America, but she remained damage by the unspeakable horrors she witnessed. Even the deep bonds of her family and her husband’s enduring love for her could not keep her demons away.

A major theme of Moonglow is the double-edged nature of the human condition. The moon serves as a symbol of magic, and yet it also is a dark, mysterious place. Similarly, von Braun is widely credited with playing a pivotal role in the historic first moon landing in July of 1969, but he also developed the V-2 missile for the Nazis. As the grandfather, himself an engineer, reflects on von Braun, “The poor bastard! He had built a ship to loft us to the very edge of heaven, and they had used it as a messenger of hell.”

The grandfather had enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 1941. He was arrested for his part in a bizarre scheme to blow up the Francis Scott Key Bridge, but a member of the military brass, who recognized his talents, arranged for a light sentence and recruited him as part of a team that would go after von Braun. The extended series of scenes where the grandfather’s unit hunts down von Braun contains some of Chabon’s best writing. His unit ends up in a ravaged village in Nordhausen, where the grandfather learns of the secret rocket factory and the horrors of the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp. Refugees were forced to work on the V-2 rocket under cruel conditions. A total of 20,000 died of starvation, malnutrition and mistreatment before the U.S. Army liberated the camp in 1945.

When an aging priest leads grandfather to the rocket site and a trove of documents, he  abandons his quest for von Braun. The grandfather never forgave von Braun for what he saw as his duplicity in the deaths of 20,000 victims who labored under cruel conditions at the rocket factory.  Years later, when man landed on the moon, the space-obsessed grandfather walked out of the room rather than witness the historic event on TV.

One of the great pleasures of reading a Chabon novel is his brilliant prose. Chabon is a virtuoso with words and every time I read one of his books, there are passages that make my want to stand up and cheer. Moonglow is no different. Though the narrative flow is sometimes difficult to follow as the scenes are out of sequence, this is a book I highly recommend.

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Author Talk: Richard Russo

On April 26, I had the privilege to attend Pulitzer-winner Richard Russo’s presentation  for WEST HARTFORD READS! – an annual reading initiative encouraging town residents to read the works of one notable author.

Like many of his characters, Russo came across as an amiable everyman, a product of a dying New York mill town of Gloversville, where he grew up and which served as the inspiration for his settings. He read an essay entitled, “The Boss in Bulgaria,” which will be published in a book of essays planned for this year.

The essay described his visit to Bulgaria for a writer’s conference. After his original flight was cancelled he pondered returning to his home in Maine. He changed his mind when he was told by a conference staffer that he was the star of the event. He eventually arrived at the conference and discovered the aspiring writers in the former Soviet bloc country, where freedom of speech was repressed, carried a burning hunger to learn all they could about writing. “What if you hadn’t been allowed a voice your entire life?” he said. “Do you go directly to the big subject–what life was like under a totalitarian regime?” Which begged the bigger question for new writers. “What if there’s no ‘you’ yet? What if your voice has yet to be invented?”

Returning to his room each night, Russo would hear singing coming from the courtyard below. First, it would be songs in the native language of the Bulgarian writers. As the night wore on, they would sing American rock and pop tunes. He recalled hearing that familiar chorus from an old Bon Jovi song, “We’re halfway there. Living on a prayer!”

Later, as a televised interview panel show with Russo was coming to a close, the house band struck up the Bruce Springsteen song, “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” A huge fan of Springsteen, Russo was touched by the thoughtfulness of the gesture. He concluded his presentation by saying writers must believe they are halfway there. Writers must believe they can catch that train, “the one that carries their hopes and literary dreams.”

During the question-and-answer session, Russo described how his writing process has evolved over the years. “As a younger writer, I would start each book with an unwarranted optimism that the story was going to work. I would begin with a decent handle on who the main character is and what is the problem he needed to solve. If I run into a problem, I figure I can fix it in the revision process. I used to have that belief to get to the end of the story as quickly as I could and then revise and revise until it worked. I never worried about awkward sentences.”

Now, he said, at the age of 67, Russo has become more of a “language oriented” writer. “Now I have this terror that, what if I get to the end and I can’t fix everything?…I’m so much more anxious as a writer now. I spend long hours revising earlier in the process than I ever did earlier in my career.”

Russo said he begins writing in the morning and writes for several hours each day, seven days a week. “If it sounds like drudgery, it is,” he said.

