And, Scene: Some Thoughts On Writing A Scene

What, exactly, is a scene? I ask.

And you say, “It’s that thing you made at Arby’s last week when you got really drunk and attacked that nice man by rubbing Horsey Sauce into his eyes.”

And I respond with, I was not drunk, I was high on wasp spray, and that “nice man” was actually an “evil centaur” which is why I rubbed Horsey Sauce into his eyes, you idiot, because Horsey Sauce is how you fucking defeat a fucking centaur. And also, no, that’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about scenes. Rather, a scene in this context is a unit of narrative measurement that unifies a moment in the story by binding it together with common characters, common setting, and common purpose.

A scene is your most vital building block of fiction — it’s not just a brick, but rather, a whole wall, and of course, walls are what hold up houses. I mean, that and necromancy ha ha just kidding I’m not a necromancer, I’ve just been huffing more wasp spray.

Understanding scenes and their construction is so very vital — and yet I feel like writing a book is often this act of clumsily speed-running through a story with great, woeful inelegance, all pinwheeling arms and clomping feet. As such, I know I often pass by the invisible demarcations between scenes and don’t really give as much pause to that as I should. A scene requires thought. A scene requires some construction. Maybe not in the first draft, and maybe over time it’s something we intuit rather than architecture we actively build.

Just the same, I think there’s value in highlighting what goes into making a [insert overly positive adjective here like “bad-ass” or “radical” or even “totally tubular”] scene.

SO HERE HAVE SOME TIPS.

*loads some tips into the WRITING ADVICE cannon*

*fires it into your face, boom*

0. As always, writing advice is bullshit, but bullshit can be fertilizer. Maybe this page of scene-writing advice helps something grow in your narrative garden, or maybe it’s just something to shovel out of the way. Use or discard at your leisure.

1. A scene is a microcosm for the greater whole. Meaning, a scene is a little story in and of itself. It should have shape. It should have a beginning and an ending. It should have conflict, characters, and drama. The scene should begin, and then escalate. It ideally presents a challenge unique to the scene, but reflective of the larger story. It should have characters in the scene who want shit — and the scene is a power dynamic expressing characters working together or against one another to solve their own particular problems.

2. More to the point, a scene represents a bend in the maze. Characters have problems, and they have solutions, and between the problem and the solution lies the maze — the maze is thing you put there, as storyteller, and the best version of that maze is one that is grown organically out of the character. In other words, the bends of the maze are what happens when the characters do shit and say shit — taking action and grabbing agency! — and effectively make problems for themselves. That’s not to say these problems are self-destructive, only that in solving a problem, one experiences difficulties, right? No good deed in fiction goes unpunished. It’s like trying to clean off your desk — the idea is good, and maybe you succeed, but you still accidentally spill coffee onto your Roomba and then the Roomba goes mad and murders the cat and then the Cat Council wants revenge and next thing you know, you’re being hunted by the Cat Council’s most talented assassins (sorry, meowsassins) all just because you wanted to clean your desk. MORE TO THE POINT, the bends of this maze — these flashpoints of conflict, action, dialogue, decision, agency — are best examined in scenes.

3. Never let a scene go on too long. A scene is rope. Too much and readers will hang themselves with it. It should be taut, like a strangling cord — not loose, like loops of elephant bowel.

4. As with the story, start the scene as late as you can. Every scene doesn’t need to happen omg in the middle of some real shit, but you also don’t need to start every scene at, like, the character’s birth. Think of it like a challenge: how late can you start the scene while it still makes sense and feels vital? Enter the scene at a point that’s interesting. Begin at a point that affords us a question: why are we here, what is the character doing, who is that dead guy, is that cheese, I love cheese, mmm, cheese.

5. Speaking of vital, consider how the status quo breaks. Storytelling is an act of contextualizing a breach of the status quo. Story begins when something has changed — *thunder rumbles* — and the narrative that unspools from that seeks to explore and exploit that shift in the status quo. Something is broken. Things are not as they were. And so the story begins. But scene shifts represent smaller pivot points, too — at the fore of each scene, consider either how the status quo has changed and led to the scene, or how the scene will change the status quo by its end. A good story constantly pushes-and-pulls with this fundamental narrative motion: it breaks normal, establishes a new normal, and then breaks that new normal once again. Sometimes in big, brash ways. Other times in more subtle ways.

6. Don’t fuck with centaurs. I know it has nothing to do with scenes, but I just wanted you all to know that. I mean, I guess if you want advice, go ahead and write a scene involving centaurs? Or the fucking and/or not-fucking-with of centaurs? Shit, I dunno. *sprays more wasp spray into mouth* *eats cheese to cover up wasp spray taste*

7. Present You can do Future You a big honking favor. Future You is stupid, but Present You can make Future You smart if Present You does his, er, your fucking job. What I mean is this: at the end of the day’s writing, noodle on the next scene you’re going to write. Then jot down like, three quick sentences for tomorrow’s work. Leave your desk. Turn off your monitor. Pull up your pants. Then go walk, shower, mow the lawn, whatever you need to do to get the blood moving. Think about the scene, then think about it some more, then push like you’re pooping and think even harder about it. Before bed, think about the scene one more time — set your brain like a slow-cooker, then plunge into the dark waters of sleep. What needs to happen in that scene? What if this happens? Or that? What if centaurs?! Wake up. Go write. Look at your notes from the day before. Summon your DREAM SOUP and see what lies in that turbid broth. Past You left you a present. Seize the information and the energy and go write.

