This series of posts will teach you all you need to know about writing scenes. We’ll look at matters such as Scene and Sequel, scene structure, scene goals, and the like. The aim is to build a comprehensive starting point for any new author. In this first post we’ll start with the basics.
So, let’s begin with:
What is a scene?
The term ‘scene’ comes from the theatre, where it describes the staging of action in a physical setting. It is derived from the old Greek ‘skene’, which meant, amongst other things, ‘that which is represented on stage,’ (etymonline.com).
Author Jack Bickham, in his book Scene and Structure (1999), defines scenes as ‘a segment of story action [that] could be put on the theater stage and acted out.’
This vague definition gives rise to more questions. Fortunately, Bickham then explains what a scene isn’t: it’s not a summary of events, or something that goes on in character’s head. To Bickham, a scene is a blow-by-blow account of dramatic action – played out in full view – for the audience to savour. Scenes exist in the story ‘now’ and are ‘something physical.’ (Bickham, 1999).
Compelling characters undertake significant actions
C.S. Lakin echoes this on her blog, livewritethrive.com She quotes from the book Make a Scene (2007) by Jordan Rosenfeld: ‘Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.’
Although a bit of a mouthful (!) it’s a comprehensive and useful definition. Scenes are not story summary or a character’s reminisces, but moments of vivid significance acted out in real time. No different to the theatre, except for the location of the stage.
Why bother writing scenes?
The first question is: why write scenes at all? Why can’t we just tell the story? Why must we ‘stage’ it?
Let’s look to the theatre for clues. Imagine a one-man show or even a stand-up comedian. The performer might ‘transport’ you into their story – into another world – via their storycraft. And yet, no matter how skilled they are, you’ll retain the awareness that you’re watching a person tell a story.
Contrast with this the theatre or the cinema. A well-staged play creates a deeper suspension of disbelief, because your senses are seduced by the actors, the dialogue, the costumes, and the mood. Staged drama is hypnotic; it draws you closer to the action.
The told style of monologue, and the shown style of staged drama, each have their respective strengths and limitations. One is not superior to another – they’re just different forms. But, as a general rule, showing is more potent than telling. Hence the old adage…
Narrative summary speeds a story forward, but scenes excel at slowing things down and showing us drama in satisfying detail. Scenes are not just capsules; they are portals into our character’s most difficult moments. They play out in our imagination and we feel involved.[bctt tweet=”“What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out.” ― Alfred Hitchcock”]
These emotions are why people pay their money. And it is why scenes are so important. If your reader’s mind really is a stage, then you are are the director.
Don’t leave your audience wishing they’d stayed at home.
Length, characters, setting, oh my…
If a scene is a ‘capsule’ of compelling drama, we need to know what it should look like. Questions arise, such as:
• How long should a scene be?
• Is it restricted to one setting, like the theatre?
• How many characters does a scene need?
• Can those characters come and go, like in a play?
And so on… However, these questions are not so important (just yet). Scenes are less defined by their attributes – location, characters, setting, length – and more by their function. Raymond Obstfeld, in his book Crafting Scenes (2000), writes that ‘length doesn’t define a scene – focus does.’ He goes on to say that scenes may have different purposes:
• Some scenes exist to further the story’s plot.
• Some scenes might foster tension.
• Some scenes might highlight a character trait or action.
• Some scenes show characters in conflict.
Obstfeld argues that the best scenes will combine some or all of these aims. He also states that a) the writer should know what the scene is trying to achieve, and b) it ‘justifies its existence by being memorable.’ The most important question is not setting, length, or the number of characters, but the scene’s point. Why does it exist?
Not all scenes are the same
In his book Writing for Emotional Impact (2005), Karl Iglesias defines three different types of scene:
• Exposition scenes: they provide information, establish the mood and tone, or provide context by showing the transition from one locale to another.
• Spectacle scenes: where the main purpose is to make the audience go ‘wow!’
• Dramatic scenes: the ‘core of storytelling. Story is drama; therefore, conflict is essential in these scenes. These are the scenes that change a character, move the plot in a different direction, and produce the most emotional impact.’ (Iglesias, 2005).
