Article of the Month
Making Scenes Matter
c. 2005 by Alicia Rasley
Scenes are what give the reader the experience of the action of the story and the perspectives of the main characters. Without scenes, the story would be heard and not experienced-- told but not shown. They are the generators of plot change and character development. And they're what the reader remembers long after she's forgotten the names of the characters or the details of the plot—the vivid moments of story captured in action.
First, let's define "scene' and some aspects of it.
What is a scene? A scene is a unit of action and interaction taking place more or less in real-time and centering on some event of plot development.
The important elements are:
Action– Something is happening! There is movement and progress and change during this time. Where there is action, there is danger of some kind.
Interaction– The viewpoint character is interacting with other characters and/or the environment. This will cause sparks. The interaction will force more action on the viewpoint character.
Real-time– A scene usually takes place in a continuous span of time, with a starting point and an ending point. This sounds basic, but it's essential. Unless the reader sees the action unfolding (that is, not in retrospect or summary), she will lose that important sense that this event is really happening.
Event– Every scene should center on an actual event, something that happens– not a dream, not a flashback, not a passage of introspection. A character is doing something, experiencing something, not just in her own mind, but in the external reality of the story. That can mean she's taking an action, discovering a secret, encountering another character, having a conversation, creating something new, enduring a trauma– but you should be able to identify what event has taken place in this scene.
Plot development– Events are important because they are concrete and real and have consequences. Most important, they have consequences on the plot. This event, this scene, should cause a development in the story.
All this adds up to CHANGE. At the end of the scene, the characters and the plot should have changed in some increment. It doesn't have to be a major change (although turning point scenes will lead to major changes)—just a change of some sort.
Now I don't think most writers actually plan every scene. Sometimes scenes are magically generated, top to bottom. I'm thinking of my own experience... scenes come to me when I'm lying in bed in the morning half asleep. It's something between dream and creation-- directed dreaming, only it's much more coherent than any dream.
That sort of inspiration/dreaming/imagination/subconscious stuff works well early in the writing process. Big scenes, important scenes, come to me, and I learn all sorts of things about my characters and plot just "viewing" these scenes in my head. The problem is, we can't rely on magic. The majority of scenes have to be invented.
And that's where scene-planning comes in-- for all those scenes in-between, the workhorse scenes, the ones that get the characters from here to there, ones that we have to think up! Even a few minutes of planning-- determining the scene purpose, the POV-character or scene-protagonist's goal, the conflict, the central event, and the "surprise" at the end-- can make the scene meaningful.
So here are the three S's of Scene: Selection, Structure, and Sequence.
I recently went through a terrible ordeal, cutting a manuscript by 30%. I eliminated every extraneous word, every "that" and "then" and "just", and still I wasn't anywhere close. Finally I had to chop several scenes, and I found that the plot wasn't measurably diminished by this butchery. It occurred to me that I would have saved a lot of time and trouble by never writing those scenes in the first place.
The first requirement for a powerful scene is that it be necessary—necessary to advance the plot and develop the characters. Non-essential scenes waste the reader's time and slow down the pacing. We can immediately make a scene meaningful by selecting for it a central event which changes the plot in some way.
Consciously selecting a central event is especially helpful if you feel like your scenes don't all really advance the plot, that they're more episodic than cumulative. A plot-changing event will connect the scene more coherently to the overall plot and give greater "narrative velocity". The reader can't skim or skip a scene which causes real change.
What constitutes an event? It's irrevocable-- can't be taken back. So if the heroine Sarah drinks a whole bottle of wine and sits down and writes a note to her boss John Smith telling him that she has fallen in love with him, it's only an event if she actually stays drunk long enough to mail it. It stops being an event if she rips up the note, or if she has addressed it wrong and it comes back to her—it has to change the plot. But if it goes astray in the mail and gets forwarded to another John Smith, and he has amnesia and assumes the letter-writer knows him and tracks her down so she can provide clues to his lost past, well, that's an event!
Events are especially meaningful when they aren't just happenings, but rather the result of action or the cause of reaction by a character. This keeps the character active, and makes her more important to the story—she causes things to happen.
Here are some types of events, starting with the least active:
Happening: This is the sort of thing that happens to a character but is beyond a character's control-- he get fired or there's a hurricane that destroys his house or he wins the lottery or his brother asks him to be best man. This kind of event can be positive or negative, but should require some reaction on the protagonist's part. For example, Sarah's love letter goes astray in the mail.
Revelation: Someone reveals some truth or idea or fact to someone else, and it has some effect on the plot. Or it's revealed despite that person's attempt to conceal it.
Discovery: She finds out something, discovers some hidden truth, or realizes there's a secret or someone has been lying. Or she discovers some object or place or person. This is much more effective if it's not just by accident, if she discovers the painting in the attic because she's up there looking for it or for something else.
