Last week I discussed writing a scene outline. After rereading the post, I realized it made writing a scene seem fairly simple; a matter of moving your plot along, from beginning of the book to the end, in a logical, well-paced manner. But the details within the scene are critical for writing that is headed for an agent/publisher. Much of it depends on the type of story/novel you are writing. Different genres have different requirements. There are writing books that detail the ‘requirements,’ but the best way to understand the nuances of a specific genre is to read from the best authors in the area you are writing in. Studying masters such as James Lee Burke, Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard will provide great examples of what a mystery book needs – while making it clear that style and voice are wide open!
As I’m writing the first draft of a book I don’t give much thought to the details that make specific scenes work. The process works differently for everyone, but I find once the basic story is on the page I can go back and rework individual scenes to make sure they achieve the ultimate goal of advancing the story. Following are a few issues to keep in mind when crafting specific scenes.
Sidenote: Your novel will most likely have sections of dramatic narration, but the majority of a book is told in scene. So, for the purposes of this post I will keep the focus simple.
Point of View (POV) Character
I don’t write experimental or literary fiction. Most of my posts apply to genre fiction, so it makes it easier for me to generalize certain points. One such generalization is that each scene is typically told through the eyes of one character – the POV character. Unless you are writing a story with multiple points of view – a daunting task – that rule should hold true. It’s easier for the reader to watch the scene unfold from one character’s viewpoint. And, even more importantly, the conflict in the scene should build around the POV character’s action and dialogue. As the character’s stress level rises so should the reader’s.
The POV character will have a goal in every scene that is tied to the bigger story. What does the character want?
Who or what is standing in the way of the character achieving his/her goal? Conflict is vital to the story and must be present in every scene, if not on every page. The conflict may or may not directly involve the protagonist and antagonist, but it should be tied to their goals.
Each scene in the book has to have a specific purpose or it should be cut. It must further the story line or provide critical information about the lead character. When you’ve written a beautiful scene or paragraph, invested a great amount of time, you still have to ask yourself – is it necessary? I mentioned Elmore Leonard. I will share his rules of writing in a future post. For now, rule number ten is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Sadly, those parts are often the most fun to write; the beautiful language and descriptive prose that really does not serve the story at all. Be ruthless in revision. Whether it is a scene, paragraph, sentence or single word – if it serves no purpose – cut it.
The scene must be resolved. The POV character either achieves the goal, or by not achieving the goal, the conflict is heightened as the character goal is changed. Typically, the middle of a book is a series of scenes where the protagonist’s goals are not achieved, and the conflict is heightened with each setback.
Here’s a great example of scene that achieves its purpose. It is the opening scene from a Carl Hiassen mystery novel called, Skin Tight. In just 3 pages it does everything a scene is supposed to do. And, it accomplishes something more. As the first scene in the book it provides the hook to keep the reader moving on to page two. The scene is funny, the author’s voice is clear, and it lets you know murder will be examined with a touch of Hiassen’s signature sarcasm. I think it’s a great set-up for the book.
To read the scene, go to www.amazon.com and find, Skin Tight, by Hiassen. Click on the “Look in Here” link over the picture of the book (although I don’t think this book currently has a picture). Click on “First Pages.” You’ll be able to read the first few pages of the book.
Consider the scenes in the book you are currently reading and begin breaking them down in your mind. When you are able to start identifying the conflict, the purpose of the scene, and the character goals you will find constructing scenes with those key elements becomes much easier. It is difficult to write something that you are not able to identify.
Next week – I’m sharing some of the best writing advice I have ever read. Simple and easy to implement. Check back in!