Writing Scenes

by | Mar 31, 2022

You have a ton of tasks to tend to when it comes to crafting your stories, and writing scenes is one of them.

What is a scene? A useful writer’s definition goes something like this: a scene consists of action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that leads to a minor or major change in character or plot.

“Action through conflict” includes situations of physical action and dialogue that move the story forward in a dynamic way.

“Continuous time and space” means that a scene generally takes place in one location and during a set amount of time that feels like the present moment of the story.

“Change” refers to the particular relevance of the scene, the thing that happens that warrants the scene’s necessary inclusion in the story. This change, small or large, propels the story forward.

The scene is the essential building block of storytelling. It’s your most powerful tool for conjuring images in the mind’s eye of the reader. Your story’s most important events, ideas, actions, and emotions will be conveyed primarily through scenes.

Scenes are different from what’s known as “summary.” A simple, general way to differentiate the two types of writing is to think of scenes as the “showing” part of your writing and summary as the “telling” part.

A scene will make us feel as if we’re right there with the characters, as if we’re watching the action and dialogue unfold in real time. Screenwriters rely on scenes almost exclusively, because their stories must be told visually. They depend on action, dialogue, image, and sound to convey meaning. (On rare occasions they include voice over to convey the inner thoughts of characters.)

Novelists and memoirists have a lot more leeway. They aim to strike a balance between scene and summary. (Though, by balance I don’t mean giving them equal weight, since most stories favour more scenes than summary.) Novels and memoirs include things like inner dialogue, self reflection, memories, backstory, exposition, lyrical description, and some summary of events that are less relevant to the story and can be covered through “telling” rather than “showing.”

In fact, the artfulness of novels and memoirs often depends on the ability of the writer to use summary techniques. Scenes with action and dialogue are the most engaging to read, but prose writers can interrupt or bracket these scenes to enter a character’s inner world or memories, or to summarize accounts of backstory or other story information.

Pure summary is used sparingly to fill in gaps, provide information, bridge action sequences, adjust pacing, and possibly add color, depth, and description to the prose. Literary fiction tends to include more summary than genre or commercial fiction.

The whole flow of story is a kind of action-reaction pattern set in motion from the initial catalyzing event that really gets the story going. Once the story is underway, a character responds to consequential events and makes decisions that lead to more consequences that lead to more decisions and responses. Think of your scenes as a series of dominoes; the events of one scene fall naturally to the next and trigger the next event, which triggers the next event, and so on.

Scene writing is an art rather than a science, but most writers can stand to boost their scene writing skills in order to realize the potential of a story’s scenes.


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