Project 2015, Part 4: Making a Scene

It’s a writer’s job to make a scene. Drama is our stock in trade, and we’re always plotting something. (Always the quiet ones, right?) Seriously, though, I have spent fifteen, geeky years proselytizing my love for the most basic, beautiful element of story structure: the scene. A novel has between forty and sixty of them. That’s not a lot, considering that you have only that much space to bring characters to life and lead them through a life-changing experience, all the while holding your reader in rapt suspense. Here’s how to make a hell of a scene in front of a whole lot of people (your readers).


A Few Definitions, First

A scene is a unit of story in which something happens in real time. It is dynamic, moving the character a little bit forward on his or her irreversible journey. (Irreversible is the key word, because otherwise, nothing changes.) Generally, a flashback is not a scene, because it happened in the past.

Also, I said it here and I’ll say it again: don’t confuse plot for drama. They are two different elements of storytelling. Plot is what happens outside your character. Drama is what happens inside your character. Good scene structure requires both. For example:

  • Plot is a relative showing up at your door; drama is the feeling of intense guilt because she is one you’ve neglected to call for a year.
  • Plot is a tornado hitting your house; drama is the pain of hearing it wipe out your ancestral family farm days after winning a lawsuit to protect it from developers.
  • Plot is an evil wizard casting a spell; drama is the anguish of seeing the love of your life leave you, because the spell made her fall in love with your worst enemy.

Make sense? Plot is an event: what happens. Drama is the emotional charge to your character: also called the “emotional underbelly.” A good scene needs them both, because without the plot event, the character’s reaction is more melodrama than drama. And without the drama, all the plot fireworks in the world won’t keep your reader awake.

Quick pause here. If you’ve been writing long enough, some of this is probably already embedded in your instincts and you include both plot and drama in many of your first-draft scenes. But if this sounds like too much to think about in a first draft, THAT IS OKAY. Diana Abu-Jaber offers one of my favorite writing quotes: “Write like Kirk, revise like Spock.” In the same vein, Hemingway said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” In other words, it’s really all right if your first draft comes out a hot mess. Just move the story forward however you can and worry about scene structure in revision.

After letting the draft cool, put on your Spock ears and listen for the hollow spots. This blog post is your diagnostic tool, and offers some fixes, below.

Diagnose the Problem

Let’s say you find a scene that doesn’t sit well with you. A good first question to ask is, “Does it lack plot, or does it lack emotion?” Here are some ways to troubleshoot scene structure.

It lacks plot if:

It reads like classic melodrama. We see the protagonist tear his hair and cry and start vaguebooking about how some people will never be trusted again. We shrug and say, “Okay, so? Who peed in his Cheerios today?” Whatever it was that set your character off, it needs to be clear to the reader—and commensurate with the reaction. For example, how different would you feel about this guy’s reaction if we knew beforehand that his ninth-grade classmate had just outed him as gay by posting a video of an otherwise happy goodnight kiss? At that age, I would have flipped out, too.

It lacks drama if:

It’s leaves you feeling blank. Have you ever turned on the TV in the middle of an action scene—the kind with shouting special agents and a helicopter and burly men with guns—and felt exactly nothing? Or come downstairs while all your aunties are swabbing their eyes, mascara everywhere, over some scene in a movie you don’t recognize? That’s the same effect a plot-only scene has on your reader. It’s another “Okay, so?” response. We’re not feeling your character, not worried about how the action will wound or inspire him or her. It’s flimsy and cold, and we just don’t care.


So, Fix It

Once you know which of these elements is lacking, here are two approaches to giving your scene an effective makeover.

How to add more plot to a scene

Basically, what happens? And what does your character do about it? The art of a scene isn’t just in having a piano land in the middle of the living room, but in teasing us a little. Make us want to turn the page.

Here’s the plot structure of a traditional scene. (Way more of that here, thanks to Elizabeth Lyon’s transformative book on revisions, Manuscript Makeover.) In general, a good scene begins with a situation that poses a problem to the character, one which the character tries to solve. When the first attempt fails, s/he tries again, and effects some result that creates a new problem that propels the story forward. Ideally, there will be little explaining to do (of the problem, the character’s attempts to solve it, or the resolution) because the action will be self-explanatory; as the adage says, it’s shown rather than told. In this equation there is no room for another POV, or for over-narration.

1. Situation: establishes place and time, and what the character is doing.

2. Inciting incident: something happens to disrupt the situation.

3. Attempt #1: the character tries to quell the problem the easy way.

4. Failure #1: the problem gets worse because of the first attempt.

5. Attempt #2: the character buckles down and tries again, more creatively, to resolve the problem.

6. Final failure/resolution: because the character was forced to address the problem in a new way, the result demands a shift from the status quo, thus creating the next situation. This six-step process begins again in a new scene.

How to add more drama to a scene

A scene should make us FEEL something. That is, feelings about how your character is managing his or her predicament; and by proxy, we should also empathize with your character’s own feelings, too. That’s a whole lot of feeling going on, but it matters. No matter how crusty you think you are, or how whip-smart your novel is, the opposite of feeling something is absolute boredom.

I attended a whole five-week course on how to write emotions in fiction, which itself was condensed from a fifteen-week, master’s-level seminar. It just doesn’t fit into one blog post, but here’s the quick-start version.

1. Find the place where you want the spark of emotion to leap off the page. It probably focuses on a single image, line of dialogue, or precise action. Figure out (for yourself) exactly how that makes the character feel, and what the reader should feel. You can’t be clear to the reader if you’re not clear on it yourself.

2. Work backwards from that point. Trace the buildup of that emotion. What specific thoughts, actions, and biases feed into it? Make sure all the details along the way align with that intensifying emotion. If your character ends up yelling in anger, for instance, don’t choose happy, positive, calm language to convey details in the scene.

3. If you find that at the moment of that crucial spark, you’re still having to explain what the character feels and why, consider “front loading” that information earlier in the scene, or in an earlier, adjacent scene. For instance, what do we need to know about a woman who ends up feeling an intense yearning to hear her sister say, “I love you?” What is that need about? Why does her sister’s opinion mean so much to her? As you can see, you may need to front load a lot of information in order for us to eventually feel the nuances of the character’s disappointment when her sister finally says, “Yeah, sure, you’re super,” but not I love you.

4. Take the time to perfect it. This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but never, ever forget that your novel is made out of words. And that’s it. So, care in language is a must. Take the time to choose the kind of details that evoke the emotion you’re aiming for.


When Plot and Drama Line Up

Ideally, the end of each scene is a mini-cliffhanger, handing us off to the next scene. If you’ve revised it well, we will know what feelings the event stirred up, and really, really care to see what the character is going to do next. A job well done creates the “Just two more pages and then sleep” bargain a reader ends up making with herself long past bedtime. But plot structure is the subject of a future post!

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