Dissecting a Scene

I can’t do it.

Yes, I can point out (usually) where a scene begins and ends and I can identify a poorly written one, but I find it difficult to break a scene down into small, easily identifiable parts.  And ever since my experiences in school, which was actually damaging to my writing and my confidence, I’m wary of trying to create an outline or a list.  Writing a scene isn’t like marking off a list of produce to pick up at the market, or following a cake recipe.  “Use 5 paragraphs, well sifted to remove all the adverbs, add a half cup of character development, two tablespoons of plot, and a dash of inspiration.  Stir until well-mixed, then pour into the editing pan to be grilled for three hours on high heat.”

Nope, sorry, doesn’t work that way.

Well, I suppose you could technically do it that way…but it makes for very bland and formulaic writing.

Sorry, I’m very bad at explaining writing because the process isn’t something I really think about.  Learning the technical side of writing is something I always thought was taught in school.  However, after seeing the low level of quality in so much college writing, I had to revise that opinion, but it doesn’t make it any easier for me to teach someone else how to write.  I can critique a work and point out areas to be improved, flaws to be fixed, plot holes to be addressed, but I can’t explain to you how to write.  There are only two things that I demand from a scene:

A) It must have a point.  (Moves the plot forward or is essential for character development.) 

B) It must hold my interest.

If either of those things are lacking, the scene gets labeled superfluous or boring, which calls for either cutting or revision.

Also, another note, I have a rather broad, often shifting definition of a “scene.”  In script writing, if time or location changes, then you are in a new scene.  That mostly holds for writing as well, but sometimes I lump a whole bunch of connected events together under the label “scene” even if there’s a lot of time and location changes.  For example, I’ve been referring to the end of my book, which involves a muster, a pitched battle outside a city, and a smaller infiltration culminating in a magic duel, as a “scene.”  In reality, I have a lot of smaller scenes that make up that portion of the book.  But it’s all intimately connected in my mind, so I often refer to it as a “scene” without thinking.

When I write, I try to picture the events of the book like a movie.  I try to see the scenes as they would appear on film and then I just describe what I see.  I’ve been reading books and watching films for so long that the timing and pacing of scenes and cuts seeped into my mind, so I don’t even think about it.  I have a sense of when a scene has run its course, and when it has, I end it and move on to the next one.  Sometimes linking those scenes in a way that doesn’t seem haphazard or shoddy is the difficult part because in a movie, you can have a montage with dramatic music and no dialogue that gets the point across.   Trying to render that onto the page or achieve the same effect can seem forced or clunky and requires a lot of thought to make it work.  Sometimes I have to abandon the montage model entirely and work it out a different way.  It’s always a highly visual process, with the added benefit of being able to go inside the characters’ heads or insert background information without having to rely on a monologue.

Be wary of the Stage Performance Problem.  This is something that new writers and amateur movie-makers often run into.  A lot of times, they want the scene to start with an entrance and end with an exit.  That’s fine for some scenes, but if you use it too much it gets repetitive.  You also need to jump into the middle of the action or the heart of what’s going on to increase the drama or just make it more interesting.  When I was in high school, some friends and I made our own Lord of the Rings inspired independent fantasy film.  As far as I know, I was the only one with any film experience, but the rest of them were heavy in the stage acting department.  That was good, because they could act.  The downside was that, for a while, every scene started with the characters walking on set and then exiting after they were done their lines.  It took my stage-acting friends a while to adapt to the idea that you didn’t have to show someone coming in and sitting down on the bench.  You could start the scene with them already on the bench.

Starting a scene can be tricky because you need to hook the reader’s attention and say, “Hey, this is relevant, don’t fall asleep on me or start thinking about dinner!”  You want your reader to be immersed in the story, living it, if you will.  Personally, I like opening with intrusions.  Someone is going along and they hear a commotion that pulls them into someone else’s situation or sphere.  Or someone is in their own place, minding their own business and someone else comes barging in.  An interesting observation or a line of dialogue or an odd contrast can also be a good opener.  Or someone waking up after being injured or realizing that something isn’t right for a scene that could be quiet or suspenseful, depending on how you want it to play out.

A lot of times the opener will depend on the tone or kind of scene you want to convey.  Is the scene going to convey a sense of dread?  Romance?  Fun?  Aggression?  Sarcasm?  Disquiet?  Think of it as how you light the scene and the opening camera movements, if that helps your visualization at all.  Is is dark and closed in?  Open and brightly lit?  Intimate?  Stark?  Horrific?  Peaceful?  Disorienting?  Identifying the tone of the scene and what you want to happen goes a long way towards revealing how you should present or phrase it.

Now, just so you know, I’m usually not thinking this hard when I’m in the middle of writing, which is why this explanation might seem haphazard or inadequate.  I’m usually going by “Okay, I need to have a battle scene” or “I need to show how they get from here to here” or “I need a quiet, intimate moment here.”  Depending on what the plot needs or what is needed for character development determines what scene I pick and the type of scene usually suggests the tone.  I picture it playing out like a movie and I just write it.  The fine-tuning and dealing with devilish details comes later.  If you have any questions or requests for clarification, please ask in the comments and I’ll try to make myself a little less vague.

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2 responses to “Dissecting a Scene

  1. I don’t think about it when I am writing. I can’t even imagine breaking it down as wonderfully as you have here.. I have books on writing, the how tos, and what not to do, but most all of them were purchased early on in my quest to understand a writer’s process. There are only three with dog eared pages but only because they are not how to, but more of ‘just do it’, write that is. I don’t think the explanation is haphazard at all, You’re trying to deconstruct that which comes natural. I’d revel in that fact.

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad that the explanation made some kind of sense…it’s like trying to describe breathing or your heartbeat or what “sky” means. I’m glad it worked.

      I still do enjoy reading a lot of how-to writing books, but like you, I tend to focus more on the “just do it” or tales of how different writers write rather than the nuts and bolts of it.

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment!

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