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When we discussed scene beginnings a few weeks ago, we said that each scene should have a purpose and an intention, and we mentioned setting the scene as part of the process of scene beginnings. This week we focus in more depth on scene setting.
Scene setting is about giving the reader visual cues of your character’s environment, and/or placing your character at a point in time.
Think of the theater. Scene setting is like setting the stage for a play. Staging for theater is the process of selecting, designing, or modifying the performance space for the actors. You are sitting in the audience. The curtain opens. You see a kitchen table and a knife block filled with knives. An actor is chopping onions and crying. The faucet is dripping with a sound like a ticking clock. Another actor comes in and the scene ends with one of them dead on the stage with a knife sticking out of their chest. The stage designer knows that the props must be visible to the audience before the action takes place, otherwise the audience could miss the clue, and miss the anticipation that the clue provides. The audience must be able to see the knife at the beginning of the scene because the prop will be used in the action, and is important to the state direction.
You are writing a scene where your character is investigating a murder. Your readers (your audience) need to be able to see all the props that will be used in the scene by your characters, as well as all the clues and necessary hints required of the plot.
Your character enters the room and sees a chair in the corner. It’s overturned.
The scent of lilacs wafts through the open window and a sunlight beam reveals a lone pearl on the carpet.
The clock on the mantel chimes three times.
There’s a letter opener on the floor. Mail is strewn across the floor in a line from the desk to the dead body.
From this information your readers can guess that it is 3 PM on a spring day, and that perhaps some information in the mail triggered the murder. You don’t have to tell them this information because you have shown it in your scene setting. Your readers can see the scene in their mind’s eye.
You use scene setting to provide clues to your reader of what the scene look like, smells like, tastes like. You use scene setting to establish a point in time. You use scene setting to provide your character a place to interact with their surroundings, and other characters. You use scene setting to establish mood.
Scene setting is your establishing shot of your movie that your reader is watching unfold as they read. Remember that the visuals are important. Show them your character sniffing the air and wrinkling their nose. Don’t tell them your character doesn’t like the stench of lilac.
Do be careful not to play mysterious and be vague with your reader. If you just say the murder weapon was on the floor, but you don’t show your reader what kind of murder weapon it was, you run the risk of confusing your reader later. Never confuse your reader. Remember if your reader can’t see where your character is or what important thing your character is seeing, your reader won’t be able to internalize your story.
When you consider scene setting always think of your reader. In the scene you are about to write, do they need a visual of the graphic location? Do they need to know the time? Are there cultural references that are important to the story? Do you need to place important objects in the scene? Should there be a salt shaker on the nightstand next to the bed? What about objects that establish the mood like lighting and color? What things are necessary to provide your reader a good visual and provide important information relating to the plot or characters? Those are things you should consider when you begin to set your scene.
Do also be careful not to provide an abundance of useless detail. If your character walks into a room and you describe the intricate wallpaper, and the wallpaper has no relevance to anything related to the plot, don’t describe the wallpaper. You will bog your reader down or worse. You will bore them. Sure. It’s pretty wallpaper, but unless your character has a penchant for paper don’t do it.
Next week: More scene goodies
We’ve been focused on scenes, the building blocks of novels, for the last few weeks. A scene is a three-part piece of your novel set in space and time, and should always have a purpose for being included in the novel. Scenes should move your story forward. Always.
Scene endings can allow your reader inhale if your scene has been particularly dynamic, or it can intrigue your reader and force them to turn the page if you have included some hook or dynamic plot twist. The scene ending is the perfect place for your character to summarize what is going on, and gives your reader a way of judging your character’s emotional state, and sum up the conflict. Do be careful not to over use the character summary aspect. It slows the pace of the novel.
You can also use your scene ending to create tension and drama by provide the reader an important revelation that twists the plot, or gives the reader a surprise. The cliffhanger ending is used because it makes certain that your reader can not know the outcome of the story, and so must keep reading. The cliffhanger leaves your character in peril and creates suspense.
