Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was scenes.
We always start with two questions: What did we read and write recently?
What Did We Read?
I’ve recently been reading the Maus graphic novels, the Timeshift anthology of time-related sci-fi, and Mort (a Terry Pratchet Discrworld novel) at bedtime with the kids.
Freya has been reading the first Wheel of Time book. She said it was a little slow at first, but she’s enjoying it now that she’s halfway through.
What Did We Write?
I’ve only been writing Razor Mountain recently, and trying to get ahead on blog posts. Freya hasn’t written any more of her book recently, but she has been writing poetry, including one about all the many fragrances of bath bombs.
What’s In a Scene?
Today’s topic was the structure of scenes. A scene is the smallest “unit” that we typically break stories into. A short story might have only a couple scenes, while a novel can have dozens or hundreds.
The beginning and end of a scene are often delineated physically on the page with a line break, chapter break, or asterisks and similar markers. However, it takes more than that to make a scene feel cohesive. There are a few different tools that can help a scene feel like a single unit of story: setting, characters, and theme.
A scene is typically a section of the story that occurs entirely in one setting. In this case, I use “setting” fairly broadly. It can refer to a specific location or a specific time period. Most of the time, a scene will take place in one location and cover a specific, contiguous period of time. For example, two people meet in a coffee shop, have a conversation, and then leave.
In some cases, some characters may enter or exit in the middle of the scene, or the scene may start in the middle of the action, with the characters already in their places. In these cases, it’s usually the static setting that holds the scene together. All the action happens in the same place, over a specific span of time.
You can think of this in terms of a stage play. The scenery for the scene is ready and the lights come up. Are the characters already on the stage? Do they enter or exit during the scene? Eventually the scene ends and the lights go down so the props can be replaced and a new scene can start.
It’s also possible for a scene to move across multiple locations (in time or space) or take place in multiple locations simultaneously.
For example, in visual media like TV, film and comics, it’s common to have a “split screen” scene where a narrator in one location (in space or time) narrates action set in a different location. This lets the writer play with juxtapositions or relationships between the narration and the action. Imagine a scene where a person talks about falling in love while a montage of scenes with the happy couple flash by. Then imagine how the mood changes if the character is instead talking about slowly falling out of love.
In a plot like a heist, there might be a single scene that jumps between several bank robbers in different areas of a bank, each one carrying out their part of the bigger plan. Everything is happening at the same time, or in sequence, but in many different locations.
While most scenes have an obvious beginning and end, not every scene is so clearly delineated. One scene may blend into another. Often, this takes the form of “zooming in” or “zooming out,” and may involve a change of perspective.
For example, the opening of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with a description of our galaxy, the evolution of the human race, and the problems that beset us. Then it “zooms in” to one woman in particular, who has an important revelation. Then, because it’s Douglas Adams, we are told that the story isn’t about this woman at all. It’s about a terrible, stupid catastrophe and the book called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Then, at the start of the next chapter, it does the same thing, zooming in on the protagonist’s house, and eventually the protagonist himself.
This example shows nicely that this sort of zooming out can happen in location (zooming from outside the galaxy to a particular café in Rickmansworth) but also in time (across the entire evolution of humanity to the modern day).
“Zooming” can also encapsulate a change in the level of specificity, where the author glosses over less important details until reaching a place and moment in time where the details are important. This is often done for the sake of continuity. A character might spend one scene talking with a friend, then have to drive across town to speak to another friend. The drive isn’t very interesting. So the author describes the first conversation in detail over several pages. A short paragraph describes the uneventful drive, and then there are several more pages of detail for the second conversation.
These aspects of location and character are the logistics of a scene. The level of zoom or specificity are stylistic choices. But there is one other thing that can affect whether a scene feels satisfying and complete: the theme or arc of the scene.
Each scene needs to have some purpose in the larger story, and oftentimes scenes fulfill several purposes at once. They could provide new information to the characters or the reader. They could show some change in the character, perhaps resolving a goal or revealing a new goal. They could create or resolve a mystery. They need to drive the story forward in some way.
One of the more common challenges in fiction is when the logistics of the story require things to happen, but those things don’t actually feel like they’re furthering the story. They are like the character driving across town between important conversations.
It’s easy to make a whole scene out of these kinds of unsatisfying story beats, and the scene will inevitably be a dull one. Sometimes these scenes can be cut completely. Other times they can be replaced with a little bit of connective tissue, like the zoom-in or a quick, summarizing description of the necessary action. Sometimes, by looking at the larger picture, you’ll find that the story can be tweaked so the boring part isn’t needed at all.
That’s all for this class. We’ve been doing fewer of these little “classes” over summer, since…well, we’re outside and enjoying the warm weather while we can. I do have at least one more planned though, before school is back in session and our schedules get busy.