Even if you’re new to writing, you’ve probably already come across plenty of hints and tips for crafting and improving your scenes. But a lot of what you come across is written in a way that assumes you already know exactly what a scene is. What if you don’t?!
A written scene shows something in the moment. Its moment. When all the senses are sufficiently alluded to that the reader feels they are in it as it is happening. As if they were watching the stage or screen play of your story or sometimes better still, acting one of the parts.
It’s some time since I met with my secret agent – actually author, editor and translator, Jan who is kindly reviewing my first draft and providing feedback to tighten up my writing. I’d sent her a chunk of about 10,000 words for comments and we met a week or so later. I think she was still warm from cycling and suggested sitting in the quaint courtyard. I wasn’t feeling confident enough to protest despite the bone-numbing damp chill. As her pen flourished over my work, the repeating theme was ‘needs to be a scene’. That’s something I thought I had been doing but there was that phase when I tried writing to a word count for too long and there are were patches of rambling text that didn’t hold together. Anyway, knowing ‘scene’ might mean different things to different people I asked her to clarify and was surprised as her years and years of just ‘knowing’, left her stammering for the right words. We quickly reached a mutual understanding but in that deliciously perfectionist way of wanting to pin it down, to drive my writing from that point, I thought I’d read up on it a bit and define it for myself.
I pulled out my various books on writing and called up all the big writing blogs and started searching. Lots of heuristic suggestions about scenes, some nicely specific points but overall, a surprising amount of vagueness!
I’ve reached the point where I’ve pinned down some key factors but am also developing that ‘knowing’ that is not quite tangible – some thoughts conscious, some not – Imbued with heuristic subjectivity. I get it now, I think, but I’m not sure I could yet teach someone else. In essence a scene for me is when you show something in the moment, its moment, when all the senses are sufficiently alluded to that the reader feels they are in it as it is happening. As if they were watching the stage or screen play of your story or sometimes better still, acting one of the parts. To achieve this you therefore need to consider how you show but not tell..
- Physical sensations
- Emotions etc
- If the story needs pace you might want to write it in the present moment. You’ll need to avoid the passive use of verbs.
- If more than one person is involved you probably need some dialogue to bring it alive.
- Context such as the time of day, weather, place all help build the picture in the reader’s eye. They don’t need everything – frankly too much detail gets boring but give enough to push their imagination forward to create a picture.
And so whilst I can only go so far in telling you, it might be easier to show you. The above anecdote might have been written:
By the time coffee arrived, I was already frozen sat in the gloomy courtyard. Jan’s pen flourished across the page for the fourth or fifth time.
“Needs to be a scene.”
Like a naughty schoolgirl, I pulled my cardigan tighter, trying to disappear inside it. Jan still had a healthy glow from arriving on her bike, short white hair swept back off her pretty face.
She grabbed some shortbread as her eyes scanned over words and her previous pencil marks.
“Ah hmm. Need a scene again!” A critical inclination of her head.
I watched her face for other clues. Frowning.
“Great.” As a smile released those eyebrows. She ticked a paragraph and nodded ticking another.
“Aha, yes.” She laughed and golden crumbs flew out of her mouth.
“I love this bit about the MacMillan nurse! Really funny.”
I relaxed back into my seat a bit, cradling my coffee, warming my fingers. She flicked the projected shortbread crumbs off the page and set the table wobbling on it’s spindly legs. We both grabbed at serviettes to mop up coffee.
“Ah yes, here. Not sure what emotions you’re trying to convey. A bit flat written like this. Needs to be a scene..”
My coffee was still steaming but I tried a slurp to ease the silence. She looked up.
“It’s ok. Honestly.” She smiled over her cup.
My bottom lip might have wavered as I tried to return the smile.
“It’s always like this. This is really very good.” Jabbing at my pages with her pen.
She looked back down to the words as I breathed an inward sigh of relief. Too soon.
“It’ll be something else next time!”
I looked at the mounting revisions and covering my uncertainty, asked.
“Can I just check then? I think I know what a scene is, but what do you mean?”
She looked at me and then away, blushing.
“Well.. Um..” She flopped back in her chair. “Good question, it’s been a while since I had to think about that!”
There are of course, other factors you might need to consider depending on the type of scene you are writing. The most helpful references I have found so far are. Do you have any favourites?
Make a Scene – Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan E. Rosenfelt .
This book is largely intended for fiction writers but the no-nonsence style with clear chapters, detailed index and table of contents, is a useful resource to memoir writers too. It is very readable cover to cover but equally useful as a reference to dip in and out of.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. A great reference of the myriad of ways you can demonstrate 75 different emotions in the people in your story, whether fictional or not.