Scene endings can also distance the reader from the events of the scene by providing a visual description, which simply pauses the story to visually show what is. Be sure to include all of your character’s senses. Drawing the reader away from the scene allows the reader to see something visually and can be a good way to end a scene, especially if the character has had much movement. It can help your reader to ground themselves in your character’s space and time.
Sometimes characters will wax philosophically at the end of a scene. This kind of scene ending works best for first person narrative, because the reader is much more inside the head of the character, and also if your novels is character driven rather than plot driven. If your character wouldn’t wax philosophically don’t force them to do this at the end of the scene, however. It will make your character’s behavior suspect to your reader.
Sometimes the ending is just an ending, and there is no need to do any of the above. This scene ending doesn’t need to summarize, or provide new information. It just needs to close the scene so the character or reader can move on. Use this idea to tie up any lose ends of your story. Make sure the scene ending feels final. Keep in mind that this does not mean that this scene ending is only for the conclusion of your novel. Sometimes it is for the end of a relationship, or some other thing which is completed. This scene ending shows your reader the finality of your character’s actions, thoughts, or feelings about a particular moment.
If you think about writing your scenes, each with a beginning, middle, and ending, and you think about what kind of beginning, middle, or ending you want to write based on the information you want to give to your reader, you will discover that your novel will have more of a sense of movement. Scenes help your characters move forward, and keep you, the author, from stagnating on the page by overusing prose. Scenes will keep you from getting sidetracked on things that don’t matter to your story.
Next time: More detail on setting the stage of your scenes…scene setting.
We’ve been focusing on scenes for the last few weeks. This week our focus is on scene middles. Each scene should have a purpose for being there. Each scene should move the story forward. Each scene should provide important information for the reader.
As a reminder, a scene is a small part of the continuous action of your novel and each scene is set in a specific moment in time, and in a specific location.
Each scene should have a beginning, middle, and an ending, and each of these scene parts has a purpose. Scene beginnings set the character in time and place, provide needed narrative and description, and provides your reader valuable information necessary to visualize your character in their mind’s eye.
Once you get past the first part of your scene, the scene beginning which set up your character, you then move to the second part of the scene where movement must happen on our pages. If your scene middle does not have any action, either physical or emotional, then there is a good chance that there really is no need for that particular scene in your novel. Remember that the purpose of the scene is to move your story forward. If there is no action, then you run the risk of boring your reader.
The scene middle is where you complicate your characters’ lives in order to build anticipation for your reader. Your character should never have it too easy. Make your character miserable, or make their life difficult. Think about what will increase the stakes for your characters. What does your character stand to lose? Show them losing it, or almost losing it. What does your character want? They can’t get it. What is your character’s motivation in this scene? There is something in their way. If you keep your character from achieving their goal you will increase the stakes for your character, and increase tension for your reader.
Can you add an element of physical or emotional danger? Putting your character in danger is a great way to increase the conflict of your story. You can also show your character reacting to the danger, which will provide information about your character to your reader. Or, put your character’s love interest or family member in danger. This danger ups the stakes in a different way. The risk of losing someone your character, and reader, loves can force your character to act in a different way, or take more risks with their own life. It is this kind of conflict created by putting your characters in danger that creates page turners.
Is there some unexpected discovery that will affect your character and surprise your reader? Revealing surprises in the middle of your scenes forces your characters to change direction, or change motivation, or start something completely new, either as a way to solve the puzzle of the new information, or to suppress information from reaching other characters. A new discovery could change your character’s fate for better or worse.
Your scene middles are the meat of your story and are the place to increase the stakes for your character. Scene middles get all the glory. Make sure the middle of each scene has movement and action.
Next time: Scene endings
We are focusing on scenes for the next few weeks, and this week our focus is on the beginning of a scene. Each scene should have a purpose which moves the story forward, or gives the reader information on the characters, or shows new action and conflict.
As a reminder, a scene is small part of the continuous action of your novel, which is set in a specific moment in time, and is in a specific location.
When you consider your scene, be thinking of the scene’s purpose. Which of your characters is the scene about? Should you write that scene from that character’s point of view? What is that character’s objective? What does your character want? Think about the conflict. What happens that keeps your character from achieving their goal? Think about the scene’s ending. What happens that will move the story forward? What will keep your audience reading as the scene ends?
