You all remember the director shouting “scene” after a triumphant acting performance. Yet as writers, we often don’ t know how to explain it. It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike. At the start, we need training wheels and we concentrate on every single aspect: the petals, the steering, the gears. Yet, the more scenes we write (and to continue the metaphor, the more we bike) the easier it becomes until you don’t even think twice. Yet try to explain scene writing (and bike riding) to someone else and you’ll find yourself flummoxed.
This is the core of a scene. Change. Something has to change. This can take several pages or a single paragraph.
Do You Need The Scene?
This is a critical concern for writers. We love to slap words on paper, littering sentences until hundreds of pages have piled up. But consider, do we need every scene? If this were a movie, would you really miss the scene? Say the publisher mangled production and left that scene out. Would readers even notice? If the story can continue without it, then you don’t need the scene. In other words, nothing substantial changed in that scene because if it did, the reader would miss it.
What Happens in a Scene?
Well, anything. But it has to be dramatic. Punjab, our hero, lost paperwork. Yes, that could be a scene. Or, Punjab has accidentally lit his paperwork on fire. Ultimately something needs to change, for the hero or the plot. And for goodness sake, throw the worst at your character. If the paperwork is important, dispose of it in the most dramatic way possible. Burn down the building if you have to.
Don’t Fear the Line Break
Writers often wonder where to start a scene. Books advise in media res (in the thick of the action) and this advice is terrific for the first scene. But when that ends, how do we get to the next one? Often writers will “transition” to the next scene with sundry activities: walking, eating, sleeping. None of these have change. In a movie you simply cut to the next scene. Well, do the same thing with a story. It’s called the line break. Skip two lines and start the next scene. Don’t worry, your reader will catch up. The line break just shows that time has passed. Unless there was something critical in between, why include it?
Never End with Sleep
Nothing is more of a snooze than ending a scene (or even worse a chapter) with a character falling asleep. “Yes, but he’s going to dream.” We don’t care. There’s nothing exciting about sleep. There is no change. Unless your hero is an insomniac who has craved sleep the whole story, then sleep is not a scene ender.
When Should You End a Scene?
When something important has changed. Easy as that. Once you reach that critical point where the hero gets a mission, or loses a battle, or breaks up with his girlfriend, get out of there. The scene is over. There’s a reason that most books either don’t have a denouement or a very short one. It’s just mopping up and details. In a scene by scene basis, you don’t need to spend that much time on the aftermath. Charge on to the next battle.
Once you’ve crafted a perfect scene, do it again. Over and over. Until you reach the end of your story. That’s what most writers have trouble with. Anyone can write a scene or two. Anyone can churn out two-hundred pages. Only writers can craft those pages into interesting scenes. And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day.