Have you ever been in public when you disagreed with someone? Maybe that person (looking at you, Mom!) said, “Don’t make a scene!” Yet in fiction writing, scene making is not only a good idea, it’s usually the only way for a story to succeed.
Writing Tip for Today: Why is scene writing so important and what’s the best way to use scenes in fiction or memoir?
Make Characters Compete
The first reason scenes are so important is to force your main character’s feet to the flames. But what if you aren’t sure what needs to go into a scene? The difference between a scene and narration is that old “show don’t tell” adage. If you are SHOWING, you’re acting out the words, actions, thoughts and feelings of your characters. If you’re narrating, chances are you’re TELLING readers. But it’s not enough to let characters stand around and shoot the breeze. The characters you put on stage should have opposing goals, and by the end of that scene it’s a win, a loss or a draw. Scenes can be short, long or middling, but they all need high stakes and emotional tension, sometimes called dramatic tension. When characters compete, your scene wins.
Hook Those Readers
Another reason scenes are powerful for fiction is that they hook readers better than telling them the story. We’re all used to TV and film entertaining us, and a good story acts out the important parts so readers can see and hear it. In fiction writing, you also have the added advantage of allowing readers to smell, taste and touch details in the scene. Along with a character or two, a point of view, a purpose, setting, time barrier and the way the light is (dark, bright sunshine, foggy, etc), your scenes hook readers by allowing them to experience this intense competition between characters in a more complete way than if you simply told them. See my post on the Eleven Elements of a Scene. Scenes help readers keep turning pages.
Move that Story
Finally, no doubt you’ve heard that you must “move the story.” Most of the time, scenes are the best choice to do this. You can think of your story as a board game: with each scene, your game piece (the character) moves closer to the goal. Some scenes move characters only one space, some many spaces and others force your character to go directly to jail. But the story must have a sense of forward movement or readers will give up. One important caveat: Don’t write scenes to chronicle every moment of a character’s life. Memoirists are often guilty of acting out stuff that isn’t important–after all, they lived it. But even in fiction it’s tempting to write out every moment of the character’s life. My advice? Only put into scenes the events which are about the story. The rest you can summarize (narrate) or leave out altogether. Deciding what to act out and what to summarize can be challenging, so as you write your draft try not to pay too much attention. But in revision, you’ll want to craft scenes of the important events of the story. Readers want to experience the character’s emotions, gumption and actions that are a part of the story’s main goal. That when it’s the perfect time to make a scene.