Before you plot out your scene, make sure you know exactly where you last left your character in time and space. Your readers should be able to understand where your character is. If your character was in Istanbul and suddenly they show up in Des Moines, be sure to include that motivation for moving locations either in your last scene, or at the beginning of your new scene, especially if you have multiple point of view characters.
Where is your character in the plot? What were they doing when you left them last? Knowing where your characters have been will help you focus on where your character should be now, and where your character needs to go next.
What is the most important information that the reader needs to know at this moment in the story? Plot your action around that information and remember that action and movement are what move the story forward.
Each and every scene should have a purpose. Why is this scene necessary? What is your intention for writing the scene? Set your scene intentions. Set your character’s intention. Does that intention make sense to the plot? Does that intention make sense for your character? Will your character achieve their intentions? Will your character achieve disappointment? Should there be supporting characters in the scene? What is the purpose of the supporting characters? Do they provide information? Do they give your character someone to bounce ideas off of? Do they create conflict?
Once you have the basic idea of your scene worked out, whether you use an outline or not, think about the action of the scene. The action should begin as soon as possible because it is action that creates momentum. How will you demonstrate the action? How will you use action to show how your character feels? If you can include some surprise action, you will propel your reader through your story. Let your character act first, and think later.
If you plan to use a long narrative, it probably will slow the pace and action of the scene. Long narrative interrupts the story, so if you do plan to use narrative, the scene opening is the best place to include it. You can use narrative to place your character in space and time so your reader can visualize the scene in their mind’s eye. Narration can also save time, if the action described would take up too much time. Think about what and how information needs to be communicated to your reader, especially if your character’s thoughts and intentions can’t be revealed in the action of the scene.
To help set your scene, use specific visual cues. What does your character see? What do they hear? Use your character’s senses to help establish your scene. You can also use scenery to set the tone, and use language to convey the mood of your character. How does the setting impact the character’s mood?
When you set out to write a new scene, ponder the above and work out how you can best relate this to the reader in a compelling way and you will have a good scene beginning.
Next time: Scene middles.
I expect that some of you will be pissed off at me by the end of this post. I am okay with that. Not because I want you to be pissed off at me, but because I want you to be the best writer you can be. I thought this topic important enough to interrupt our current series on The Anatomy of a Scene. I expect to get back to regularly scheduled programming next week.
Why the interruption?
Last week I had breakfast with the spectacular Susan Span. Susan is a literary attorney (read her #Publaw), and author of the very well-received Shinobi Mystery Series. Over coffee we chatted about various topics, as we always do. We talked about old manuscripts that may or may not be in a box under Susan’s bed, never to see the light of day. And we talked about how long an author should work on any given manuscript.
I know a good handful of authors who have been working on the same manuscript for five years, ten years, thirty years. Yes. Thirty years. Thirty. 3-0.
The thirty-year author loves the story idea and wants to see it through. They wrote their manuscript a long, long time ago, and since that time, they’ve been reworking it, workshopping it, editing it, revising it, fixing the little problems that come up. Some of the fixing causes problems elsewhere so they end up fixing the new problem which causes newer problems. It’s a mean cycle. This has been going on for thirty years. Thirty. 3-0. For some of you it has been going on for twenty years, or fifteen years, of ten years, or five years.
Yeah. I’m talking to you.
Let’s be clear. Writing is hard work, and to continue writing something after a few years takes grit and determination. To continue writing it for five years, ten years, thirty years, is indescribable.
But here’s the problem. When this author first started writing their story, they were a novice author. They knew very little if anything about craft. They didn’t know much of anything about plot and structure, or genre tropes, or goal and motivation, or tension and conflict, or tone, or any of the other deeply important craft elements that writers of fiction absolutely should learn to become successful authors.
Learning the craft of writing fiction takes time and work. It’s just like learning any other craft and skill. If you want to be good, you practice, your try things by trial and error, you make mistakes, you read how-to books, you take classes, and you study, study, study. You do whatever you can to get better at your craft. You wouldn’t expect to paint like Velazquez your first time out, would you? No. You would paint a very badly rendered tea cup, or tree, and practice your techniques to become the best painter you could be. And it would take years of work.
