Making the Scene

Most fiction is made up of scenes. A scene can be a few lines long, or a long chapter can all be a single scene. Almost by definition, a scene involves at least one human (or non-human actor) doing something — a description of a landscape or a page of historical background is not a scene.

This morning I was reading a blog post by one of my fellow self-appointed authorities on creative writing, in which she discussed how to make scenes interesting for the reader, as opposed to dull and boring. Unfortunately, she seemed not really to have a firm grasp of her subject-matter. She talked about how a scene should move the plot forward — and it should! — but as she acknowledged, that’s not the same thing at all. Her advice with respect to her nominal subject was this:

“As a writer, creating the bones of your scene structure is just the beginning. After the bones are there, you must then find the heart. Look at every scene in your story. What’s special about this scene? What makes it interesting? What emotion do you want to elicit — whether it’s excitement, amusement, horror, or warm fuzzies?”

Looking at the emotional tone of a scene is certainly a good idea, but it’s not really very concrete advice. She also says, “Start by looking for the elements that delight and interest you as you’re writing them. Do that, and not only will your scene be awesome–but today’s writing session will be one of the most fun you’ve had in ages.” Again, a bit more focus on the nuts and bolts would not be amiss.

Maybe we can do better.

My rule of thumb for scenes is that if there are two people in the scene (as there will quite often be), the scene will be more interesting if they disagree with one another than if they agree. Disagreement creates tension. Without tension, your scene will be flabby. In order for there to be disagreement, you have to understand your characters’ underlying motivations. Arguing for the sake of arguing is not disagreement. Disagreement arises from your characters’ genuine desires and fears. Also, the fears and desires should concern things that are important to them.

If there’s only one person in the scene, the tension must come from a dissonance between the person and the environment. If that’s not present — if you’re writing a long, detailed narrative about your character leaving the house, driving to to the airport, getting on a plane, and flying off to Barcelona, all uneventfully — then get rid of it. Instead, write, “The next day, Janet drove to their airport, bought a ticket, and flew to Barcelona. When she arrived….”

This is what Elmore Leonard meant when he said, “I try to leave out the parts that readers skip.” If a scene that you’ve written seems dull, possibly punching it up with more emotion or better description isn’t the solution. Possibly you ought to delete the scene entirely. If your characters are not exhibiting (or trying to hide) desires and fears, why is the scene needed at all?

Please remember to anchor the physical aspects of the scene. Describe the room. Tell us about your characters’ gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. If you don’t do this, all you have are disembodied talking heads — and disembodied talking heads are boring.

Most scenes involve conversation. That is, dialogue. If your dialogue is dull and wooden, the scene will be dull and wooden, no matter how much physical description you put in or how passionately your characters disagree. Writing dialogue that reads smoothly and seems realistic (even though it’s a condensation or refinement of how people really talk) is a skill that any aspiring writer must acquire.

That’s a lot to keep tabs on while writing a scene. But as I tell my young cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”

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