Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Scenes

We’ve been at this Write A Novel gig for five months now. We’ve talked our way around and through everything from global view to the synopsis. It’s time the rubber meets the road; that is, it’s time to start actually writing the darn book.

After I’d been seriously writing for several years, and had completed and published several books, I hit a snag. Some material was working; some wasn’t. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why some things worked and some didn’t.

Sherry Lewis came to my rescue. That’s Sherry Lewis, the writer, not the Sherry Lewis, the puppeteer and Lamb Chop’s mother. She explained to me the difference between a scene and a sequel.

Scene/sequel is only one of many ways to categorize different parts of a book, but it’s what I’m writing about today. Next week, we’ll look at sequels.

Sherry Lewis’ definition of a scene

“A scene is a specific unit of tension which is lived through together by the reader and the character. It is unified by time, and begins with a character walking entering the narrative in pursuit of a goal and ends when some unexpected incident occurs that sends the character back to the drawing board.

“It exists to answer one question: will this character win or not? Whatever happens—win or loss—sends the character back to the drawing board. It propels our story forward by changing our character’s circumstances. If the character’s circumstances don’t change, we don’t have a scene. It takes space to write, minimum 6 to 8 pages and, in most cases, longer.”

This is what we have to know to write a scene: the day, date, and time the scene happens; where it happens; what’s at stake; and whose scene is it? A scene belongs to the person who has the most to win or lose. Though this is frequently the point of view character, it doesn’t have to be.

Let’s take our two characters we played with in blurb and synopsis Laura White and Wally Rackham. We’re going to write the scene where Laura realizes that the Las Vegas Police Department has the authority to keep her in Las Vegas as a material witness. What Wally stands to win or lose is having a witness to a double murder. If he loses, life goes on. He’s still a detective, other cases are going to come up. Laura has a lot more to lose. If she is forced to remain in Las Vegas her life will be disrupted; her job back home in jeopardy; her income lost;her bills unpaid; and countless other issues. This is Laura’s scene, but it could be written from either Laura’s or Wally’s point of view.

A word about others. Many scenes have two people: the person who stands to win or lose, and the person who opposes them. Other people may be present as onlookers or have minor roles to play. It’s not necessary for us to understand the goal, motivation, and tension of every single person in the scene. Stick to the main characters will drive us less crazy.

Will Laura win or lose? Actually, it isn’t necessary to know this as we begin the scene. If we’re having trouble with a scene it’s better not to know. Sometimes it’s a surprise about what will drive the plot more. We may go into the writing thinking that Laura is going to lose, and bingo, we discover in the middle of the scene that there can be a lot more juicy fallout if Laura wins.

As we write the scene, here are some nice to know scene details, which contribute to the ambiance and the tension. These should rise organically from the writing rather than be a fill-in-the-blank test that we have to finish before we start writing.

  • Season, weather, moon phase
  • Clothing characters wear
  • Way characters move
  • Physical props
  • Other sensual details that ground the characters in the setting, create texture, or evoke moon
  • What is the on-going action as the tension plays out?
  • How does the tension escalate as the scene progresses?
  • For each character in the scene who contributes to the tension
  • What do they want and why do they want it?
  • What is at stake?
  • How does this goal, motivation, and stake contribute to tension?
  • How does the tension affect each of the characters emotionally?
  • What unexpected event sends the character back to the drawing board?

How does this scene contribute to the genre elements: solving the mystery (mystery); developing the relationship (romance); upping the threat (thriller)? Not all scenes contribute a genre element, but if we’ve gone two to three scenes with no genre elements we’re probably straying too far and it’s time to come back.

How does this scene increase the density of the work? Density elements include

  • Buried agendas or secrets
  • Change of pace, emotion, or sexual tension
  • Comic relief
  • Establish or betray trust between characters
  • Foreshadow
  • Increase a character’s insight/Offer a perspective or counter perspective
  • Increase what is known about a character
  • Raise the stakes
  • Use violence as dialog

I initially thought that all the big stuff would be in scenes and the little stuff in sequels. Not so. Join us next Tuesday, May 26 for the Sequels, the rest of the story.

And on Thursday, May 22, Level Thinking will muse on blogs and obsessions.