30 facets of…scenes in fiction

1. How long is a scene?

Ideally, up to 100 words. There needs to be enough in the scene to create a picture, which will move on to another scene. A scene is like a moment or a freeze frame. A proposed word count could help, but only if you are working within a specific limit. Looking at photographic storyboards is a good way of determining how long a scene should be, because the focus is on one thing. Or comics might work just as nicely.

2. How many scenes in a chapter/act?

If you are writing a play, this is quite easy to define. In a play, scenes are normally longer than in a novel, because a play is usually set in the present tense and is therefore fast paced. In a novel, you can either have a few short scenes or a couple quite long ones. Basically, a scene is a link in the chain or sequence of events; and these sequences make up the chapter.

3. The difference between a flash and a scene

A flash might be a very brief flashback, or an image in the character’s mind. Alternatively can be something exterior, like the sudden focus of one’s surroundings e.g. a bird going past or a portrait on the wall. A scene might –  or might not – develop this second, or if it doesn’t it will have some kind of reason for being there. Length is a big defining aspect.

4. Sketches

This is like flash fiction, but with much less plot. The pace will be quite fast, and it might be a particular event or a character sketch. Because of its style, the audience might feel as though they are looking from the outside in. But you can still say something about the characters in the scene. Great for cameo characters.

5. Vignettes

These are like a sketch, only with less structure. They tend to focus on one thing; a motif, a character or a mood. ‘The Snow Child’ by Angela Carter is quite a good example. Whilst there is a chain of sequential events, it sis a snapshot. And the focus is on the recurring motifs of blood, raven feathers and snow.  It can be hard, but the key is to focus on one thing, and the significance of it.

6. Macro elements

And now back on to plays, novels and long short stories. Macro elements include the “Who? What? How? Why? When? Where?” questions, the link between previous and upcoming scenes/events and the significance. The things you cannot ‘see’ in the story, or the small parts in relation to the whole. This is what will help drive the plot forward.

7. Micro elements

This includes description, dialogue and other technical elements. These are the finer details that you’ve got to get right, and are the things which immediately jump out at you on the page. Work your lexicon, tone, mood, POV and narrator’s thoughts around the form, style, structure and genre; if you’re writing a romance novel, will you want to use baroque prose and engage the senses in certain scenes?

8. What’s going on here?

Try and be clear what’s happening in your scene. Where and when is it set, for instance? The whole point of a scene is for the reader to get a mental image of what’s going on, like watching a film in their head. So try not to wander off topic, but stay quiet as an author.

9. A scene is largely focused on setting

Put another way, it’s about the tangible world. It could be a dream, but mostly it’s set in real-time. The landscape, the sounds and smells, the geography and the even the weather are some things. But what people are doing sets a scene too; are they drinking coffee, or talking? If you build this mental image, you give the reader an impression of a place or culture. It’s not all about reporting events though

10. If it’s just a man driving his car, it’s not a scene

Like I said before, description and commentary are only half the story. However, if this man is driving his car, goes into a time portal that takes him back to the Middle Ages, it is a scene. Because this scene is going somewhere; what happens when he gets to the medieval country he’s just been dropped in?

11. A memory can be a scene, so can thinking.

It all depends on how you address these thoughts or memories. If someone has dementia and only remembers the past, the past becomes significant. Thinking is harder to pull off, because the type of thinking which might constitute a scene might be a meditation, Interior Monologue (rather than Exterior Dialogue) or a discourse.

12. Scenes  take place in the same time

You can’t just jump backwards and forwards in time. Even time travel fiction stays in one place long enough for the reader to gather an impression about it. If you keep jumping to different moments in time, they are flashes, not scenes. And events in the day tend to unfold slowly over a period of time.

13. And at the same place

Whether’s on the tube or at the beach, we don’t tend to move locations. Moving to another place signals the end of a scene and the start of another. Plus, are people really dashing around the place like sonic the hedgehog? And since we can’t teleport, we need to gradually move from one place to another. It needs to reflect real life.

14. Even if your work is past tense, it’s kind of present tense

This is because the scene focuses on what’s happening at a particular moment in time. So any true ‘past tense’ is outside the story, implied. And the future has yet to come. Scenes are all about the here and now, rather than what went on before. For instance, if you are writing a flashback narrative, like in Fight Club, the things that happened in the past are the focus of the story.

15. Scenes come in various packages

They can be emails, diary entries, letters or just in-the-moment conversation. Anything that spurs change or a move forward in the story can count as a scene. Don’t focus on the mechanics of the method, but what’s inside; the words, the imagery, description etc. Make sure you involve a character and an action of some kind – making coffee, going to the supermarket etc.

16.  The future scene

This is known as the sequel. It is the aftermath of the last scene, what’ll come next. You need to build up some tension or suspense in each scene to keep your reader longing for the next installment. You can give hints, or not, but it’s up to you.

