Requirements of a Scene
Authors don’t just stick scenes into their novels because they sound good. There is a reason – actually there are several reasons or purposes – for each scene. When you look at your work, make sure that each of your scenes accomplishes several of the following:
1. Move the story/plot along.
– The reader finds out who the suspect is.
– The murder occurs or someone falls off the boat, etc.
– Characters meet for the first time
2. Establish atmosphere
– Create a mood.
– Describe the setting
– Put the characters into position for the next action
– Create humor/tension/fear
3. Give insight into the characters
– A character will make a revelation – knowingly or unknowingly
– A character might suddenly understand something about himself
4. Show conflict
– See article on conflict
– Be sure to show it more than tell about it
5. Develop the theme
– Show that good always wins over evil
– Have your characters demonstrate the power of science
– There is no place like home
– Love conquers all
Here are two examples of scenes:
They went to the restaurant Mary had recommended, and since it was a warm day, decided to eat outside. Lunch was served and it was as good as they expected. “How’s your sandwich?” Jane asked.
“Not bad. I’ve always liked corned beef.”
They spent an hour in the restaurant chatting about their day, and the meeting they would have later that evening with Bob. The traffic made it difficult to talk, so they found themselves nearly shouting at each other.
Mary was always a reliable font of information. She’d recommended The Tavern on the Green, so Jane and Fred decided to have lunch there. Fred wanted to sit outside, even though it was blistering hot out and the traffic on the busy street made it difficult to converse in a normal tone. Jane would have preferred to stay inside where it was quiet and the a/c kept it comfortably cool, but no. As usual, she was too timid to say what she really wanted.
“How’s your sandwich?” she asked after they’d taken the first few bites. She didn’t really care. Her own food tasted like dust when she thought about the meeting they had to have to have later with Bob.
Ok, I’ve got one more line in Example 2, but you can see the difference between the two. Sample 1 barely puts the reader into the setting. Sample 2 tells you that Jane is timid and she’s dreading the meeting with Bob. Maybe it’s showing the reader that Fred is a little bit domineering – he decides they’ll eat outside even though Jane doesn’t want to. A little bit of conflict here? Conflict about the meeting with Bob, certainly.
Make sure you accomplish a few of the things listed above in every one of your scenes.
Dialogue should be elevated above the level of normal conversation. It needs to sparkle with vocabulary and cleverness and “character-ness.” You should be able to tell who is speaking, even without a dialogue tag. It should move things along, and not just take up space. Every exchange accomplishes something – increases the conflict, gives information, illustrates who your character is. It’s not about telling the reader what everyone is having for breakfast – unless that’s a crucial point that gives insight into the character.
“That looks great!” John said, even though he hated pancakes. But Claire had gone to the trouble of making them, so he would eat them. With enthusiasm.
Here’s an example from my December 2011 Book, Brazen:
“This will only take a moment.” Gathering her wits, Christina took the linen and quickly tore it into strips, then folded one section into a large square and pressed it to the wound. Then she wrapped his arm with the remaining strips.
“How did you learn to do this?” Briggs asked.
“I have three younger brothers. One or the other was always in some kind of scrape. Blood was often involved.”
The reader and Briggs learn something about Christina in this short interchange. Here’s another one from the same book:
“If we leave now, we can make it to Windermere the day after tomorrow,” Captain Briggs said when he turned and saw her standing at the window in the drawing room.
“I’m not going to Windermere,” Christina replied.
“Yes, you are.”
“I need to go to London first.”
He tucked the long tails of his shirt into his trews. Then he caught her gaze and spoke quietly. “I’d rather not tie you to the back of my horse, Lady Fairhaven, but I will if I–“
“Do you order your wife about this way, Captain Briggs?”
“I have no wife, Lady Fairhaven. And I assure you that if I did have one, she would be far more tractable–“
“I am being blackmailed, Captain. I need to go to London right away.”
Make your dialogue count. It’s a great way to show, rather than tell. Get those feelings out, get that plot moved forward!
Margo Maguire © 2011.