Tag Archives: scene development

Scene and Sequel: The Yin and Yang of Fiction

Author K.M. Weiland just completed a 12-part series on her blog (which I highly recommend) focusing on story structure. She spent a lot of time explaining the relationship between the scene and the sequel in fiction writing. When she spoke of the sequel, she was not referring to a series of books, but rather the reaction part of a scene.

Breaking it down to its simplest terms, the scene is where the action takes place. The sequel is where the reaction happens. The scene’s elements are goal/conflict/disaster, while the sequel’s elements are reaction/dilemma/decision, Weiland wrote. “This is where introspective moments, quiet conversations and character development happens,” she wrote.
Sequels must work on an emotional level. While the scene is action-oriented, non-stop action without a breather to give the reader a chance to reflect and the writer the opportunity to explore the character’s emotional depth through her reaction results in a story with poor pacing or no context. Or as Weiland put it, “Scenes drive the action forward; sequels allow characters and readers alike to absorb and react to what’s happened.”

I’d never viewed scenes this way, so this was a valuable revelation. I’ve always approached scenes with one of two goals: to advance the story by introducing new elements of conflict (or expanding existing ones) or to provide perspective through inner monologue or other reflective means. What I was really doing was what Weiland advocated on her blog: writing scenes and sequels. However, my scenes have rarely been focused as strictly action/reaction, and I’ve always been partial to writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the psychology of the characters (what Weiland describes as the sequel). Some of my work might follow this structure: scene/sequel /sequel/scene/scene/sequel. The sequel doesn’t have to be lengthy.

The sequel is flexible. “Although the sequel possesses three basic and unavoidable parts, just like the scene, it is much more flexible in execution,” she wrote. “The three parts may take place within a single sentence—or be stretched out over many chapters. Sometimes one or the other of the parts may be implied; sometimes they may appear to be intermixed with the pieces of the scene.”

This concept was first advanced by Jack Bickham in his book, Scene and Structure.

The concept of scene and sequel may not be right for every writer. Writers cherish the freedom to craft their stories in the way that works best for them. However, writers who are looking for a sound way to approach the crafting of scenes should give the scene and sequel method a try.

What structure do you use to craft your scenes?

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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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