Simply stating the events that transpire throughout a manuscript does not a story make. Substituting narrative summary for a scene is a common writing error. This writing mistake is surprisingly easy to make. A vivid imagination can be both a blessing and curse. Have you ever filled out a scene in your mind only to field a slew of questions from critique partners who can’t picture it?
Writing a novel in scenes that carry readers into the story with you can transform your writing and win a following of avid readers waiting for your next book.
Writing a Novel in Scenes
A scene is an event that happens in a specific place and time. A scene is a small story in itself, containing an arc that includes a beginning, middle, and end. A scene does not exist for atmosphere alone (although it might contribute to the story mood) but advances the story with an outcome that leads logically into the next scene. This creates a sense of forward motion that pulls a reader through the story.
A Scene Happens in Real Time
Lay out actions in sequential order. You want to avoid jerking readers back and forth in time, giving them the literary equivalent of whiplash. As a general rule, especially in the beginning of your novel, don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader. If you need to write a flashback, give it a scene all it’s own, if warranted.
For a perspective on time flow in fiction, read Teach Your Writing Voice to Sing.
Tell the Story Through Specific Characters
This advice may seem like a no-brainer. Of course a scene has characters. Hear me out. Let’s say you’re writing about a lynch mob ready to hang an outlaw. You could state the bald fact, or pick faces from the crowd. Maybe the outlaw killed Jack’s brother, robbed Otis’s store, and held a gun to Chet’s face just for fun. Having these fellows, even as minor characters, call out their grievances makes the incident more personal and resonant.
For more on creating characters, read Defining Your Characters (Or Who Are These People Anyway?)
Show the Action
You experience the world through your senses, and readers enter your storyworld through theirs. Stating that a character heard the sound of water usually isn’t the best choice when so many wonderful words exist to describe it. Did it gurgle, plash, trickle, thunder, or do something else? A character might smell smoke, but it’s more vivid to have her choke on the stench of a burning roast. Does a character lean against a door? Why not have his fingers press against the door’s rough wood? Does your heroine see a sunset or an explosion of color across the sky? Does fear have a taste?
Labeling emotions (he spoke angrily; she felt afraid, he wanted to kiss her) is lazy writing. Instead of stating that Mary is sad, show her reasons for sadness, and then have her react physically and/or with with introspection that causes the reader to conclude she’s sad. Just don’t do this in a clichéd manner. Maybe she doesn’t weep but instead grows quiet or withdraws. David is furious but rather than punching a hole in the wall, he exterminates every weed in his yard.
For more tips on how to show rather than tell in writing, watch this brief video: 5 Ways to Show Rather Than Tell in Fiction Writing.
Set the Story in Place and Time
Every scene needs to be grounded in place and time. Using too much or not enough description is a common mistake. Fail to establish the setting and the reader will feel curiously weightless, like an astronaut floating in a zero-gravity chamber. Characters will seem like ‘talking heads’ floating somewhere in space. Don’t overdo it, though. Overload your readers with description, and they’ll crawl through the scene. Finding a happy balance takes practice. It helps to have feedback from great critique partners.
Learn about setting the story tone and mood in Story Tone and Mood -- What are They? and Set a Winning Story Tone.
Something physical happens, with or without dialogue. Some writers call actions ‘beats.’ Using beats to identify speakers instead of dialogue tags helps you bring a scene to life.
For tips on writing dynamic action scenes, Bryan Thomas Schmidt has you covered. Read his Write Tip: 10 Tips For Writing Good Action Scenes.
Tell the Story Through Dialogue
Too many writers neglect dialogue, which is a shame. Done well, dialogue is a vital tool for deepening your characters and imparting information. You can even use dialogue to give glimpses of back story in a realistic way that doesn’t disrupt your story’s flow.
For more on dialogue, read the Top 10 Dialogue Writing Mistakes series, starting with Dialogue Tag Blunders.
The Plot Must Thicken
If a scene exists merely to dump information on an unsuspecting reader, it has no real purpose and will seem aimless. Cut all such scenes. Work only the information your reader needs to know into the story when your reader needs to know it.
To learn more, read Develop a Story Line with a Theme.
Final Thoughts from Janalyn
The viewpoint character of a scene should have a goal that drives the action. An opposing force (or forces) interferes, setting up conflict that forces a decision. This decision can be wise or ill-considered, but it should always move the story toward its resolution.
What are your tips for writing a novel in scenes?