Granted, this is from a screenwriting book – but it pays to recognise that some scenes focus more on conflict than others. This is echoed by Bickham (and countless others) when he introduces a new set of categories:
• Scene: which in this case means the ‘dramatic scene’ listed above. A protagonist encounters conflict. He takes action that, after some cut and thrust, provokes a disastrous turn of events.
• Sequel: the protagonist reacts to these new circumstances by wrestling with the resulting dilemma. He then decides on a new course of action – or not – which takes us into the next scene.
Things aren’t as cut and dried as they first appeared. Scenes aren’t just moments of drama, existing in the story ‘now’. They come in two halves – the Scene and the Sequel – which combine to create a sense of cause and effect.
One thing leading to another. If story had a golden rule, it would probably be this.
A Series on Scene and Sequel
In this series of posts, we’ll look at these two types of scene: the dramatic Scene and the reactive Sequel. As others have stated, these terms can seem confusing, but they’re the accepted jargon so let’s run with it. To make it clearer, we’ll use Scene and Sequel (capitalised, italics) when using these specific terms, and ‘scene’ (no capitals or italics) to refer to scenes in general.
These terms were presented by Dwight V. Swain in his book Techniques of the Selling Writer – a book I have not read, but which I have since ordered. His ideas have taken hold in the novel writing community, and with good reason – they describe the process of action and reaction, which is fundamental to story on every conceivable level.[bctt tweet=”“In the language of an actor, to know is synonymous with to feel” ― Konstantin Stanislavski”]
To understand scenes, we must first put the whole concept of cause and effect under the microscope.
The importance of causality
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot. — E.M. Forster
Two similar statements – two very different effects. But why?
The first statement ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ describes two events. It generates little curiosity because they’re just vaguely related moments. The second statement ‘The king died, and then queen died of grief,’ piques our interest due to causality. We’re interested because we want to know how one event lead to another. Cause and effect can be fascinating. For instance, consider this innovative ad from car manufacturer Honda:
Well-written stories unfold with a clear sense that one thing leads to another. In his book, Bickham argues this helps us comprehend – or at least escape from – our random, jumbled up world. Perhaps this is why we detest it when, in fiction, implausible or coincidental things happen. We want our stories to be neater than real life. We want them to make sense.
This linear pattern of cause and effect is woven throughout story on every level. Whenever anything happens, we must a) show why it occurred, and b) show what happens as a result. There has to be causality:
• Foreground events: your protagonist’s car breaks down down in the middle of a zombie infested city. Hopefully you planted the notion that the engine could fail – it cannot be random bad luck.
• Background events: you spend half a page describing a deathly cold night. You must refer to its consequences. The frost can’t just vanish, unnoticed.
• Character actions: your protagonist robs a bank. He cannot then woo the girl next door without any mention of the bank job for the remaining 300 pages! Otherwise, why is it in your story?
• Character motivations: your protagonist robs a bank. And yet, she’s a well-paid advertising executive who values stability above all else. Where is the cause and effect in her motivation? Without it, her actions make little sense.
• Storyworld objects: you’ve hung ‘Checkov’s gun’ from a wall. It has to go off – otherwise, why did you put it there?
• Small details: two characters are playing catch. If one throws the ball, the other must do something with it. Otherwise, somewhere in your brain the obvious question forms: ‘what happened to the ball???’ (This last example is taken from Bickham, and it’s illuminating; although a small detail in itself, these broken chains add up, rotting your story’s credibility from within).
In good storytelling, every cause must create an effect, and every effect must have a cause*. This needn’t cause predictable or pedestrian storytelling – we should still encounter the unexpected. But, no matter how unexpected or unpredictable your story, there needs to be a plausible basis for each twist and turn.
(∗ Of course, rules can be broken. Frogs rain from the sky in Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Magnolia’. Indiana Jones shoots a bad guy who’s wielding Checkov’s sword. But these are rarities; consider breaking this rule only to create examples that will be discussed for decades to come!)
More likely, the failure to consider cause and effect will cause your story to descend into hodgepodge. Your reader to stop suspending their disbelief, causing them to toss your novel into the nearest wastepaper bin.
