Everyone is familiar with the idea of a scene. In a movie, scenes are pretty much all there is. A movie is made up of scene after scene after scene.
Writing prose is different, though. In prose, you have the ability to write in both scenes and narration. What’s the difference? Scenes are where you bring your story to life. Narration is where you stitch it together, make time pass, reflect. Scene is showing; narration is telling.
Narration often comes more easily to writers, because it’s what we’re all taught in school, it’s what we read in news articles. It’s narration when you read that, “A five-car pile-up on I91 closed the highway in both directions. Three people were taken to the hospital.”
Scene, on the other hand, puts you in the car with the tired mother, trying to get her child to a sports practice on time, with the kids arguing in the back and distracting her. A scene puts you in that mother’s head when she looks up and sees the red brake lights of the car in front of her, and realizes too late that this part of the road is covered in black ice, and that she can’t stop in time. Her whole life flashes through her mind; the scene ends at the moment of impact.
While both modes of writing are important in a story, scenes are the heartbeat, the element that keeps a story alive. Put another way, perhaps ironically, skillful use of scene is what gives a story its narrative drive and keeps readers turning the pages. That’s because a scene is the smallest unit of story. It’s a story of a single moment in time, embedded in something bigger. A scene has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it has to highlight something important to the plot, because scenes draw attention to themselves by slowing time down. When you slow time down and say “look at this!” To a reader, there has to be a payoff in terms of moving the plot forward.
Scenes have particular uses, but always something—something significant—must happen in a scene. It can be a small but important gesture, or a huge event. You can focus a scene on a single character or make it an ensemble piece. For instance, you wouldn’t make a scene out of a an already-established character dressing for work and going out to her car, turning her key in the ignition and driving away—unless there’s a stalker hidden in her garage waiting to attack her. Scenes are used to establish or develop conflict, to introduce characters, to highlight a turning point, and so on.
The moments you choose to focus on by putting them in scene will tell your reader what’s important in your story. A scene should also relate to what you want readers to get from your story, your point. Knowing how to write those scenes effectively, the different ways to structure them for maximum impact depending on your purpose, can lift your writing to the next level.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, a story without scenes is not a story at all. That goes for novels, memoir, short stories, family sagas, romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, mysteries, and so on. Learning how to craft the most effective scenes and how to use them is a basic—but crucial—skill in a writer’s toolbox.
Susanne Dunlap is the author of eight historical novels. She will be sharing her scene-building expertise in a WIP morning workshop on Feb 1 – “Crafting Compelling Scenes.” More information here
Register for Susanne’s workshop