8. Visit earlier scenes. Before writing a new scene, go back and re-read the scene that happens chronologically before it. Not necessarily the one that happens in the draft, but the one that connects most directly with character and setting. This will help you launch into the new scene. Y’know what will also help you? Wasp spray. *rattles can* *rattles it harder* Mmm.

9. Don’t overdo the scene. Just as earlier I say to get in as late as you can, you also want to get out as early as you can. That doesn’t mean you need to make a scene short and stumpy, and some scenes do need to breathe — breathe yes, barf no, so you need to control how much you’re regurgitating into that narrative space. Give the audience just as much as they need to continue. Storytelling is often an act of ushering the audience through a dark forest — you need to give them some light in the dark to help them find their way, but too much light leaves them blinded, and it exposes the mystery. It’s like a haunted house attraction with the lights on. Not enough light, and the reader becomes lost and frustrated. A scene succeeds by finding that balance of how much they need versus how much you can leave out. Further, if a scene is going to be transitional — getting characters from Point A to Point B, or getting them to understand Plot Point X, consider ways to fold those scenes into something more active, more dynamic. Try not to let a scene be purely transitional. Double-duty is welcome. No unitaskers. Let the scene multi-task — it can transition us, but also explore character, advance plot, and tongue its theme seductively in the reader’s ear. DID IT JUST GET HOT IN HERE

10. Scenes do not exist in isolation. They are part of a chain — maybe the start, maybe the end, or maybe one of the many motherfucking links in the middle. Either way: they braid together. They are not isolated. They are pockets of cause-and-effect. One scene is a cause. Another demonstrates the effect. One scene reveals truth, and the next three scenes deal with the consequences stemming from that truth. Scenes introducing questions are quantum-entangled with scenes demanding or providing answers. Scenes of lies told will lead to scenes of the outcomes of that lie — and those outcomes will create new directions of the story, which are written as, drum roll please, more scenes. (See earlier comments re: “the maze.”) Scenes must impact the story — which means scenes create other scenes. They are generative. If you write a scene and no other scenes suggest themselves as a result, you have not done enough. You have not asked enough questions or introduced enough conflict. Characters make plot. Which is to say, characters make scenes, quite literally: they create the context for why a scene is happening, and are driven by the character actions. Sometimes it involves an evil centaur at Arby’s, sometimes it doesn’t, I dunno. Point is: characters make scenes, and then, scenes beget scenes. Scenes facehug the plot and plant other scene-eggs that will burst out of the chest of the story. That’s just good narrative science, is what that is.

Now, go read this bit by John August.

And don’t forget to check out my book, The Kick-Ass Writer, whose initial cover once had a wonky font on it and made it look like it was instead called The Kick-Ass Waiter, which one assumes is a very different book.

P.S. don’t actually huff wasp spray, jeez

13 comments

  • June 20, 2017 at 9:49 AM // Reply

    Oh sure. Leave the wasp-spray disclaimer for the end. The centaur in the break room is starting to look more and more like John from accounting.

  • Do you sometimes outline a scene? I have writer friends who insist on outlining but I find that familiarity breeds contempt in that practice. But I get fucking lost and panic that the reader will get bored, disoriented, confused or not give a flying fuck about what I’m passionate about.
    ( I was a happy little nurse until I dove into the underworld of writing. But that’s all I want to do! This is harder that being puked on, cursed at and sputum-ed on. Jesus, this is a profession for masochists.)

  • You should do a macro photo of the tongue scrubber that’s on the back of the blue and white toothbrush.

  • So incredibly timely as I’m writing a scene with not just one, but two centaurs. Are you looking over my shoulder? Great stuff in this blog. Stuff I’ll be going back to in my editing––bullshit or not.

  • This …’a unit of narrative measurement that unifies a moment in the story by binding it together with common characters, common setting, and common purpose …’ is pure godspeak. Perfect! 😀

  • Hey, Chuck, could you possibly elaborate on this nugget: “It ideally presents a challenge unique to the scene, but reflective of the larger story.” What do you mean by this? Sorry to pester; I just love to listen to you talk about all the writing stuff.

  • Aaahh… I knew I had read this before… from your book. I’ve been getting my nose into a collection of books – here and there – just to get back into writing and reading mode again (as I’m taking art classes and reading is taking a back seat). But this post sounded so familiar – like and old slipper – and your book is so comfortable to read… um… yeah… like an old slipper. 😛

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