A story, at its foundation, is a series of scenes strung together to create meaning. Scenes are the building blocks of a story. If you can write a good scene, you are well on your way to creating a terrific story.
But what exactly is a scene, and how do you create one that works? Here is a definition of a scene from Make A Scene by Jordan E. Rosenfeld.
Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as if they are happening in real-time.
So, according to the definition above, what are the elements of a good scene?
Scenes are capsules
Take a look at some of the scenes I have written for Trust and Tribulation. You will notice that they generally appear in one place and one time. When I move the action to another place and time, I start another scene. The boundaries of a scene “capsule” are created by continuous space and time e.g. Anthea and her mother and sister at the breakfast table – one place, one time. Once that space and time shifts in the story, you are generally starting another scene.
Sometimes, if the shift is only across a few minutes or a short space within the story – the characters are walking from one room to another – a writer will add a passage of narrative summary that takes the reader across that time and space, and then starts the new scene in continuous flow without a text break. If you look at the scene where Anthea and Lily are walking to the village, I chose to write a short narrative summary about Madame Celeste and then take them into her shop rather than make a break in the text and start a new scene. Why? Because the time and space movement was very short and I used the transition to give some information about Madame Celeste.
Compelling characters undertaking significant actions
Since I have already set up the characters in Trust and Tribulation, it will be up to you to study what information I have given about them throughout the chapters, and create their actions from that characterisation. By actions, I mean their decisions and reactions, and how they go about enacting those decisions and dealing with those reactions. There are many, many books written about to how to create compelling characters, but let’s just say for the purposes of the Trust and Tribulation competition that a compelling character has a goal they want to achieve and that they must overcome obstacles to achieve that goal. Those obstacles include external obstacles such as other people and circumstances, and inner obstacles such as their own morality or character flaws.
Significant actions means those decisions and “enactments of decisions” that are going to add something to the plot and characterisation. They will also preferably push the plot along towards the all-important climax of the story.
In a vivid and memorable way
This is where the show don’t tell method of writing comes into play. Use action (characters doing stuff, body language etc), dialogue, description and thoughts to create dramatic moments that the reader can visualise. If you are still unsure, take a look at the example in the first set of writing tips on this blog.
If you are entering the Trust and Tribulation competition then you will be limited to Anthea’s thoughts in your scenes because Trust and Tribulation is written in what is called Third Person Point of View (e.g. he said, she said, etc.) not First Person Point of View (e.g. I said). Plus it is written specifically through Anthea’s point of view, so we don’t go into the thoughts of any other character. It is also written in past tense – she ran, they walked – something to keep in mind when writing the final chapter.
Allows the events to feel as if they are in real-time
The feeling that the events are happening as we read them is created by the show don’t tell method – think of it as like a blow-by-blow account of each moment of an event. Having said that, it is essential that the writer selects the most important events and parts of those events that the reader needs to experience in order to make sense of the story and enjoy it. Otherwise, the scene will be a blow-by-blow account of trivial matters that will bore the reader.
A couple more pointers:
- · When you start your scene, anchor the reader in time and the place. Check out the beginnings of the Trust and Tribulation scenes and you will notice that I always make sure the reader knows where and when they are in the first paragraph. This is often done using a brief description. Here’s an example from the first scene of the story: Anthea Stanwell sipped her weak morning tea, the leaves of which had already done service the day before, and watched her mother across the small breakfast table. Thus the reader knows, through the show don’t tell method, that it is breakfast time and Anthea and her mother are seated at the table.
- · A scene has a structure:
o a beginning with the time/place anchor I mentioned above,
o a middle leading into a climax which is the emotional high point of the scene where some kind of change occurs for the main character.
o a dénouement – a short ending – which, if it is not the final scene in the story, will have a narrative hook that leads the reader on to the next scene with some kind of promise.
Next Time: Regency Research