I’m forever advising my students to write their fiction in scenes. Most take the suggestion, and draft scenes for their stories. But once it’s drafted, what do you do to ensure the scene is working?
Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few simple tricks to see if your scenes are effective:
Block it Out
One of the easiest ways to determine if a scene is effective is to “block out” the scene as if it were a theatrical play or a movie. In theater, actors must not only learn their lines, they must also know where to stand onstage (they use marks or taped exes), at what point they should move about on the set and when to exit. Think of your drafted scene as a theater stage, and place the “actors” at their marks or places. If your POV character is alone on stage, it’s going to be harder to interact and create a feeling of action. If possible, avoid letting your Main Character sit on stage reminiscing for a long passage. Soliloquies can feel static to the reader if they go on too long. Be sure you’ve let the reader know what the set looks like and imply the time. Remember that in media res rule? Instead of beginning the scene with formalities such as greetings or small talk, jump forward to the real purpose of the scene and begin there. If you find a lot of your scenes are taking place at the same location (say around a table), try varying the set. Let readers know when and where they are and who’s on stage to avoid confusion.
What’s the Purpose?
Once you have your setting, time and characters on stage, check to be sure you know WHY this scene needs to happen. Elmore Leonard famously said that “fiction is life with the boring bits left out.” Ask yourself why this scene? Answers such as, “to introduce a character” only takes you so far. Remember that game board idea of a story? Each scene must advance your character closer or farther from the story’s main goal. It’s OK to allow your character to wander in the Forest of No Hope, but only as you get her very near the climax. Build the obstacles or setbacks, starting with the least threatening and building to the do or die scene (climax). Answering the WHY of a scene can help you decide if it is pulling its weight in the story.
Where’s the Action?
Another way to test your scene is to rewind and watch the action unfold. The catch? Only play the information that the reader has. This means that if you have a LOT of dialogue and little action or description, you can’t add that to your mental screening of the scene. As writers, we see the complete world we create, but readers can only experience what we give them. In your revisions, add the missing information by weaving, not chunking. This means you’ll weave small bits (a sentence here and there) of the missing details instead of burdening the scene with long paragraphs of description. If you replay after each rewrite, you should begin to bring your scene closer to the world you imagined. There’s a lot more to take into consideration when writing scenes, but these tips should get you started.