Scene Craft

Here’s a post at BVC by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff: New Writers Ask: What is Scene Craft and How Do I Get Some?

I write each scene with the awareness that every scene builds upon the ones that come before and contribute to the reader’s understanding of the scenes that come after. This may seem obvious, but I have encountered many writers who view scenes as a series of isolated or encapsulated events (or info dumps). This can lead to the writer trying to shove too much information into each scene.

I wonder if this is a problem for writers who are more experienced with short stories or whose natural length is the short story. I have met novelists who say they prefer short forms and when they write novels, they write them as though they were writing a series of short stories. This seems both reasonable and strange at the same time. I’ve read book-length collections of episodes that were basically a set of linked short stories, and that can work. But in that case, the author had better remember the stories are linked and not try to recap all the background info or whatever in each episode.

Scenes are the building blocks of a story; they are meant to build toward a complete structure. When you plant a suspicion in a scene in chapter two, trust that it will be an element in a scene in chapter twelve whether you intended it to or not, because the reader will read the rest of your story looking for the place that element fits and that suspicion pays off. [Emphasis in original.]

Well, yes, in a murder mystery. If it’s a worldbuilding element or foreshadowing, I won’t actually be looking for it as I continue reading; I’ll just recognize it when it turns up.

My question going in is: What do I want this scene to tell the reader about the characters—not just the ones who are in the scene, but possibly characters who are off-page as well? The state of your characters at the end of a scene should be different in some way from their state at the beginning. In other words, there should be some advancement of the character along their arc—i.e. knowledge or insight gained, conflict sparked and/or conflict resolved, questions answered and/or questions posed.

Yes, I think that’s right: what do you want the readers to see about the characters, how do you want the characters to move through their arcs. But also: what needs to happen to move the plot forward. Those two things, basically.

Pretty good post overall. Heavy emphasis on character. That suits me, but also, probably better not to forget that the plot as well as the characters should probably be moving.

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3 thoughts on “Scene Craft”

  1. Oh, I was just listening to a video about scene today. One of the interesting parts was the distinction between scene and summary, which is to say, what’s shown and what’s told (and that both are necessary). It helps to be clear on when & why to use scenes as well as what to include.

    Your point about a series of short stories as a novel reminds me of the review you wrote about hmm… a romance book… where is it… yes, here: Six Ways to Write a Love Letter. You were talking about the romance beats and how low stakes this novel is because each problem is resolved in turn. They don’t build up into a dire crisis. I wonder if that example and analysis would help a short-story writer with a novel.

  2. That’s a good suggestion, Mona. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it could work both ways, couldn’t it? You could use Six Ways to say, “Here’s how to write a low-stress episodic novel, and guess what you can do to increase tension? That’s right: stop resolving each problem as it comes up. Leave those balls in the air and make them go higher in each episode, and boom, vastly more tension.”

    I agree completely about scene vs summary and was just thinking recently about how important it can be to use summary to get through something unimportant briskly, and how you can do that in an interesting way that doesn’t feel like summary … I should write a blog post about that …

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