The author of eight novels, two collections of stories, and Elsewhere, a memoir, Russo’s latest work, Everybody’s Fool, was published in 2016. It is a sequel to Nobody’s Fool, which was adapted into a film. Russo co-wrote the 1998 film, Twilight, with the director Robert Benton, and in 2005 wrote Niall Johnson’s film, Keeping Mum, which stars Rowan Atkinson. In 2002, Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for the novel Empire Falls, which, like Nobody’s Fool, was adapted to film.

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I’m Back After an Interruption From Real Life

Those who follow this blog may have noticed I haven’t posted any new material in months. There’s a good reason. I was in the throes of a prolonged job search and career transition that consumed much of my time. At the same time, I was holding down a full-time job with numerous responsibilities.

Given these demands on my time, I had to prioritize. Of my two writing priorities, my work-in-progress took precedence over my blog. I managed during my career upheaval to add about 30,000 words to my novel-in-progress. My word count is up to 88,000 and I am headed toward the finish line.

Sadly, my blogging output the past few months is at zero words. Blogging about fiction writing is important to me. I view it as an integral part of my self-development as a writer. I use my blog to pass along lessons learned to new fiction writers, but it serves a more significant purpose. I also use my blog to reflect on my experience and explore topics related to fiction writing.

I’ve noticed that a number of prolific bloggers have burned out in recent years. They either lost that fire in the belly or perhaps they had written everything they had intended to say. I vowed to not let that happen to me and, yet, I have rarely blogged since the beginning of 2017. That is something I intend to change.

My career situation has resolved itself. A huge weight is gone now. For better or worse, I plan to return to a regular schedule of blog posts for the rest of this year and beyond.

 

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Book Review: A Man Called Ove, By Fredrik Backman

The first line of Fredrik Backman’s surprising breakout novel, “A Man Called Ove,” seems at first blush quite unremarkable: “Ove is fifty-nine.” The second line is equally dull: “He drives a Saab.” As this unique and quirky story unfolds, the reader discovers these seemingly pedestrian lines are packed with meaning.

Fifty-nine is not old in today’s world. For many, it is the beginning of a phase of life when they can leave their job behind and enjoy life, checking off things on their bucket list. For Ove, fifty-nine is the end of the line. That becomes clear early on. His wife has died, he has lost his job, and life has no meaning. And so he plots his suicide. But every time he tries, something happens. He is interrupted by a neighbor during one attempt. He wants to throw himself on the train tracks, but ends up saving a man who has fallen onto the tracks instead.

Ove is a disagreeable sort, a petty tyrant who walks around enforcing silly rules he has imposed upon his condo association neighbors. Then he has an epiphany, thanks to his neighbor, a young pregnant woman named Parvaneh.  Ove meets Parvaneh, her earnest but clumsy husband, Patrick, and their two daughters when they accidentally knock over his mailbox while backing up a U-Haul. Ove wants nothing to do with Parvaneh, but she sees something in him. She recognizes he needs to be useful to other people and she relies on him for rides, since she doesn’t drive. Then she prevails upon Ove to teach her how to drive, a hilarious section of the novel.

Backman skillfully interjects Ove’s back story through flashback chapters that give us insight into his character. One of the most tender is the story of how he met Sonja, his wife. He spotted her on a train one day and then he invented an excuse to ride the train in the morning to the city where she worked, return on the train with her in the late afternoon and then go to his night job.  When Sonja is paralyzed in a bus accident and they lose their unborn child, Ove takes care of her for many years, retrofitting the kitchen counters so she can reach them from her wheelchair and carrying her up the stairs each night. This is far from the rigid, authoritarian Ove we meet in the early chapters.

Two key turning points convince Ove that life is worth living. He takes in a stray cat whom he had scolded for urinating in his plants. The cat becomes his constant companion. Then, he finds out that a neighbor with whom he has feuded for years, Rune, is about to be institutionalized for dementia. He organizes his neighbors to come up with a plan to keep Rune in his home with his devoted wife, Anita. This was the most touching chapter in the book.

In Ove,  Backman has created a unique character with a strong voice. Ove values self-reliance and hectors people who can’t do things for themselves. Yet, he discovers the world works because people are interdependent. He decides he wants to live because his neighbors need him. What a valuable message.

