Tag Archives: crafting scenes

Writing “In Scene:” Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I outlined the basic elements of a scene in a novel: one or more characters, usually with the presence of conflict or tension, set in a time and place or moving from one place to another, action/narrative/dialogue, and something happens that must advance the story. Those are the basics, but an effective scene must go deeper.

One of my favorite bloggers, author KM Weiland, did a 12-part series on writing scenes. I highly recommend it. She devoted a lot of space to the concept of “scene and sequel.” What this means in basic terms is that the first half of the scene should contain action (goal-motivation-disaster) and the second half or sequel is the main character’s reaction to what happened. Weiland breaks it down into three parts: reaction (processing what has happened), dilemma (what does the character do now?) and decision (the character must figure out a solution).

Let’s look at the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene, because this is essential to a scene’s success or failure. The goal is simply what the main character wants. The motivation is why he wants it. The disaster is what is preventing the character from reaching the goal. Simple enough in concept, but getting the goal-motivation-disaster right is much more difficult in execution.

The reaction-dilemma-decision is frequently overlooked, but equally important. It is what gives meaning and emotional resonance to the goal-motivation-disaster part of the scene.

Randy Ingermanson, who came up with the famous Snowflake Method of designing a novel, speaks about two levels of scene structure: large-scale and small-scale. He believes readers read fiction because the writer provides them with a powerful emotional experience. The large-scale follows the structure Weiland advocates (scene/sequel). The small scale consists of what Dwight Swain calls “Motivation Reaction Units, which alternate between what the Point of View (POV) character sees (motivation, which is external and objective) and what he does (reaction, which is internal and subjective). The writer should devote a separate paragraph to each.

Plot expert Martha Alderson, in a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, outlined the seven layers of a scene.

Note that Alderson’s final layer of the scene is its thematic significance. “The key to the theme lies in your reasons for writing the story and what you want your readers to take away from it,” Alderson wrote. “When the details you use in the scene support the thematic significance, you have created an intricately layered scene that provides meaning and depth to the overall plot.”

Another key element of an effective scene that is implied in each of these structures is stakes. Scene stakes must be meaningful, either on a micro or macro level.

This topic is impossible to cover in two blog posts. There is no single way to approach or structure a scene. There are, however, a number of questions a writer should ask before beginning a scene:

• What is the purpose of this scene? What am I trying to achieve?
• How is the main character challenged or changed in the scene?
• What are the stakes? Are they important?
• What is the proper pacing for the scene?
• What is the appropriate balance of action/narrative/dialogue? How does the setting, dialogue and action advance what the writer is trying to achieve?
• How does the scene advance the story?

While I cannot adequately cover the topic of scene crafting in so few words, I highly recommend Raymond Obstfeld’s excellent book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes.

It is a comprehensive and enlightening guide to writing effective scenes and I refer to it often.


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Help! I’m Running Out of Scenes

National Novel Writing Month is at the halfway point. I’m closing in on 30,000 words. I’m nearly 5,000 words ahead of where I should be. So why am I so worried?

I’m running out of scenes. My story is headed rapidly toward its climax and I still have 20,000 words left. I vowed from the beginning I would not concoct scenes strictly to “pad” my word count. That is, I would not create meaningless scenes just so I could reach 50,000 words. I’m sticking to that promise, but I find myself wracking my brain to come up with realistic scenes that fit into the narrative. I’ve come up with a few good ones that still need to be developed.

My dilemma got me thinking of this question: How many scenes does it take to finish a novel? A quick research project on the Internet yielded a lot of theories but no clear answers. Randy Ingermanson, who maintains the site, http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/, wrote a thoughtful post about scenes. Here’s what Randy wrote in part: “There aren’t any rules on the scene length, as long as the story works. You should write the scenes to the right length for your story.

“I would guess that most novels have anywhere from 50 to 200 scenes. It might be an interesting exercise to go through some of your favorite novels and count the number of scenes. But a far more interesting exercise is to look at individual scenes and ask why the author wrote it that particular length. Did she put in too much or too little. How would you have written the scene differently,” he wrote.

Building on Randy’s suggestion, watch your favorite sitcoms or TV dramas and count the number of scenes. Or watch your favorite movie.

Raymond Obstfeld, in his excellent book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, offers this advice on scene length: “Nothing about writing is exact, which is why it’s an art, not a science. Although the best length of a scene depends on its purpose, there’s no rule that any particular purpose should be a specific length. The importance of a scene is not a guide either. Sometimes the most crucial scene in a story may be the shortest to give it the most impact. Therefore, when we discuss length, don’t think of pages; think of attention span. Specifically, “long” is when the reader’s attention span wanders and he either wants to skip ahead or stop reading. “Short” is when the reader feels frustrated because he didn’t experience the scene so much as get a synopsis of events.”

Ian McEwan’s fine novel, On Chesil Beach, presents an interesting case study. The focal point of the novel is a single night: the wedding night of the main character and his new wife. Both are virgins and both are terrified about their lack of sexual experience. The scene plays out over multiple chapters, with flashbacks that describe both characters’ upbringing and their courtship. I haven’t counted the number of scenes in On Chesil Beach, but one single scene played out over the course of the night is the lynchpin of the novel.

My scenes tend to run about 1,500 words, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. One crucial scene in my first novel extended over several chapters and ran about 7,500 words. Using the 1,500 word rule, if you take a 90,000 word novel and divide it by 1,500 words, you would need to come up with 60 scenes. So I guess I’m looking at a total of 33.3 scenes for a 50,000 word novel, but there are no rules.

How do you approach scene development? How long is your average scene? And does it matter?


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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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