Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Anatomy of a Scene

Hello everyone, and welcome back to Prose Summer Camp!



Today, we're going to be taking a look at the workhorse of fiction, the scene. But first, announcements!

First, on Monday, Trav had a great post about why you shouldn't price your novel at $0.99. For the record, I absolutely agree with everything he says, but (as we always say around here), our way is not the only way. Case in point, after we posted the article, the awesome and very successful Annie Bellet contacted me on Twitter to tell me that she and several other authors have had fantastic success pricing at $0.99! This lead to a great discussion which I begged her to put into a post, and she gracious obliged. So, next Monday we'll have a guest post from Annie about why you should price your novel at $0.99! I've already read it, and it's going to be awesome.

Secondly, we've added a ton of new posters to the shop! Including this little beauty...

Squeeee!!!

Folks, I've got one in my hands right now, and it is gorgeous! The colors are so much more vibrant than on screen. We've also got posters for the covers and art for One Good Dragon Deserves Another (finally) and No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished as well, and they look just as good. You need more dragons in your life, right? Head on over to the swag shop to take a look and get some special Heartstrikers art for your walls!

Now that's out of the way, let's get down to brass tacks, with...

Prose Summer Camp: Anatomy of a Scene

So far in this series, we've talked about the small, technical details of good writing like improving sentence structure and how to write good sentence level description. We even had Bob come in to help us with dialogue

Now we're going to zoom out a bit and take a look at a larger, but still fundamental, aspect of good novel writing: the scene. As always, though, a disclaimer:

**This is how I write. All of the tips below are drawn from my taste and experience as a writer. If you don't like my writing style, knowing how I plan my scenes might not be useful. This is fine! Everyone writes in their own voice. I hope, of course, that you will still find some it helpful, but please don't take any of this as me setting down the One True Path of Writing. I'm just telling you what works for me in the hopes that it might also work for you.**

Now that's out of the way, let's talk about what a scene can do.

What is a Scene?


Wrong kind of scene...

Scenes are the building blocks of fiction. They're the individual plot points, actions, conversations, and so on that pile together to make a story. 

Technically, a scene is any sequence of continuous actions--a fight, an argument, a declaration of love--any sequence of events where the characters are all "on stage" going through the action in real time. Continuous is truly the key here. Though I have seen this rule broken to sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good effect, traditionally speaking in Western fiction, a scene obeys the Aristotelian Unities of time and place. It's an event that unfolds in real time and usually in one place. 

I find it easiest to think of my scenes like I'm putting on a play. When the characters are on stage, that's a scene. When someone walks off stage or the lights go down to show that time is moving forward or to change the set, that's the end of the scene, and the next action will mark the beginning of a new one.

The reason for breaking your writing up into scenes is the same reason for breaking it into paragraphs: it makes it easier to read. Just as huge walls of text are tiring to maul through, enormous blocks of action can wear on your reader's attention, making your book feel slow and dragging. Even the most exciting scenes can start to feel like a mud slog if they go on too long, which is why I try to keep my scenes between 2000 and 3000 words. I've found this to be the sweet spot for my books, though of course your mileage may vary.

The important thing to remember is that scenes are not supposed to be entire chapters (unless you're writing really short chapters). The idea of a scene is to break the action of your story into easily digestible chunks. You find scenes in every form of narrative media--movies, plays, books, even comics. The reason for this isn't because artists are following some unwritten rule, it's because scenes work really well. By dividing your action into bites, not only do you make it easier for your readers to follow what's going on, you make things easier on yourself by crafting a story that's easier to tell.

So if you find yourself writing a scene, and it feels like its dragging on really long, listen to your instincts. Chances are, you're right. Cutting the scene at a dramatic bit, switching POV, or removing actions entirely are all ways you can trim your scene down, making your whole book move faster. It's not always necessary. There are long scenes that work really well. But generally speaking if something feels wrong in your writing, it is. Don't let it slide.

The Three Hooks and the Two Bird Minimum

So those are the basics of a scene. In my own novels, though, I have a few more rules I like to apply. I've talked about these before in an ancient post called The Three Hooks, but they're still true, so I'll reiterate them now. When I sit down to plan a scene for my novels, whatever scene I'm thinking of adding whether it's a simple conversation or a huge battle, must meet three basic criteria:
  • It must advance the plot.
  • It must reveal new information.
  • It must pull the reader forward.
These are my three rules for any scene I write, and they're there for good reason. When you're writing, especially if you're not writing from a plan, it's very easy to get lost in your own words and write scenes that make sense given what the characters are doing, but don't actually add to the book. If you have two characters together, it's only natural to have them talk, but if they're not talking about things the reader needs to know or revealing information that adds to the story, what's the point? It's just people talking, and even if that's wildly entertaining, if there's no substance there beyond raw character development or world building, then the scene is wasted.

This leads me back to another Rachel writing adage that readers of 2k to 10k will be familiar with: the two bird minimum.

As Eli said, "My stones have a two bird minimum."
Again, the old post explains everything in detail, but the idea of the Two Bird Minimum is that if I'm going to include a scene in my book, it has to carry its weight, which means it can't just do one thing. In the conversation I mentioned above, for example, you might say "oh, but that scene wasn't wasted. Look at all the character development and world building!" To that I reply, so what? Character development happens any time the characters open their mouths, and world building happens every time they look around. These things are cheap, sideline items that happen in the background. They're still important, but if a story is to move at a good pace, we don't have scenes to waste on only character development or only world building. There has to be something else. Some new information or plot development, something beyond mere character development to make your reader turn that page to see what happens.