17. What a scene must have

There must be a goal or purpose in this scene. It can either be elaborate; an archaeologist or adventurer – like Indiana Jones or Aladdin – must disarm or avoid the booby traps in order to get the treasure. Or it can be quite simple, such as two lovers meeting up in private. But, there are problems; what if somebody sees the couple, or Dr Jones falls into a pit? This is the conflict; something, whether good or bad, must happen to disrupt this goal. It might be winning the lottery, discovering you have blue blood, or a torrential downpour.

18. Go back to the basics

Let’s take a fairly simple, familiar game which everyone knows; Super Mario Bros. First we have the fairy tale genre; the damsel in distress (Princess Peach), the evil sorcerer (Bowser), magic objects (mushrooms, fireballs, etc), and various mythological creatures (Bowser, Koopa Troopa et al). Then we have a goal; get to the end of the level. But each time we think Mario will find and rescue the princess, she’s not there. So, each “scene” is either a level – defeating Bowser, stamping mushrooms and tortoises – or talking to a character. And each has a setting; the bricks, the dungeon, the castle, etc.

19. So scenes are a bit like stages, right?

Yes, that’s one way of looking at scenes. Let’s say our story type fitted into “Voyage and Return”, like Alice’ Adventures in Wonderland . So each chapter might be visiting a new place; the Queen’s castle, the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar, etc. So a scene might be Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or the Pool of Tears. (I’ll talk more about the 7 basic plots another time)

20. Types of conflict and tension

Okay, so we might have some kind of binary oppositions; rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, civilised and primitive, east and west. Claude Levi Strauss thought that binaries existed in all plots (do see my post on narrative theories).  These are some obviously conflicting forces, because they are opposites and work against each other; each cancel each other out, work against each other and should be enemies. But that’s on the surface. Other types of conflict might be a task to complete; finding pieces in a puzzle, a character’s flaw, an antagonist plotting, a battle.

21. Time frame

The events should take place over around the same time scale. Ideally within the same day, or possibly over a few days.The chapters and parts of the book can take place over longer periods of time, but scenes should be chronological. By chronological, I do not necessarily mean same location, but each event must tie in with the next; the robber’s plan, robbing scene, and investigation of the crime. They’re like pieces of a puzzle

22. A few key scenes

No matter what type of story you’re writing, you’ll probably use a few of these scenes: disaster/fight scene, love/sex scene, epiphany scene, denouement scene and the transport scene. These are just a few quite common scenes that people often include. Why? We experience these in everyday life.

23. The disaster/fight scene

This could be a battle, a volcanic eruption, a tsunami, a deadly disease or a train crashing.These are all on quite a big scale, but you get my point. This can spur action and drama; how will our characters react and what will result from this conflict?

24. The love/sex scene

Delete as appropriate. This ranges from our character seeing their love interest unexpectedly to proposing marriage. We all fancy someone, and it can drive us haywire. Who are they? Have they noticed me? Why doesn’t he like me? Or, on a more basic level “she’s got nice legs”. (Read: 30 facets of sex in fiction)

25. Epiphany scene

So I finally figured out what Old Man Jones was carrying in his briefcase! We all have a bright moment, or a moment when everything makes sense in the world.This can be, but is not always, an important scene in fiction just before the major climax. A flashback, or sight og a person/object may accompany this scene.

26. Denouement scene

In Freytag’s pyramid of dramatic structure, the denouement is after the falling action. It is where all of the loose narrative threads are tied together. Traditionally, it is the ending; involving the resolution and new equilibrium, where the characters are usually better off. More modern fiction, however, seems to deny this, because of the grand narrative.

27. Transport scene

On a train, plane, boat, bus or on foot, we are always on the move. To get from A to B, be it another town, school, work or on holiday. What are they doing? Are they watching the scenery, or reading? Where are they going? What’s the mood? Things you need to engage with.

28. Emotions

These can be revealed in the dialogue, with word choice and vocabulary. If you’re very subtle, you could use action or dialogue tags, such as “she weeped” – but this is an acquired skill. Is there tension i.e. anger, fear, excitement, anxiety, etc.?

29. Mood

Sometimes called atmosphere, this is how certain things – decor, props, the weather, colours and setting – indicate the mood and tone of a scene. It’s one part of “show, don’t tell”. Thomas Hardy seems to do this quite a lot in Tess of the D’urbervilles, emphasizing the idyllic pastoral imagery when Tess is with Angel at the dairy.

30. Action tags

a.ka. beats, these are actions placed after a piece of dialogue, which can be “said” or “he walked across the room”. It denotes who’s speaking, so the reader is not too confused. They can also break up long passages of dialogue quite nicely. Don’t let it disrupt the flow of dialogue though.

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