As the years pass, the author has learned much about craft. They know what should go into a scene, and where the climax should come in the story. They are not the same author they were all those years ago when they started that manuscript. They are better. Significantly better.
But their manuscript is not. Their manuscript is based on their writing skills when they first wrote that story down, and fixing it is nearly impossible. Ultimately, they are wasting their time working on something that will never be publishable.
So, what am I saying? I am saying a few of things.
First off, you are a better author than you were ten years ago. You are a better author than you were five years ago. It doesn’t matter if you are published or pre-published. If you’ve been working to learn your craft, you are a better author. Are you listening?
Secondly, sometimes a story is not meant to be published. Sometimes a story serves the purpose of making you a better author because it teaches you some craft element that you didn’t know before. Sometimes a story should be put in a box and hidden under the bed, never to see the light of day because you are done with it, or maybe it is done with you. Either way. This does not mean that you are a failure as a writer. It just means that you have learned all you can about whatever you needed to learn from that manuscript. Take your new skills and move on.
Thirdly, if you really want to tell the story you’ve been working on for thirty years, or ten years, or five years, and you can’t possibly put it down, then don’t. But try something, okay? Take that five-year old manuscript, or thirty-year old manuscript, and put it in a box under the bed. Save it to a flash drive and put it in a drawer. Do whatever works with your personal writing style. But don’t pick it up again. Then, when it is tucked away safe, start writing that story again. From scratch. Make a new outline. Write new scenes. Create new character sketches. Write your story as if you were writing it for the first time.
Because you are a better writer now than you were five years ago, and if you start your story off as if you haven’t written it yet, chances are you will not make the same novice writing mistakes that you made five years ago. You are a better author now. Are you listening?
Or maybe you just need to work on something else. Come up with a new story idea, and write that other story first, before you go back and write your last story from scratch. I guarantee that the new story will be better than the other one sitting in a box, hiding under the bed. You are a better writer now.
Yeah. It’s a lot of work. Yeah, it sucks that you haven’t managed to fix that manuscript after a dozen years, or two dozen years. Yeah, that means you have to admit that what you’ve written to date has problems and your manuscript is not publishable.
Yeah. But it’s time.
Trust me on this.
Next week we continue with Anatomy of a Scene: Beginnings.
Scenes are the visual building blocks of the novel in which your characters live (very much like theater productions and movies). Scenes placed one after another make chapters. Multiple chapters tied together make novels. You might consider writing your novel using the scene and sequel technique (see Scene and Sequel posted September 2, 2015) but some writers include the information of the sequel within the scene. There is no set number of scenes that should be in each chapter, but I tend to write three scenes per chapter, and I find that many authors write in this similar way. But as in writing everything else, each writer has their own process.
The purpose of the scene is to move the story forward and each scene should be there for that reason. If the scene does not move the story forward, cut it. If the scene doesn’t move the story forward then it is dragging your story down with useless fluff, or backstory, or some other thing. Seriously. Just cut it. Your story will be better off.
Each scene should build upon the last scene, but also be strong enough to stand on its own, with a beginning, and middle, and an ending.
Successful scenes include a POV character, action that advances the story, revealing dialogue, conflict and tension, a rich setting, and minimal narrative (see Show V Tell posted November 11, 2015).
The end of a scene allows your reader to take a break but you may want to write a hook at the end of each (most) scenes so your reader can’t put your book down. Blockbuster novels use that technique.
How long are scenes?
Long scenes run 15 pages or more (very long scenes), and I recommend that you use long scenes sparingly. Too many long scenes in a row will drag down the pace of your story, and that makes for boring reading. Don’t be boring.
Short scenes are usually ten or fewer pages. Vary your scene length for variety and to adjust the pacing of your story. Be careful not to use too many very short scenes (a few pages or less) because they upset the flow of the novel, and if your reader is upset by the flow they might put your book down, and that is a bad thing.
Next week we begin discussing the craft of writing great scenes.