This is the difference between books that drag and books that fly. Any author can write a scene where characters come on, say their lines, and leave. But if you want to write a good scene, something people really want to read, then you need to think beyond the basics. You have to look at each scene not just for itself, but as part of the whole. How does it serve the book? Where does it fit? What does it do for your story? These are the sort of questions you have to consider for every scene you write, because in novel writing, it's not enough to write a good scene. That scene is part of a larger structure, and it has to serve the book as well as be good writing all on its own.

Okay, so how do we do that?

This is where this post gets iffy, because if I could tell you the secret formula to writing fantastic scenes every time, I'd be a lot richer. Even if I did know the secret, though, I don't think it would work for you. We're all our own authors telling our own stories, and my secret might not work for you at all. That said, though, I do have several guidelines I follow to make sure my scenes work. The main ones, the Three Hooks and the Two Bird Minimum, I already mentioned above, and if you follow those, I don't think you can go wrong. But if you really want your book to be tight, you can't just write good scenes. You have to write scenes that work together.

For my money, this is far easier to pull off if you plot all your scenes in advance. When I'm planning a novel, one of the biggest things I do is get all my scenes down and in order. I don't just figure out the plot, I also determine who's talking to whom, what information gets revealed and when, where the action happens, and so forth. Each of these segments can be a scene by themselves, for example, a climactic battle, or one scene can cover multiple areas, like an argument scene where secrets are revealed and then a fight happens because of them. 

That said, though, I'm a hardcore plotter, so of course my solution is to plot. If you're more of a discovery writer or pantser, this heavy planning style probably won't work for you, and that's okay. Different strokes for different folks. But plotter or pantser, the really important take away here is that you think of your scenes as building blocks. 

When you sit down to write a scene, planned or spontaneously occurring, ask yourself, why is this scene here? What is it doing for the book? Chances are, the answer is already going to be multi-layered. This scene is introducing the main character and setting up her journey for the rest of the book, or this is the final battle scene where everything is revealed and the hero must make a terrible choice. 

These are both good examples of exciting scenes readers are going to be dying to read, and that's because it's clear what these scenes do for the larger story. But if you're looking at a scene and you can't think of what it's doing for your book other than "it feels like it should be here" or "I need this scene to happen so I can get to another scene," that's a warning flag. Remember, you're the author here. If you can't say what a scene does for the book, chances are it's not doing much, and if it's not doing much, it's dragging the rest of the book down. Just like any other well crafted construction, a well written novel has no wasted movements or parts. There is no room for scenes that don't pull their weight, so if you think you've got one, your book will be much better served by either cutting the scene all together or adding more information to make it important.

Before you panic, adding information is not nearly as hard as it sounds! This is where the Three Hooks come back in, because almost any scene can be saved by adding them. For example, if your unlikely team of Fantasy heroes have a random battle that doesn't actually do anything except add some action, you can elevate that by changing out the random monsters for enemies that give your reader a taste of what's to come. Or, if you're already doing that, you can up your game even further by having a character get clobbered, and thus discover she needs to learn to fight. Or maybe your MC uses a forbidden weapon and discovers why it's forbidden. 

There are millions of ways to turn a flabby scene into a great one simply by adding more information that make otherwise random events more important. Of course, it can be difficult to make this kind of heavy layering feel natural and not contrived, but that's the challenge of fiction. You have to be creative and clever in your plotting and scenes to make each event feel like a natural extension of the ones before it.

All in all we're just another brick in the very beautiful wall.

By treating your scenes as blocks that both stand as good writing on their own and connect with the others around them to form a unified whole, I've found that you can't help but end up with something pretty good. The trick is to always make sure your scenes are pulling their weight. You don't want to overload them, of course. It is possible to have scenes that are too packed full of information to make sense, but the opposite problem is far more common. Either way, if you think of each scene as a little event that is part of a larger whole and constantly ask yourself "how does this go together?" and "what does this do?" you're already well on your way to writing a book that is both thoughtful and exciting. 

In writing as in everything else, it's attention to detail that makes good construction, so pay attention to what your scenes are doing, don't let them be flabby or dull, and you should come out well ahead of the pack.

And thus ends another edition of Prose Summer Camp! If you enjoyed the essay, please follow me on Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Google+ to never miss a post. Thank you as always for reading, and I hope you're getting lots of writing done this summer!

Yours as ever,
Rachel

1 comment:

Ken Hughes said...

Good as always.

So much of doing a scene right does start with being sure what it's for-- and being willing to say that "so what?" for scenes that are all character or world and nothing more.

Hitchcock called drama "life with the dull bits cut out." Not being a film editor, I prefer to think the duller moments aren't cleanly cut out, that the story still knows what happened in those sagging moments-- and fast-forwarded past it. It might mean shrinking a possible scene to a few lines within another, or cutting it but mentioning what's happened. Those mean the story still has extra subtext and a sense of the complete day, but everything's trimmed down to only what touches that base and moves on to strengthen the story.

Having that "finger on the fast-forward button" gives us the control to make each scene about what it really needs to be. Then it's up to the two-bird minimums and other tools to make the most of what it could do. :)