April 22, 2013 by KWills
It is quite hard to get a definition for “scene”. Some people call it the smallest, discrete unit of a story. Others say that a scene changes whenever there is a shift in time or space. Other writers don’t use scenes at all, but prefer to think in “phases”. At the risk of sounding like an unpaid advertiser of the Snowflake Guy, I found this site to be one of the best for explaining how to write a scene effectively. Although Ingermanson doesn’t give a definition of “scene”, he shows us clearly enough what he means.
Ignore the self-promotion and the advertising-speak and you come away with a very thorough essay on scenes. Take a look now – I’ll wait.
Back already? Great. Now you have your six steps: Goal, Conflict, Disaster (which I prefer to call “Outcome”), Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. But what about big shifts in time and space? How do you interweave plot and subplot if your scenes are so tightly bound together?
First, make sure that each plot line is made of a chain of connected scenes. Now, decide where to make the chains touch, and where to separate them. Between each “Decision” and new “Goal” you have a natural breathing space, where you can switch to a new plot. Between the Outcome/Disaster and Reaction, there is a place for a dramatic pause, putting your readers on the edge of their seats. You can switch back and forth, bringing the threads ever closer together, until at last all the plot lines meet in a grand finale.
Scene structure is not vital in the first draft. Especially if you are a “seat of the pants” writer, working from a bare minimum outline. However, when it comes to editing, understanding scenes is vital. When I drafted “The History of Haplow House”, I saw the first chapter with three scenes: Travelling to Haplow; Arriving at the House; and the First Meeting with Uncle Varristock. That’s what was in my outline. However, when I started to break it down into the six steps, I discovered seven scenes: three making up the journey, three for the arrival, and then the meeting with Warren’s uncle. I’m still working through the rest of the edit, so I don’t know how many scenes I’ll have eventually. When I do know where all my scenes begin and end, I’ll be able to shuffle them into the most dramatic order.
Are you a writer? What’s your take on scenes?