I’m in the middle of helping to judge a writing contest. Of the fifteen or so entries, I’m coming away with one suggestion to almost every writer: Scene it.
Writing Tip for Today: On a “Big Picture” level, one sure-fire way to improve fiction, nonfiction or memoir is to learn to write a good scene. Here are some scene writing tips:
Many writers produce a first draft by telling the story—literally. Many writers, myself included, must tell ourselves the story at first. This helps us organize, choose events and curate details. The first tip for scene writing is, in your draft, tell fearlessly. Don’t worry about where the story needs scenes or if you are writing them well. Just get the story down.
If you do write scenes, great. But if you tend to tell yourself the story in your draft, just do it. We’ve all heard Anne Lamott’s excellent advice to write s****y first drafts. One way to do this is to tell, not show. Yes, it’ll probably need work. But first, get the story down—then, fix it up.
But what about the wise advice to show, don’t tell? In writing, showing means scenes. Scenes act out the story for readers. Showing through scene writing gives readers the best chance of experiencing the story in the way you envision it. Showing through scenes means you act out the important bits. Readers see a place, characters. They hear dialogue and other sounds. Concrete Sensory Details (CSD) make scenes come alive. The movie in your head springs to life on the page.
If every moment of the story is acted out through a scene, it’s liable to be slow, boring or both. Elmore Leonard’s advice to “skip the boring parts” of a story can help you learn which story events to dramatize and which to summarize. How do you know when to write scenes? Act out the important story events. Summarize or skip altogether all the other story stuff. Remember, we writers are time managers for our readers. Scenes tell readers to slow down and observe or remember the details. Summaries or skips tell readers it’s OK to speed up or ignore.
Scene writing and pacing skills take practice. Go ahead and tell the story at first, if that’s your style. Then, in revisions, rewrite the important story event in scenes. If you’re not sure your story needs a scene or a summary, think about the scene’s purpose. Ask yourself, “If I skipped this info or development, would the reader understand what’s going on?” Remember, Reader Confusion is the last thing any writer wants.
Here’s a list of Eleven Scene Elements to help you write scenes:
- Setting or Place 10. Touch
- Time 11. Quality of Light (Bright, Gloomy, Night, etc.)
- Point of View Character
- Another Character