I'd like to welcome a guest post from the prolific CS Lakin, author, editor, and writing coach.
As a copyeditor, I can attest that the biggest flaw I see in the manuscripts that I critique and edit is poor scene structure. I don’t think many writers have fully explored the topic to the extent that they plan out a scene with enough understanding and craft tools to be able to really make each scene the most powerful and effective that it can be. Often scenes seem to be thrown together, starting in a place and in a manner that really doesn’t work. And so, since each scene is like a mini novel (or should be), I want to talk a bit about them, and particularly about scene beginnings, since they parallel your novel beginning in many ways.
How Would You Define a Scene?
If someone asked you to define what a scene is, what would you say? If you think about it, it’s not easy to define. We tend to know when a scene works and when it doesn’t. Here are some elements that make up a scene that I’ve found in books on scene writing:
The sum of myriad elements that work together [hmm, that’s a bit vague] It starts and ends with a character arriving and leaving [sometimes, but not often] It can be a single location with many people coming and going It gives the sensation that a character is “trapped” in this moment and must go through it I’m not all that ecstatic about these points. They don’t really tell what a scene is. I like how Jordan Rosenfeld defines a scene in her book Make a Scene: “Scenes are capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”
What Is Real Time?
Well, it’s not back story. I already gave a lengthy post about leaving back story out of your story, so let’s focus on this concept of “real time.” Too many manuscripts start off with either pages of narrative to set up the book or start with maybe a catchy (or not) first paragraph or two that puts the protagonist right in a scene in real time—meaning they are experiencing something that, for them, is happening right then. Not a memory, not a flashback, not even them thinking about what is happening to them right now. But after these short moments of establishing the character in a “happening” scene, the author lapses into telling the reader important things they should know [read: back story]. Even if you are going to go heavily into your character’s head, you need that character to be doing it “here and now” in some sort of “capsule” (as Rosenfeld says) that is unfolding in the moment. It’s not all that complicated, but writers really need to resist the urge to stop the moment or veer off elsewhere.
Be Here Now
So, if you’ve pulled on your reins and disciplined yourself to construct that opening scene with your protagonist in a moment in real time, you now have the structure to show that character undertaking significant actions in a vivid and memorable way. By now you have your themes and MDQs (Major Dramatic Question) all worked out, and you’ve figured out how to hint at these, along with showing your character’s glimpse of greatness and core need. You’ve set up their persona that they show to the world, and you’ve hinted at their true essence underneath. Are you starting to feel a bit overwhelmed? You just might be. Not a whole lot of authors can whip up a first scene intuitively and off the cuff that contains every little element needed. And that’s why first page checklist is really helpful. Once you rough in that first scene, go through and make sure you’ve got all the bases covered. Which begs the question . . .
Just How Long Should a Scene Be?
I’ve actually read articles and book chapters that suggest certain numbers of pages, and it’s not that formulaic. Genre can be a factor, since a fast-action thriller may have short, terse chapters whereas a thoughtful literary work may have long ones. The real answer, which may not be so helpful, is that a scene should be as long as it needs to be (the same is true for a novel's length). You determine the length of the scene by writing it and making sure it reaches its objective. And once it’s done that, it should end. What is the objective for the scene? It’s your high point or moment that you are trying to build to, for every scene should be leading to aan important moment or revelation. If it doesn’t, you might need to go back and take a look at your scene and rework it so it does.
C. S. Lakin is the author of twelve novels, including the fantasy series, “The Gates of Heaven,” with the first four books now out in stores. She also writes contemporary psychological mysteries, with her Zondervan contest winner, Someone to Blame, having been released October 2010. She works as a professional copyeditor and writing coach and loves to teach on the craft of writing. Her new websites are dedicated to critiquing fiction (CritiqueMyManuscript.com) and building community to help survive and thrive in your writing life (LiveWriteThrive.com). You can read more about her at www.cslakin.com and follow her on Twitter: @cslakin.