Scene Writing: Keep a Scenic Rhythm

In scene writing, effective writers develop and keep a certain scenic rhythm. That is, the scenes have a balanced mixture of action, dialogue, interior thought and narrative.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss ways to keep scenic rhythm feeling natural and unforced:

Know Your Scenes

Mixing the combination of action, dialogue, interior thought and narrative helps readers more fully experience a scene. But before mixing, it’s a good idea to review what a scene is and isn’t. More writers (including yours truly) succumb to narrative masquerading as a scene more often than you’d think.

A scene must occur at a particular time in a particular place with specific characters in tension over a goal. Think of gladiators in the arena during Roman times. Do you get a specific mental image? Mine is always Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. 😊 Whatever you imagine you will include a picture that is particular, even if it is stereotypical.

As the scene opens, the time and place must be immediately known, as well as at least one character (the Point of View character). We orient readers right away to avoid confusion. After orientation, effective scenes get to the action and dialogue quickly, while mixing in as much sensory information as possible. By scene’s end, readers must know whether the protagonist (POV character) has won or lost the goal giving the tension to the scene.

Too Much or Not Enough

As we talked about last post, too much dialogue or not enough will take the air out of a scene. This is because readers need to see exactly how the characters will battle over the goal. If there is too much dialogue and not enough of other elements, the result is “talking heads.” Not enough dialogue results in long passages of either action or narration without the characters’ feelings and reactions.

The same is true for other elements in a scene. If you add too many narrative details, the scene becomes static. Too much Concrete Sensory Detail and readers forget why they’re reading the scene. All action or narrative traps readers in an unfeeling scene. All interior thought traps readers in the character’s head.

A balance of all these elements is necessary to prevent one or another from swamping your scene. While some writers have an innate sense of this scenic rhythm, others need to practice. That’s why it’s a good idea to understand this rhythm. At first your scene might wind up mechanical, but as you practice the scenic rhythm you develop will become part of your voice.

A good scenic rhythm balances scenic elements.

Balance These Elements

I think a good way to balance scenic elements is by following the Rule of Three. We’ve talked about this “rule” for dialogue (after three lines of dialogue, switch to another speaker or action or interior thought, etc), but you can use the same idea to practice building a scenic rhythm.

  • Get your reader oriented first: Place, time, character. You may add sparingly (as in no more than three) adjectives (modifiers) for each thing,
  • Go to action or dialogue to establish the scene’s purpose (goal) and why two characters both want it (tension and conflict).
  • Mix in no more than three “beats” of interior thought or narrative to break up action/dialogue and showcase emotions.
  • Touch back briefly on the orientation—readers can quickly forget where they are, if it’s night or day, etc.
  • Back to dialogue, using the Rule of Three.

This rhythm may not be perfect, and you may want to use more or less of any one element. But as you learn scene writing, you can be more effective if you establish a rhythm that helps readers experience the most complete scene.

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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