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Book Review: “Evenfall,” by Liz Michalski

Liz Michalski’s debut novel, “Evenfall,” is a beautifully rendered, bittersweet tale of love and loss. Wrapped around the three vivid point-of-view characters and a strong supporting cast, which includes the setting, is the powerful theme of how the tough decisions of the heart that we make can have cascading effects that haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Speaking of haunting, one of the main characters, Frank Wildermurth, is a ghost. Andie Murphy, his 33-year-old niece, has returned from the implosion of a three-year relationship in Italy to settle her Uncle Frank’s estate in rural southeastern Connecticut. Andie’s aging aunt, Gert Murphy, a no-nonsense woman who drives her crazy, is living in the cottage.

When young Cort McAllister shows up at the estate one day, the Murphy women put him to work doing odd jobs cleaning up the ramshackle estate property, called Evenfall. Andie remembers Cort as the little 11-year-old boy she used to babysit, but now he is a strapping, handsome young man and sparks soon fly between them. The budding relationship is complicated when Andie’s ex-boyfriend, Neal Roberts, shows up and tries to win her back.

Aunt Gert is tempted to get involved, though it’s against her nature. “Gert’s made a lifetime out of walking away, out of keeping herself to herself, avoiding other people’s troubles,” she reflects at the beginning of one key chapter. Indeed, many years earlier, she had walked away from a love struck Frank and enlisted as a nurse in the war.

Meanwhile, Frank is a spectral presence who is still grappling with the decision he made years ago to choose Gert’s sister, Clara Murphy, over his true love. Michalski skillfully handles the story’s paranormal aspects as Frank’s presence is subtle and there is no over-the-top magic here to cloud the story.

In the end, Andie must follow her heart, a lesson Frank learned the hard way.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

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Book Review: Story Genius, by Lisa Cron, Part 3

In my two earlier posts on Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, I wrote about the importance she attaches to the writer figuring out the main character’s back story, developing that “what if? moment, and identifying her misbelief, which she will have to overcome during the course of the story.

I discussed the “origin scene,” that pivotal moment in the protagonist’s life when the misbelief took root. The misbelief will ultimately prevent the protagonist from achieving her deep-seated desire. Cron recommends that the writer develop three scenes in which the misbelief has kept the protagonist safe from harm and the moment when the plot forces her to go after what she wants. This is the key moment when life no longer allows the protagonist to put off going after what she wants. This comes in the form of an external event that forces the protagonist to confront her misbelief

This is where the Story Genius blueprint comes in. The blueprint is actually a scene by scene progression of the external plot, driven by the internal struggle that each event triggers in the protagonist. All of the work the writer has done to develop the protagonist’s backstory, deep-seated desire and misbelief and the origin scene comes into play here. The key to the blueprint is to develop a series of Scene Cards. Cron provides a useful template. At the top of the page is the Scene #, followed by the Alpha Point, and two subplots (if needed). The template then has four quadrants. In the upper left is Cause (what happens). In the upper right is Effect (the consequence). In the lower left under Cause is a quadrant labeled, Why It Matters. And the lower right quadrant under Effect, is labelled, The Realization, followed by, And so? The upper two quadrants relate to The Plot. The lower two quadrants relate to The Third Rail. Note that the Scene Card is based on the cause-and-effect trajectory, which will propel the story forward.

The Alpha Point is the key role that the scene will play in this cause-and-effect trajectory. It ties to the action of the plot. It answers the question, why is this scene necessary? What is its function? Each scene must have a specific alpha point. If it has more than one, then these should be filled in under the two subplot lines.

The Cause side of the blueprint is what happens in the first half of the scene. The third rail part of the quadrants relate to why what’s happening matters to the protagonist. The Effect side of the quadrants deals with the external consequence of what takes place in the scene. The third rail deals with the internal change, the realization the change triggers in the main character, or the key character in the scene. This must lead to action, which is what the protagonist does next. Each scene must cause the character to change her plan in some way. The “And So?” section is where the writer will record what must  happen next as a result of this scene.

“Remember, your goal is just as much to be specific about your protagonist’s inner struggle as it is to be specific about what will happen in the scene,” Cron writes. “The two are linked, and each is neutral without the other. Your protagonist’s internal agenda is not simply what gives emotional weight and meaning to what’s happening up there on the surface; it’s also what drives the decisions she makes, and therefore the action.”