Action: Some character takes an action that can't be taken back and changes the plot somehow. It doesn't have to be stabbing someone—it can be telling the truth or lying or calling an old boyfriend or the police. It can be quitting a job or wrecking a car. It doesn't have to be on purpose-- that is, the character doesn't have to mean to do that particular action or have that particular result, but it comes about because a character does something. For example, Sarah writes the love letter to her boss and mails it.
Reaction: Same as above, but taken in response to an earlier action or event: John Smith, the amnesiac hero, gets the letter and reacts by tracking down the sender who must know who he is.
Interaction: This means interaction between characters and is an event only if it causes plot change. For example, two enemies sit down and negotiate a truce. That's an event. Two enemies having yet another battle that leads nowhere new is an interaction, but it isn't an event. Similarly, two lovers making love and discovering that they can trust each other from now on is an event, but two lovers making love and finding out they are great in bed together probably isn't. Whatever happens has to be a change from whatever their dynamic was before. Look for: new trust, betrayal, alliance, enmity, understanding, misunderstanding, confession, deception.... but new is the operative word. For example, John comes to Sarah's house, waving the letter, and proposes marriage, because if she loves him, he must love her, even if he doesn't remember her, and she calls the police on him.
What doesn't constitute an event:
Sitting and thinking.
Making decisions unless they lead to immediate action.
Arguing unless the argument causes change.
Conversation unless it causes change.
Physical action unless it causes change.
You can have all these in a scene, but you still need some "change event". I wrote a conversation between two friends, full of great male-bashing lines, and it was great... except that the story was no different at the end of the scene. I simply could not throw this scene out. So instead I inserted an event that I'd planned on happening a day later. Now the heroine's ex-husband interrupts the conversation to reveal he's getting remarried—and that changes the course of the story in a way the male-bashing comedy did not. You need only one plot-changing event to make a scene essential, and provide a purpose for all its other attractions.
But there's more to a scene than just the central event. It might help to think of this as a mini-story, with its own setup, rising action, and climax. With a good structure, a scene will convey what you want to convey, both about the plot and about the characters. So try the same sort of pre-writing that you might do for the story as a whole, planning the scene goals, the character change, and the rising conflict.
What is your purpose for this scene? This probably is connected to the central event. For example, I want to get the heroine to meet the hero through his accidentally getting the love letter meant for her boss.
Who is the protagonist of the scene, that is, the one who is most connected to the central event? This is probably, though not necessarily, the major viewpoint character. Sarah is the protagonist, because it's her letter going to the wrong person that is the central event.
What is the setting and situation? To truly experience these events, the reader has to quickly get some idea "where, when, and who I am". So in the first couple paragraphs, try to anchor the reader in time and space, and in one character's viewpoint. The very basics are: Am I indoors or outdoors? Is it day or night? Whose viewpoint am I sharing? What's going on? Warily Sarah approached the corner mailbox where last night, in her drunken euphoria, she'd stuck the love letter. The handle was warm from the sun. She yanked it open, and tried to insert the other hand in the maw.
What is the initial emotion of the scene? How does your protagonist feel? At the end of the scene, how will the emotion have changed? Sarah is worried but determined to retrieve the letter before her boss gets home from work. At the end of the scene, she will be in despair that her boss will get the letter, and then shocked by the arrival of a completely different John Smith.
What is the protagonist's goal for the time of the scene? This is not the same as your purpose—the protagonist has her own plans for the time of the scene. And if you say, "My protagonist doesn't have a goal. She's just bopping along, enjoying the day," well, consider whether your scene has sufficient propulsion, if the protagonist doesn't care enough to want anything. Sarah wants to get this love letter out her boss's mailbox before he finds it.
What are the obstacles in the way of her getting her goal? Just as in a book, the middle of the scene is usually devoted to increasing the conflict and causing "rising action". It's against the law to try to get a letter out of the postal box. The boss's nosy neighbor is watching when she comes up to his door. When she sticks her hand in his mail slot and feels around for the letter, his dog is on the other side of the door and bites her.
Think of Jack Bickham's suggested answers to the question, "Does she get her goal?"
No, and furthermore.
Which applies to your character, and what happens then? No, she doesn't get the letter back, and furthermore, it turns out that the letter was routed to this crazy amnesiac who now wants to marry her.
What is the surprise? (This term is more positive than "disaster", and less provocative than "climax".) Not every scene needs a surprise, but any scene that precedes according to the plan of the protagonist is likely to be predictable. So what is going to happen that the protagonist isn't prepared for? A stranger arrives at her door, brandishing the letter and insisting he's John Smith and she loves him.
There's your structure—you have the setup and goal, the rising action/conflict, and the climactic event. Now you just have to assemble those in a dramatic sequence.
Sequence is the order in which things happen in the scene. To some extent, this is governed by simple chronology. But while the basic events might have to happen in a particular order, you can get greater power by focusing on emotional arc and rising conflict.
