It’s this element of structure for the story. We all write them, but sometimes it seems like this overlooked aspect of our stories. I’m not sure why this is. It’s not as elemental as the word or punctuation. It’s not as long and sexy as a chapter. It’s not as easily diagramed as a sentence, right?
But it’s so important.
There’s an old book by Raymond Obstfeld called Crafting Scenes and in its first pages he has a chapter called “What a Scene Is and Isn’t.” In it, he quotes the actress Rosalind Russell who was asked what made a movie great.
She answered, “Moments.”
And Obstfeld compared that thought about movies to our thoughts about scenes. He writes, “The more ‘moments’ a work has, the more powerful it is. Think of each memorable scene as an inner tube designed to keep the larger work afloat.”
And then there is the corollary, “The fewer memorable scenes there are, the quicker that work sinks to the depths of mediocrity.”
So What’s A Scene and How Do You Make It Memorable?
That’s the obvious question, right? A scene is usually action that happens in one setting. But it’s not always. It’s about focus. It can be ten pages or one.
Obstfeld says that a scene does the following:
Gives reader plot-forwarding information
Reveals character conflict
Highlights a character by showing action or a trait
And a memorable scene? What is that?
What does a scene have to have?
A beginning, a middle, and an end.
And the beginning? It’s like a blind date, he says. You have to tell the reader what’s going on and not just expect her to know. It has to hook the reader in, pulling her into its clutches so she wants to keep reading.
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A lot of times we fiction writers get a little (cough) a lot obsessed with character, which makes sense, right? Characters are sexy. They’re these fake humans that we get to do our biding in a plot of our choosing. It’s a very dominant place for us writers to be.
But sometimes we get so obsessed with our characters and their emotions and dialogue and action and setting that we forget the very basics of writing, which is…
Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot from people about their scene worries, which includes the all-star lineup of questions:
Is this a scene?
Where does my scene end?
What the heck even is a freaking scene?
For theater people, a scene is when the story’s action happens in one setting. Theater people have it easy that way.
The best way to think of it is to remember that scenes
Can be super long or incredibly short.
Can actually shift settings, but this is complicated.
Have no real rules.
Sorry! Sorry! Those lack of rules, don’t help sometimes. It might be better to look at it this way?
What is the purpose of a scene?
According to the Novelist’s Guide to Crafting Scenes by Raymond Obstfeld:
Helps the plot journey on.
“Develop a particular character by highlighting a specific trait or action.”
We all know that sexy rockstar scenes do more than one of those things at a time. These scenes become ‘moments’ that we remember. Elliot and ET on the bicycle riding up the hill on the dark night. Luke fighting Darth Vadar and the line, “I am your father.” Spock and Kirk when Spock is in that chamber and Kirk is on the other side and Spock’s about to die in a sacrifice to save the crew but Kirk can’t hold him or do anything for him and it’s so sad!
Sorry. That one gets me.
Jack and Rose at the front of the Titanic, arms open to the wind. Maria singing in the field in the Sound of Music. Dorothy telling Toto that she doesn’t think they’re in Kansas anymore.
Those moments? They matter.
When it comes to scene length
Obstfeld has great advice about scene length, which I’m going to paraphrase here.
Go Short When:
You’re dumping information that is about plot or about technical world-building stuff.
Setting is the point
Go Long When
It’s a conversation that shows character.
Suspense is what’s going on.
Don’t forget the power of moment in your story. It’s one of the key things that makes a book break-out and transcend the others. That’s because of the power of the scene, where character, plot, emotion, image and setting combine to make something truly pop.
*Pop in a good way, not like a tick. Although, I guess when ticks pop that’s sort of good, right?
You can preorder this bad boy, which might make it have a sequel. The sequel would be amazing. Believe me, I know. It features caves and monsters and love. Because doesn’t every story?
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