Making Your Scenes Rock–Seven Tips for Stronger ScenesOne of my favorite writing-craft guides, often recommended to writers who want to hone their scenes in fiction and memoir, is The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield.
Not all writers know how to write scenes, truthfully. Neither did I, for many years. My scenes began as “islands,” or unorganized snippets of writing that kinda felt like what a scene should be. They were a far cry from what I learned as I studied scene-making. Scenes are the backbone of a book, at least in the fiction and memoir genres. I knew my scenes had to move the story along, had to take place onstage in front of us versus in the character or narrator’s head. But other than those two rules, I had no guidelines for how to write them.
My best education on scene-making came from reading. As I studied the work of master scene-writers in my favorite novels and memoirs, I saw that most of their scenes contained dialogue and action. These elements separated the scenes in a book from other kinds of writing, such as reflection, setting description, character description, and summary.
If there was action (movement on that stage) and dialogue (people talking to other people), there was likely a scene taking place. That realization was mighty helpful. I pocketed those two markers of scene and began to study my own scenes for whether I’d included something happening and people talking.
Publishing, or the road to it, brings feedback and the ouch of rejection. From early attempts, I learned that my scenes need to take up a certain percentage of a book’s real estate. Why? Scenes keep things moving; they provide momentum. So I began noticing how much of my 300-page manuscript was actually scene.
An urban legend came my way to help out: Alexander Chee, a novelist I admired, was known for printing his manuscript pages by chapter to squint at from a distance. Evidently, Chee looked for the ratio of open spaces (white space) and denser text. White space usually designated scene because dialogue creates broken lines (white space) more than description or reflection or summary.
I began to use Chee’s squint test. Immediately I could tell how much scene each chapter offered.
I took this test back to those books I admired. Contemporary fiction and memoir ran on average about 60-70 percent scene per overall book. I found exceptions, of course, but here was another useful rule to help me gauge my writing’s scene potential. It helped me answered that confusing feedback most writers get at some point: “Need more momentum, stalling out here, not enough movement.”
In other words, not enough scene.
Scofield’s book wasn’t around when I began learning scene-making, and the process would’ve been much faster if it had been. I also like Make a Scene by Jordan Rosenfeld, who gives a succinct definition to follow: “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.”
Scofield adds that a scene has an event, a function in the narrative, a structure of beginning-middle-and end, and a pulse.
I don’t stick by these rules when drafting my scenes, but I do head for them whenever (1) I get stuck in the middle of writing a scene and don’t know why it’s not working, and (2) I’m revising my chapters or manuscript. Rules tend to cramp my creativity in the beginning–I need to keep it free-flowing until I have that first terrible draft on the page. But they are golden when I’m ready to refine.
I created a checklist of seven scene requirements that I’ll share below. You’ll no doubt gather your own as you write more scenes and gain more skills.
A scene . . .
- Takes place in real time. It’s not summarized but happens moment to moment.
- Stays in one character’s head–we don’t jump points of view. Because of this, we get internal reactions from that narrator.
- Has an arc, a clear beginning, a middle that rises to a climax point, and an ending that leaves us with a question or a new quest.
- Has a purpose, making a difference in the story, causing a clear effect.
- Gives readers clear indication of where and when we are via setting, time markers, and inner environment are present.
- Contains dialogue; people talk.
- Has onstage movement. More scene momentum comes from movement, not just sitting around with great coffee and conversation. Although some coffee scenes are normal in books, I try to avoid having a lot of them, especially in a row, because they cause drag.
And one more link to share if you’re hot on lists. This one from C.S. Lakin is a lot longer but quite comprehensive. Link is here.