The emotional arc is the change in emotion because of the events of the scene. Think about how your scene protagonist feels at the beginning of the scene about whatever the major issue is going to turn out to be. Don't worry about fleeting and trivial emotions like "she got up on the wrong side of the bed." The start of the emotional arc is how she feels about something important that will be affected by the scene events, like her goal or conflict. At the end of the scene, she should feel differently—not necessarily moving to the opposite (misery to joy) but undergoing a measurable change (misery to terror). That is, just as you have plot consequences for the events in a scene, you have emotional consequences too. But you have to assemble the events in a coherent and dramatic way that lead to this particular emotional change.
So it helps to determine the scene-end emotion and plot an arc, not a zigzag. That is, the emotion should change in plausible ways, as a result not of, say, manic-depression or blood-sugar fluctuations, but of things that happen in the scene. So with Sarah, she starts out feeling determined, and ends up feeling humiliated. I want to work up to that intense ending emotion, so the worst humiliation should follow the climactic event (the surprise), but be the result of the accumulation of her experience. If her greatest humiliation happens in the middle of the scene, then the final event will seem sort of anti-climactic. So sequence is important in creating this emotional arc. Every emotional change should be preceded by some event or action or realization that happens within the scene.
This is where the rising conflict helps determine the sequence. Think of the action rising to "greater risk"-- each event should require the character to take greater and greater risks. I like to list things that are going to happen in the scene and then number them in order of least risk to most risk, and use that sequence in the scene.
But what constitutes risk for this person? It's probably not just physical risk. For example, Sarah is determined to get the letter back to conceal her secret passion. So her boss finding out is a greater risk to her than the possibility of arrest. The more she gets invested in getting back the letter, the more she's willing to risk. So here is Sarah's sequence of action and risk:
1. She tries to get the letter of the corner mailbox, risking getting arrested.
2. She calls in sick so she has time to get the letter, risking getting fired.
3. She skulks around boss's house, waiting for the mailman to deliver the letter, risking the neighbors' suspicion.
4. When the mailman arrives only moments before the boss is due home, she risks running out of time.
5. She sticks her hand into the boss's mailbox just as he drives up the road, risking discovery.
6. When the boss sees her in his yard, she has to make up a lie why she's there, risking her moral state and risking getting caught by the boss in a lie.
7. She finds out that the letter didn't arrive and leaves, but realizes she'll have to come back tomorrow, risking all the above again.
8. Final event that leads to total humiliation: She gets home to find a crazy stranger with the letter, insisting that he's the John Smith it's addressed to, and proclaiming loudly enough that the neighbors can hear that she said she loved him and he's here to propose.
I've got those events assembled so that the scene builds towards the final emotion of humiliation. The sequence flirts with humiliation all along, but she always somehow escapes until the very end. (The essence of a comic scene, by the way, is exactly this—disaster postponed until it explodes.) But in revision, I might try to make the individual "beats" of action more dramatic. For example, what if a police car cruises by just as she sticks her hand in the corner mailbox, so she has to worry about getting arrested? What if the boss didn't have one of those easily burglarized mailboxes out front, but a mailslot in his door? And her hand gets stuck inside? And the dog....
But I'm saving the most intense emotion for the big surprise, right? So the boss discover her only after she's gotten her hand out of the mailslot. And she comes up with a barely-plausible story to account for her presence, and she's there when he goes through the mail so that she knows the letter didn't arrive. That is, she escapes from the great humiliation... until the climactic event of the scene.
That climactic event should both be the highest-risk event, and also produce the ending emotion. That emotion for Sarah isn't fear or disgust, but humiliation. So I have to present that event in a way that inspires the humiliation she has avoided so far. The stranger isn't discreet—he's loud and demanding. The neighbors aren't away on vacation, but barbecuing right there in the yard. (Hey, go for it—make one neighbor the perfect lady, or a nun, for maximum shame power.) When she ignores the stranger, he stands on her stoop and reads the letter out loud—very loud. When she finally goes out and tries to shoo him away, he drops to his knees and makes a crazy, incoherent proposal of marriage. Oh, heck. Why not? She backs away from him and falls off the stoop into the compost pile.
I could present that event in a different way, of course, if I want to inspire a different ending emotion. Same event—the stranger arrives with her letter and proposes—but imagine how differently it would develop if the ending emotion was to be fear. He would come across as threatening, not ridiculous. The neighbors would be gone so she would have no one to come to her aid. Instead of falling off the stoop, she would back up into the door and be trapped by this vehement stranger.
A scene is not just a chronicle of events, but an experience of events filtered through the perspective of the character. The writer is in charge of creating the experience for the reader... and the first and most important step is knowing what experience we want to create. Then we can use the tools of selection, structure, and sequence to accomplish that.
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author.
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