3 Questions to Ask When Writing a Scene in Fiction
Just like in a great movie, scenes in fiction are where the drama and action happen. It’s where we get an idea of the characters’ personalities, learn how they handle conflict, and see the plot advance.
It’s how we get sucked into stories and where we fall in love with the people in them.
But writing a scene isn’t as simple as putting a couple of characters in a room together and writing dialogue. In fact, that’s the least complicated thing about it.
Let me keep going with this movie analogy for a minute. When you watch a movie, you can see and hear all kinds of things that help you make sense of what’s going on. Yes, there is what the actors are saying—but you can also perceive where they are, their facial experiences, what they’re doing, and all the visual and auditory details about their setting.
When you’re telling a story, you have to distill all those things into words so readers can experience what’s happening. One advantage of a book over a movie is that just the right combination of detail, action, dialogue, and narration can create an experience for readers that is not just 2-D but 3-D.
Describing this anatomy of a good scene is easier than actually doing it, though. Good scene writing is about keeping track of the action—being aware of what is generally happening and how the different pieces are coming together.
But before we get to exactly how you do this . . .
What’s a Scene in Fiction, Really?
A scene is a unit of action in a story where some event happens that propels the plot forward. Readers see this action play out in real-time as if they are in the room with the characters observing what is happening with their own eyes.
If you’ve ever been to a play, you know what I’m talking about. Each scene advances the storyline and portrays the characters taking specific actions and making decisions that will take them to the next event in the plot. Sitting in the audience, you watch the actors communicate, move around, speak, and act in ways that dramatize the conflict.
At no point in the play does the action stop. Instead, each scene naturally leads to the next.
That’s what happens in fiction. The variable is that sometimes, you’ll also have what’s called summary, where the narrator gives a rundown of events from the past that readers need to understand what’s happening or jump forward in time to avoid having to waste time on events that aren’t really important to the whole story but exist mainly to get the characters from one point to another.
For example, suppose I’m writing a story about a character traveling out of state for a wedding. In that case, I won’t waste much time detailing their drive to the airport, going through security, stopping at Dunkin’ to get coffee, etc. Not unless something significant happens at the airport will have a payoff later, anyway.
I will probably just say something like, “Bob flew from Denver to Orlando for the wedding.” Or maybe write a scene where he complains about the turbulence on the plane to someone else at the wedding.
The main thing is this: significant events in your story that drive the plot forward and detail major actions or decisions that the characters make must be dramatized in scenes.
So how do you do this? Here are four questions to consider as you’re writing . . .
Who is in the Scene?
You need to know what characters primarily figure in the action. But the scene isn’t just about them. If other people are in the scene, you need to consider them, too.
Last winter, I did a blog post about writing scenes with a lot of people in them. One rookie mistake in scene writing is to write some setup that mentions several characters but then forget who is in the room. For example, one secondary character might say something early in the scene but then disappear entirely.
Remember, you must give readers the information they need to interpret what’s happening. So, if Bob says something at the beginning of the scene but never talks again or is mentioned at all, we don’t know if he’s left the room or just hanging out playing with his phone.
The characters in the scene all need to be there for a reason.
There’s another caveat to this, however. You can’t just have characters say stuff to remind readers they’re still there. Any time a character speaks, it needs to be a line of dialogue that they would logically say in a manner that shows us something about who they are.
You can’t have cardboard cutouts in your scenes. So instead, keep track of who is there and what their purpose for being there is.
Where Are They Spatially?
In theatre, directors do something called blocking. It’s where the actors run through a scene and receive specific directions about where to stand onstage, where to move, and other actions they perform in reference to what’s going on in the play.
This is going to sound ridiculous, but you need to do blocking in your story.
If you don’t know where your characters are in a given location and where they are moving, you risk losing track of them and skipping over actions that might not seem important but are vital for helping readers keep track of what’s happening.
Otherwise, you could end up with characters that seem to be teleporting. For example, if Bob is in the restroom at the wedding one minute and cutting himself a piece of cake the next, we’ve missed how he got from the bathroom to the reception. Either that or you owe your reader an explanation about why the cake was in the men’s bathroom.
This doesn’t mean you require some detailed description of how the character got from point A to point B. “Bob washed his hands, left the restroom, and returned to the reception” will work just fine.
But if characters are moving around, you need to keep track of this. I have friends who struggle with the spatial nature of scenes and do so by moving action figures around on their desks or drawing diagrams.
Do what you find helpful to block your scenes so you know where the characters are.
What is the Character’s Goal?
I’ve covered this a bit already, but whatever happens in your scene has to be important.
Don’t just have your characters talking about work or sports or what they’re watching on Netflix. Your characters each have to have a goal—a reason for this particular interaction.
Bonus points if your characters have opposing goals because that’s where the actual conflict happens, not just in fiction but in real life.
How often have you walked into a situation with another person where you thought one thing would happen only to end up in some conflict you didn’t anticipate?
Fiction may not be real life, but your characters should interact, take action, and make decisions as if they were in a real-life situation.
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