Cause and effect on the scene level
If cause and effect is woven through all levels of story, then it must also apply to scenes and their consequences. Hence, the Scene and its Sequel.
The dramatic Scene – goals, conflict, and disaster
Dramatic Scenes should accomplish one thing above all else: to show your character’s struggle against immediate conflict. Without conflict (arising organically from your protagonist’s hopes, fears, choices, and personality) it isn’t a scene.
According to Bickham, your protagonist should state their intention clearly at the beginning of each Scene. He refers to this as your protagonist’s ‘scene goal’. This prompts the question: will the protagonist achieve their goal? Posing this ‘scene question’ creates suspense in your readers.
For the scene to be interesting, someone – or something – must block your protagonist’s path. A dance unfolds: punch and counterpunch; feint and counter-feint. This is conflict. It is the process of cause and effect unfolding between incompatible forces. Suspense combines with the vicarious thrill of drama, and we feel compelled to read on.
Orchestrate this cut and thrust correctly, and your protagonist’s actions will provoke an unexpected turn of events. And, in most cases, there’ll likely be disastrous consequences. In his excellent book Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (2013), John Yorke notes that ‘scenes exist because they have a turning point. It is why the writer selects them to tell their story.’
This is the moment where the ‘scene question’ is answered. Will the protagonist attain their goal? Perhaps the answer will be a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. More likely, the answer will be ‘yes, but…’ or even ‘no, and furthermore…’ Whatever disaster you visit on your characters, it should to move the story forward but set the protagonist back.
These are moments of change; of figurative (or even literal) death. They must run deep and hit hard. Disasters cannot be trifling.[bctt tweet=”“I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” — FRANK CAPRA “]
The Reactive Sequel – reaction, dilemma, and decision
It makes little sense to describe a deathly cold night, only to neglect its consequences… There has to be some fall out. There has to be cause and effect.
In the previous Scene, your protagonist’s attempt to achieve their goal provoked unexpected – and disastrous – circumstances. Surely, this is going to sting a little? To gloss over their emotional response would not be true to life. Your reader will detect something is missing. It’s another example where Jack Bickham would ask: ‘where is the ball???’
Whatever emotions your protagonist feels, they will now face a dilemma. According to author K.M. Weiland, on her blog post ‘The Three Building Blocks of the Sequel’:
Sometimes this dilemma will be as general as, “What do I do now?” Usually, it will be more specific: “How do I undo the disaster?” “How do I keep my best friend from finding out the truth?” “How do I avoid the truant officer when he comes after me?” “How do I apologize to my son before he leaves?”
And so on… This dilemma needs to be picked apart and analysed, turned over and understood. Your protagonist regroups, and works out what to do next.
And then? Well, once your protagonist has worked out their next move, they have a new goal to focus on… and therefore a new scene. The cycle of Scene and Sequel starts again. This is cause and effect in action.
Storytelling is fractal
In any written story, time is measured in units of change. There can be no forward movement without it.
As your story’s events flow from one moment to the next, there has to be a discernible sense of change. This is true on the small-scale, where your protagonist’s smallest actions – and their consequences – build towards setback after setback; and it is true on the larger-scale, where disastrous consequences give rise to new goals, new perspectives, and new experiences.
But this change cannot be random – there has to be causation. Understand this, and you’ll see why the Scene and the Sequel are two halves of the same unit. They are the in-breath and out-breath of your story; the engine that drives it forward.
Five take home points
• Scenes are moments of significance acted out in real time. They play out in our imagination, allowing us to feel involved.
• Some scenes focus on conflict more than others. There is the active Scene, where the protagonist comes into conflict, which then leads to a disastrous turn of events.
• There is the reactive Sequel, where the protagonist reacts to these disastrous circumstances, before deciding on a new course of action. Sequels tend to focus less on conflict.
• Well-written stories unfold with a clear sense of one thing leading to another. This helps us comprehend (or at least escape from) our random, jumbled up world.
• The Scene and the Sequel also reflect this flow of cause and effect. They are the inbreath and outbreath of your story.
In the next post of this series, we’ll look at scene structure in more detail.
Do you have any helpful tips or techniques for writing scenes? If so please share in the comments below. Comments are encouraged!
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