Six impossible things

The Lego Theory Part the Last

This is the last of this series of posts. Really. I mean it.

Part of why it’s the last is that I’m up to scenes, and I’m not really sure I can take this analogy this far, let alone any farther. Paragraphs were OK, because they’re the linking point between the basic blocks of language – words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs – and the things you can do by putting those blocks together in different ways – scenes, chapters, novels, etc.

That means that from paragraphs on up, the writer needs to look at what she wants to build and make decisions based on the overall goal, then work backward to find the words and phrases and sentences with the properties she needs to get to that goal. You can’t build a big red dinosaur if all you have are green and blue blocks. The way you fit the blocks together will be different if you want the dinosaur to be a raptor or a Tyrannosaurus rex, or if you want it to be standing upright vs. crouched.

In other words, you have to have some idea what you want to say, and/or what you are trying to do.

This is why so much how-to-write advice starts from various theories of what a scene needs and how to get to it: critical elements, goals, disasters, conflict, tension, drama, theme, etc. They’re all trying to slap some structure or organization on the enormous number of possible things that writers can say and do in a scene. Everybody seems to take a different approach, which is fine, because with anything as complicated as a scene, there are probably as many different approaches as there are writers.

All that complexity means that I can’t really sum up scenes in terms of a couple of properties, because there are too many different things – important different things – you can do with scenes. The best rule-of-thumb for scenes I know is the one I talked about in the Big Three: that a scene that doesn’t do one of three things (advance the plot, deepen the characterization, reveal background/backstory) doesn’t belong in the story; that a scene that does only one or two of the three can usually be improved by adding the missing thing, and that a scene that does all three things is a keeper.

But it is equally useful to look at scenes through the lens of the old journalism concept of five w’s and an h: who, what, when, where, why, and how. In fiction, some of those things are often not stated explicitly – the readers are often left to judge for themselves why the characters have behaved as they do, for instance, and the “how” is frequently left for the climax of the overall story.

Nevertheless, a scene involves characters (who), something happening (what and how), at a particular time (when) and place (where), for some reason (why). The fact that these things aren’t laid out in so many words makes it even more important for the writer to know they are in there somewhere, or at least, that the reader has enough information to figure them out.

That’s about all I can think of to say about scenes that really applies to the category “scenes.” Everything else I can think of has to do with specific subcategories: dialog scenes, action scenes, contemplative scenes, reaction scenes, emotional scenes, etc. which gets back to complexity and what you want to say and how the scene fits into the story as a whole. And since saying what you want to say is the goal of this whole series of posts, I think that’s a reasonable place to stop.

  1. Thank you so much for this series!

  2. Thank you for the series!

  3. Thank you very much for the insights; you rock! [& write–hopefully lots of books for me: write, Pat, write!]

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,