Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Improving your scenes

When writing a book, I tend to get caught up in "the book." Which means the overall character arc and the overall plot line. I am a big picture person. When it comes to revisions, I must work hard to become a small item person. Some people are the opposite. They work each sentence, paragraph and scene then put together all the pieces to make a "big picture." Both ways accomplish the task. Both ways look at the structure of each scene. The question becomes, how do you know you are building your scene's right?
Let's begin with a review of basic scene structure. Each scene is in itself a short story and contains three parts. The first part is the statement of a goal which needs to be immediate and definite. The second part is to immediately introduce and develop conflict to the goal. Finally at the end of the scene there should be a failure to reach the goal or a tactical disaster. Keep in mind that this disaster could appear to be a success for the character, but in the long run turns out to be a real problem. If your scene does not have these three things, cut it.
What?! No~ I love that scene, you think. Okay, so cut it and paste it into a separate file. Now read the scene before and after. What, if any, information was lost? Did the scene actually advance the over all plot? Or was it filler? If you decide you absolutely need the scene, it's time to work on it as an individual story. Work in your cut and pasted file. Cut out any sentences that don't immediately and definitively state the goal. Then cut the sentences that don't immediately introduce or develop a conflict to that goal. Finally, end with your disaster. The disaster can be personal or it can be external.
Read the scene again and ask yourself, does it add to the overall character goal? Does it strengthen the overall character conflict? Finally does it make sense in the over all story line and will it keep the reader turning pages?
All the pieces must mesh together. Never write a disaster only because you need to have a disaster at the end of a scene. I had a friend once who had her character slip on her doorstep and fall in the bushes, dropping her groceries. She got up, picked up her groceries and went inside. When I asked the writer why she had the character slip, she said, "There needs to be action in the beginning of the scene. This is my action." But her action had nothing to do with the overall story or characterization. Her character was not a klutz. No one saw her fall. She did not leave an important can of beans out in the bushes that she later needed to retrieve. Retrieving the can of beans did not lead to seeing a murder, or her friend's lover cheating.
Beware the action or conflict for the sake of action or conflict. Every piece must fit together like a puzzle or you will lose your reader's interest and your story won't be told.
Are you a scene person or a big picture person? Does being a scene person slow you down? As a big picture person do you skip the revision step of reviewing each scene with a critical eye?
I'd love to hear what you think. Cheers~


~Sia McKye~ said...

Oh wow, just what I needed at just the right time, Nan!

Some really good information here. I'm going to copy and paste it to my writing file. I have a problem with being ruthless enough to cut a scene that I particularly like. Good thought on deleting to another document and then reading the story without it. Puts things in perspective.

Stay safe, Nan. We're in for some really nasty weather the couple of days.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Cutting a scene I worked really hard on and like is one of the hardest things for me to do, but I have learned to do it. I do place the scene in a special file, just in case I can use bit and pieces of it in other scenes.

John Philipp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Philipp said...

Some excellent advice and a good way to relook at scenes in revision.

I will say, I'm skeptical about applying this format too religiously. I think a scene is always better for it, if it works. Yet, in character-driven stories, I notice sometimes the purpose of a chapter is to deepen the reader's understanding of the character and his/her motivation.

Perhaps some chapters/scenes are not "plot" but "discovery."

I will experiment with both in the novel I am writing now. Thanks for your ideas.

Jessica Nelson said...

Great advice! I'm not sure which one I am though...food for thought.

mystwood said...

I am definitely a big picture person. I know who my characters are and the overall story line all the way to the end. But figuring out the small pieces--the scenes--is very hard. I've written many scenes, only to realize afterward that they don't advance the plot at all! Thanks for the tips on writing scenes. I'll give them a try and see if they help! :0)

Laurie P.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Sia, thanks! Stay safe~ I hope your power stays on and you're warm.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane,

I do this. I have a clips file for every book to save the stuff I cut... in case. :D Funny thing is that I never use them. cheers~

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi John, of course, you always have to do what is right for you and your novel. Best of luck!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jessica,

Maybe you are both! How great that would be-sigh. I want to be both. Thanks for stopping by~ Cheers!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Laurie,

I know how you feel. It's hard for me to look at the small stuff when my mind is filling up with the big stuff!
Hope this helps. Cheers~

Judy Croome said...

I'm definitely a big picture person, and find working on the small details excruciatingly difficult.

Excellent article on scene building, Nancy! :)
Judy (South Africa)

Pamala Knight said...

How did you get so smart? That is such excellent advice and has helped to keep me on task. I've started a file with questionable scenes and it makes the flow of the story much more fluid and tight, so THANK YOU.

Hope all is well with you.


Marilyn Brant said...

Wonderful post, Nancy! As a writer, I'm pretty much a combination-of-everything author. I have to do a big picture arc for the story before I can even start (Blake Snyder's beat sheet), but then I have to work on the book one scene at a time, in excruciating detail, in chronological order all the way through. Finally, during the revision stage, it's all about dealing with even more minute detail and asking myself repeatedly, "Am I really saying what I want to to say here?" Exhausting this writing stuff, isn't it?! :) Stay warm!!

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Pamala, thanks! Hope you are staying warm.
Hi Marilyn, yes, its the nitty gritty that "feels" like hard work. LOL. When I'm doing it I want to be writing. But when I'm writing I think it would be easier to work on revisions. I am wishy washy.
Stay warm!