Anytime I teach fiction writing, I inevitably end up talking about scene writing. Even in my own fiction, I’ve crafted what I thought (at the time) was gorgeous prose. Then as I gave a reading of my story, I found myself skipping the narrative–however beautiful–to read from scenes.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s take a look at why readers tend to gravitate toward scenes over narrative.
Where the Action Is
Readers are drawn to action, tension, conflict. If your scenes are not about these three things, they may seem as boring as a narrative passage, but in most cases, scenes at least have dialog for readers to hang onto. The parts of your novel which show an escalation of tension and conflict are almost always a good place for a scene. The rest–where not much happens–can be (Should be!) summed up with a simple sentence or two or often eliminated entirely. Elmore Leonard supposedly said his secret was to “leave out the boring parts that readers skip.” We novel writers would be wise to follow his advice.
Create Mental Movies
Another argument for scenes over narration is to act out these “important bits” so that readers can create a mental movie of the story. If readers can’t envision the scene where something happens in your story, they’ll be hard-pressed to maintain interest. Look for Many Times Moments and un-scenic words such as “Every morning,” “often,” usually, always, never. If you spot them, it’s likely you haven’t really written a scene. Scenes occur at specific times and places, with characters, a POV, a purpose and lots of concrete sensory detail. If you have quasi-scenes with any of these un-scenic words, a simple fix would be to rewrite to say, “ONE morning,” and then envision the rest in your own mental movie.
That Old Show v. Tell Thing
Scenes help show the story and brings the camera close in. Telling us a story keeps the camera far away, as we can’t experience an event with the POV character if that character is no longer in the time and place where the scene happens. But in every story, some chunks of time are more important than others. Times with little conflict are usually not good scene material. As the late Gary Provost advised, it’s not necessary to act out every minute of the character’s life. Only the bits which act out the story and its conflicts are usually suitable for the mental movie of a scene. The rest can be summed up or given a brief (we hope) narrative to bridge between scenes. Take a look at a fictional chapter you’ve written, analyze for what MUST happen in the chapter and then write scenes as your POV character struggles to make it happen. The boring rest, as Leonard said, can be left out. Readers will likely skip it anyway.