Making a Scene

A premise must be supported by fresh, solid scenes

Scenes are the building blocks of fiction.
-James Scott Bell

Several weeks ago we discussed creating a breakout premise, but, as James Scott Bell writes in The Art of War for Writers, a great premise will not amount to anything if the scenes don’t do their job.

I’m sure we all know what a scene is, but yet I ask myself, what is it? What does a scene do? What does it need to have to be successful? I’ve always just wrote the story burning on my heart. It comes, flowing through my brain like a movie, but to capture the essence of the what’s happening, I fall short. So I look to the experts. I probably should be looking at books and how other authors craft their scenes, but being analytic about my fiction isn’t one of my strengths. Perhaps it shows.

In Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy write:

“A scene takes place in a single location at a single point in time. It has a beginning, middle, and an end, and its purpose is to give the reader a powerful emotional experience by showing the scene while focusing on one special character.”

They go on to say that modern fiction has two basic types of scenes: Proactive & Reactive. Or as Dwight Swain calls it, Scene & Sequel.

Proactive scenes include a goal, a conflict, and a setback.

Reactive scenes include a reaction, a dilemma, and a decision.

So that is what a scene is and does, but Bell takes it further by giving us five strategies to help us freshen up our scenes, to avoid clichés or monotony. Such things like flipping your initial thoughts or cutting exposition. One of the strategies he suggests is to know what the scene is trying to accomplish, its focal point. “If your scene doesn’t have a bulls-eye, it should be cut or rewritten.” This seems pretty straightforward. In theory, makes sense, but when I actually look at my scenes it all gets kind of muddled. I think I need to look over my story and see if my scenes do this or not.

So our checklist would include:

  • Does it have a beginning, middle, and an end?
  • Does it have one focal character?
  • Does it leave us wanting more?
  • Are the proactive scenes, proactive?
  • Are the reactive scenes, reactive?
  • Does the scene have a purpose and moves the story along?

So what say you? How do you craft your scenes? Do you go with flow or do you have a check-list before you write? Is there anything you would add to our checklist?

Randy Ingermanson has an excellent website and free e-magazine that goes into more depth on writing related topics. Check it out if you have a chance.


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