Scene Writing: Staying in Scene

Lightsabre catsNew fiction writers often are admonished to write in scenes.  Some start out in scene well enough, but then something goes haywire and the result is an unfortunate mashup of scene (showing) and narrative (telling).

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss some easy ways to start and remain in a scene.

Where’s the Dialogue?

One easy way to determine whether a passage remains in scene or lapses into narrative is to search for dialogue. Sometimes, a scene is set-up, that is, readers are told when/where this particular scene opens, the POV character engages with another character and there are concrete sensory details to help readers experience the scene. But then, instead of interaction, readers get a summary of what happens. Here’s an example: That afternoon, the manager knocked on the new hire’s office door. [OK we have the when/where set-up, the POV character (the manager) and a concrete sensory detail; the sound of knocking] This is a scene and it starts off well enough. But what if the writer then summarizes the action like this? The boss went in and informed the new guy that the company was downsizing and unfortunately, he’d have to let him go.  This is a summary, not an account of what went down. Readers want to be privvy to the actual dialogue that ensues. It will not only help you gain some concrete sensory detail in the form of hearing dialogue, it will satisfy readers’ need to be a part of the action. Readers are tossed out of the scene and will feel cheated that they didn’t get to see the action. The remedy is simple: add some dialogue. Make these two characters fight for what they want and show how they act out the process.

When and Where Are We?

Another way writers can start a scene but then fail to follow through is with imprecise setting of time and place. I don’t mean you must give the location in terms of GPS or the exact nanosecond it takes place. Only that a specific time barrier and place must be established at the scene’s opening or set-up. A simple statement can satisfy this requirement: It’s “later that day in the garden” or years later at Christmastime. You can determine your scene’s where/when by sniffing out words that throw a scene into the time/space continuum: always, never and would. These qualifiers imply a continuous setting and time that is everywhere and nowhere. Readers can’t pin it down so the mental movie can roll. If you need to show a “Groundhog Day” type of scene, it might be better to say something like: Every day at ten in the morning, Belinda went through the ritual. Coffee, shower and the loathsome process of finding something to wear that didn’t show her baby body. This way, we can both see a scene unfold and get the idea of repetition too.

Where’s the Camera?

Staying in scene is much easier if you think of the movie camera. In a scene, that camera moves in close to show us what matters to the story. Whenever the camera zooms out so that characters look like ants, readers understand it’s not as important. Readers naturally crave the important stuff and know to slow down where there’s action, dialogue and details. Readers also get that stuff which isn’t acted out but summed up is OK to skim. Always ask yourself where the camera is in your scene and how important the scene is. The answer dictates how close or far away you position the camera, and how readers will interpret the positioning. Thinking of your fiction as a mental movie can also benefit in other ways, such as pacing and back story placement. But first you must set-up a scene and stay in it.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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