Six impossible things

Writing scenes

A lot of writing books lately seem to focus on scenes – what they are, how they work, and of course how to write great ones. Most of the books I’ve read urge writers to start by deciding on the point of the scene, or the characters’ goals for the scene, or the writer’s goal for the scene. Then you’re supposed to find the conflict, or raise the stakes, or pick a disaster/catastrophe/failure to lead into the next scene. There are a couple of problems with this kind of approach.

The first is that scenes do not exist in isolation, nor are they truly complete in themselves, any more than one link in a chain is. You can take a single link and refine it and polish it and make it shiny and perfect…and if it doesn’t connect to the links before and after it, you still have a broken chain. Furthermore, if you take one single link in a chain and polish it up, and only work on that one link, the chain is going to look a little odd.

There’s also the fact that chains usually have a purpose, and that means they need to be the right length for that purpose. If the point of the chain is to keep the dog out of the next-door neighbor’s garden, the chain had better not be long enough to let the dog get halfway down the block. Which is not something you can evaluate by studying the chain one link at a time.

Studying the chain one link at a time will also not tell you whether the chain is actually connecting two things together, or whether it goes in a circle like a necklace. This is an important thing to know, because a necklace won’t help if you need to keep the dog out of the garden and a chain leash is not going to work very well to hang your grandmother’s diamond pendant on so you can wear it at your wedding.

In other words, looking at the point of the scene, various goals, and so on, is … well, the phrase “can’t see the forest for the trees” comes to mind. The really important thing about each and every scene is “How does this further the story?”

Which brings me to the second problem with the above approach: How, and how well, a scene furthers the story is something that is generally best judged when one has the whole story there to look at. Things don’t stay the same over the course of writing a book; plotlines shift, characters grow and change (and so do their motives). What looked like (and perhaps was) a brilliant scene when one was writing Chapter Twelve can turn out to be overdone or even superfluous when one looks back from the perspective of the ending in Chapter Thirty-Two.

In other words, I don’t think most of those great points about how to write great scenes are actually much help to most writers in writing the scenes. They may have value when it comes to editing and revising, but I don’t know any writers who actually plan out their scenes this way. (Though I assume there are some.) 

When it comes to actually writing scenes, most of the writers I know aren’t thinking about meta issues like what the conflict is or what the characters’ goals are for a particular scene. If you asked, at least half of them would say something like, “My character wants to put the groceries away before his roommate gets home” or “She wants to get that funny rattling noise in the car looked at before something breaks.”

What I think about when I am writing any scene other than the very first one (and sometimes even then) is the previous scene. Where did I leave everybody – physically, mentally, emotionally, plot-wise? What just happened? What, specifically, does each of the characters want to do next (run, cry, go to sleep, talk, plan…)? Are they in a situation where they can do that, or are they still fighting sea monsters or running from the tsunami?

Once I have that clear in my head, there’s a sequence I run through: What can they do next? (If they’re fighting sea monsters, they aren’t going to be having dinner or a nap any time soon.) Is what they can do important to the plot, or is it something I can skip over? (If they’ve left home, headed for the city, I can skip the whole trip if it’s routine; if the plot calls for one of the party to be kidnapped along the way, I’d better show at least that part.)

Finally and most importantly, is what they want to and can do interesting? Because if it’s not interesting, it really doesn’t matter how much conflict there would be, or what the characters’ goals are, or what the purpose of the scene is. If it ain’t interesting, it isn’t going to be the next scene. Not in my book, anyway.

  1. “My character wants to put the groceries away before his roommate gets home” or “She wants to get that funny rattling noise in the car looked at before something breaks.”

    But that *is* the characters’ goals for the scene, isn’t it? Or are the writers of writing books getting at something else?

    Not that I write like that, either. For me it’s a matter of what words pop up in my head next, with maybe a side order of “My characters were at F and need to get to Q, so it’s about time for G and a bit of H.”

  2. The question “is what they want to and can do interesting?” is something I mostly handwave and wing, rather than think about explicitly.

    But one other question I find important is “where do the characters need to end up (physically, mentally, emotionally, plot-wise) for the start of the next scene?” Because otherwise my characters tend to wander aimlessly, or to go down blind alleys, or to just stop and refuse to go any further at all.

    If the plot-purpose of the sea monster attack is to get the characters into Port Shady when they’d otherwise avoid it, then when I’m writing the scene I need to remind myself of this. I need to think about how the fight with the sea monsters can end in a way that leaves the characters physically able to put into Port Shady, and also leaves them willing to do so despite their previous reasons for wanting to steer clear of the place.

    Because otherwise I’ll leave the characters in a position where they’ll decide that now they really need to stay away from Port Shady, and so wander off in a random direction until they’re out of the story.

    • I like that sequence of questions: what do they want to do next, what can they do next, where do they need to be after this. That’s really helpful.

      Also “is what they can do interesting.” Always need to go back to that one.

  3. Deep Lurker, I don’t know if this will work for you, but it helps to keep me on track. Some people call it a rolling outline, but I think of it more as a summary of action or “List of Things I Have To Make My Characters Do”. For what Patricia is calling a scene, I write a short paragraph describing the action that needs to happen. It keeps me (and my characters) on track. As I write, I grab the next action summary and start expanding it into a scene or a chapter as the story dictates.

    …that’s not to say detours don’t occur on occasion…

  4. I love your chain analogy! So perfect!

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,