Cron recommends the writer start at the beginning, naturally, and develop the first scene, knowing it will be rewritten many times. Then she urges the writer to jump to the end of the story. Why write the end so soon in the process? The reason is that it will help the writer to figure out what must happen between the first page and the last page to ensure the protagonist must really work hard to earn her “aha” moment. The end writers must seek is not just a resolution of the plot, but what the protagonist realizes about herself, that transformative moment when she must overcome her misbelief. How to get that moment right? The protagonist must work hard to earn this revelation. Sometimes, this doesn’t happen at the end of the story, but rather when the character summons up the courage to fight an all-out battle to achieve what she wants. In any case, the writer must put the reader in the middle of the story. “Your goal as a storyteller isn’t to tell us what your protagonist realizes; it’s to plunk us into the event that causes her to have the realization in the first place,” Cron writes. The reader must be inside the character’s psyche.

Here are the questions the writer must answer in working out the ending of the story:

-At the end, will your protagonist achieve her external goal?

-What will change for your protagonist internally?

-What will happen externally in this scene that forces your protagonist to confront, and hopefully overcome, her misbelief?

So, with the beginning and the ending of the story worked out, the next step in the blueprint is to make a Scene Card for each scene. Specifically, writers should write the first five Scene Cards, keeping in mind the cause-and-effect trajectory. The first five scenes  set up the story and put the balls into motion. And this should be done in chronological order. “The Scene Cards will help you layer your scenes so each one has maximium power, urgency and believability. They enable you to envision the multidimensional aspect of your novel in one fell swoop,” she writes.

Organization of materials is part of the blueprint and Cron recommends setting up the following folders (either electronic or hard copy):

-Key Characters and their story specific bios.

-The Rules of the World. This is where the writer keeps track of the logical framework of the world in which the story is grounded.

-Idea List. This is where the writer puts those ideas that are too fuzzy or conceptual.

-Random Scene Cards. Put any scene that the writer can envision that has an Alpha Point but doesn’t seem to connect to the Third Rail.

-Scene Cards in Development. Arrange these cards in chronological order and number them.

Next, the writer uses the character’s past to set up the plot. The writer plumbs the protagonist’s past to create a cause-and-effect. Each event should cause the next one to happen, creating an escalation. Each event must tie to an internal change that it triggers in the protagonist, which in turn leads to the next event. At this point, Cron recommends the writer draft a brief overview of the novel as it stands, even if it’s just a rough sketch. Look at the sketch and pinpoint the moments that challenged the protagonist and caused her to act. List each potential scene, plot point, and storyline that springs from the sketch and begin to develop them. This will allow the writer to build a number of potential scenes. Add them to the Idea List. Ask what secrets does the protagonist have? What lies has she told? To others? More significantly, what lies has she told to herself? What external obstacles has the writer planted in the past that will keep the protagonist from her goal? Write Scene Cards for these ideas.

Following all of these steps in the blueprint will bring structure to the story, but to guard against developing a series of random plot points, the writer must then ask, “why?” Each plot point must relate to the story logic and therefore each must be tested by asking this question. “The “Why”–the reason something might happen, can happen, does happen–is what creates your novel’s internal logic, so that things add up, and your reader can eagerly anticipate what might happen next,” she writes. This is the test that must be applied to the plot ideas that have been developed.

What if the writer follows the blueprint and still encounters gaps or dead ends? Cron advises the key is to add conflict. Making it harder on the protagonist will fill in the gaps. “In fact make it worse than he imagined it could possibly be–worse than you imagined it could be at first blush.”

The final two aspects of the blueprint relate to secondary characters/subplots, and writing forward. Secondary characters must have a connection to the protagonist’s misbelief They either challenge or reaffirm it. Like the main character, secondary characters have agendas, but their agendas must help facilitate the main character’s story. Again, keep in mind cause-and-effect.

Writing forward means taking the Scene Cards for scenes 2 through  and writing those scenes. When the writer finishes writing the first five scenes, she should have dozens of Scene Cards in development. These should be in chronological order.  There will be a lot of writing and rewriting and the writer will eventually experience that feeling where the characters take on a life of their own.

The writer’s biggest challenge at this point is to put the reader in the protagonist’s mind, to make the invisible, visible, as Cron puts it. “When it comes to your protagonist, you can, in fact, read his mind. The trick is to give the reader the same experience.” The protagonist must react internally to everything that happens, in the moment. and must draw a conclusion that affects what he’s doing or how he interprets what’s happening.

This closing bit of advice summarizes how writers can best use Cron’s blueprint: “Understanding what [the protagonist is] struggling with will tell you what those conclusions will be, and what she’ll do as a result. That’s what unites the story and the plot, and what moves them ever forward.”

Story Genius is based on a complicated, but highly useful blueprint that I found impossible to describe in a single blog post. I hope writers will find as much value in this three-part post as I found in this game changing book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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