Saturday, 3 December 2016

What use is a scene?

Welcome to something new on my blog! I’ll try to write something insightful about the process of writing each week (or each fortnight, depending on my other duties). This week, it’s all about the jobs of a scene in your story.

If, like me, you’re a rather unorganized writer, you’ll start a new story with characters and scenes whirling around in your head, daring you to write them down and flesh them out. Most of my novels have started out with one remarkable scene I absolutely wanted to write. The scene propagated and gave birth to new scenes, to characters, to the whole story arc. It evolved into a full story, into full-fledged novels in some cases.

But what role does a scene play in a story?
For one thing, it’s the shortest unit, the shortest piece of story you have. Some short stories are barely more than one long scene. Sometimes, a long scene might demand a full chapter or even carry over in some way into a second one. The scene is what is actually happening, the whole story is nothing but a row of scenes which come together to tell the story.

What use can a scene have?
First and foremost, there are two uses for a scene: it can advance the story or our understanding of the characters. Ideally, a scene does both, but every scene should at least do one. So, before you start writing a scene, ask yourself “What does it do for the story?” If it either advances the story or tells the readers something about the characters (or one character only), you should write it. If it does neither, you might want to shelve it for another story and write something else, saving energy and time. I can guarantee there will come a time when that scene fits somewhere else, provided you can still remember it by then.

Is that all?
No, it’s not. Scenes also have another use within the story. You should balance out action-loaded scenes with calmer ones, so your readers can calm down between the action parts. If you write adventure stories like me, you will have action scenes. At some part, my agent Jane has to do something dangerous and daring. But you can’t just pile up action scenes from the first to the last one of your story. You need to give both the audience and the characters some downtime. Scenes which are focused on characters work very well for that. You can have your characters sit around a table and chat about old times - or you can have your main characters do something which they love to do. You can give a little glimpse into the mind of the antagonist (the villain, if you like to use strong words) as well, since the good, old melodrama villain is out of fashion. These days, the bad guys need a motivation to be bad.

There is no minimum length for a scene, it can be only a paragraph or two or it can take up a whole chapter (in my stories usually something between 2,500 and 3,000+ words). Usually, when you have a very short scene, you should look at it very closely, because it might not do any of its possible jobs. Nevertheless, depending on your own writing style, a short, efficient scene of a few paragraphs might incorporate both jobs.

During the long and tedious process of editing your stories, you will come along scenes which are no longer useful or don’t work with the rest of the scenes. In such cases, you need to decide whether to cut or rewrite a scene. Sometimes, it might be better to just cut out the scene completely, shelve it for another time, and be done. There are, however, also reasons for rewriting. If, like me, you’re unorganized, some scenes from the first half of your first draft might no longer fit once the second half is written. With quite a bit of work, you can rewrite them and make them fit again. It’s one reason why you should always edit carefully and rather once more than not often enough. Once, I had to add two half-chapters to a story so it really made sense. (It was one chapter, in essence, but split up between two chapters already written.) This goes hand in hand with one big rule for writing your first draft: don’t try to edit while you’re still writing. Get the story out of your mind, onto the pages, then clean it up and get it ready to face the world.

If you mind your scenes a little before you start writing them, you can save yourself quite some time, because you won’t write out scenes which you need to cut later on. Yet, it can be better to write a scene and later on cut it out again than not to write it and find it hard to insert it into your story during editing.

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