Tag Archives: Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

The Mean Editor

As an author I have a split personality. The writer side of me has the imagination and curiosity of a small child. I enjoy putting together the first draft. It’s like taking out a box of building blocks and experimenting until I build something beautiful. It’s fun to try different things, write scenes from different characters’ points of view, invent alternate scenarios, and different endings. When I’m finished I stand back and admire what I’ve created.

Then the editor side of me takes over. If the writer is the child, the editor is the adult. He’s a mean SOB. The editor takes the small child’s wonderful creation and tears it apart. If a chapter is too long, cut it. If a scene doesn’t work, out it goes. If a character doesn’t move the editor, the editor moves the character right out of the manuscript.

Info dumps? Back story? Don’t even go there. Adverbs? Forget it. Cute dialogue tags like “she opined?” Not a chance. Stick with “he said” and “she said.”

Through numerous rounds of editing the manuscript of my first novel, Small Change, it shrank from an unwieldy 126,000 words to 103,000 words. And the paring down process wasn’t just about getting the manuscript down to a publishable word count. There were scenes and chapters that I thought were clever when I wrote them. Upon further review, the clear-eyed editor decided to delete them. I reworked the first page and the opening chapter at least ten times. And then I lopped off the first four chapters after deciding the book started in the wrong place. The opening scene in my final draft wasn’t even in the first draft. I added it because it foreshadowed the first dramatic event in the story.

I cut anything that smacked of telling or rewrote it in a way that “showed” the scene to the reader instead.

What did I learn? These are some of the “big picture” (macro) issues to look at when editing:

  • Pointless dialogue. Dialogue should either reveal something about the character, the relationship among characters, or move the story along. Asking about the weather or how the other person is doing doesn’t belong in a novel.
  • Unbalanced scenes. Readers get bored with scenes that consist exclusively of dialogue. The same with scenes that are non-stop narrative. Writers need to strike a balance among narrative, action, and dialogue. Raymond Obstfeld’s book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes is a great resource on balance in scenes.
  • Subplots that don’t connect to the main plot. Fiction writing experts say the longer a subplot goes on without connecting to the main plot, the greater the chances the reader will lose interest in the subplot, the main plot or both. Bring the two together.
  • Unnecessary scenes. Ask yourself this: what does this scene achieve? Is it really necessary to the story? Does it add anything? If not, it has to go.
  • Research dumps. You’ve heard the admonition against info dumps. Research dumps are just as bad. You may conduct exhaustive research on how a nuclear submarine works, but you will quickly lose your readers if you describe it in every detail. Include only those details that are central to the story.
  • Fantastic coincidences. Dean Koontz warned against this in his book on writing. Here’s one: a guy has a crush on a girl in high school and always regrets he didn’t pursue it. Years later, he finds himself divorced. On a trip to China, he runs into his old crush from high school, they hit it off and get married. Not likely. That’s what the reader is likely to think.
  • Bad endings. This is a broad category that includes the following: So what? endings, Happily ever after endings, Too neat resolutions endings, didn’t you (main character) learn anything? endings.

Often the writer feels so strongly about his prose that he cannot let anything go. That’s when the editor has to step in. You may read this and think to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m the writer. I’m in charge. I make the final decision.’ I respect that opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, the editor side of me is the boss. He makes the final decision.

This dynamic changes when you submit what you think is your final manuscript and your publisher tells you to make some changes. In those instances, your publisher is the boss, though you should stick up for yourself if you feel strongly about your work.

Are you a mean editor? When there’s a dispute between your writer and editor sides, which one wins out?


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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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