Scenes: What Readers Remember
Scene Planning and Design Specs
Scenes are what give the reader the experience of the action of the
story and the perspectives of the main characters. Without scenes, the
story would be heard and not experienced-- told but not shown. They are
the generators of plot change and character development. And they're
what the reader remembers long after she's forgotten the names of the
characters or the details of the plot—the vivid moments of story captured
First, let's define "scene' and some aspects of it.
What is a scene? A scene is a unit of action and interaction taking
place more or less in real-time and centering on some event of plot
The important elements are:
Action– Something is happening! There is movement and progress and change during this time. Where there is action, there is danger of some kind.
Interaction– The viewpoint character is interacting with other characters
and/or the environment. This will cause sparks. The interaction will
force more action on the viewpoint character.
Real-time– A scene usually takes place in a continuous span of time, with
a starting point and an ending point. This sounds basic, but it's
essential. Unless the reader sees the action unfolding (that is, not in
retrospect or summary), she will lose that important sense that this
event is really happening.
Event– Every scene should center on an actual event, something that
happens– not a dream, not a flashback, not a passage of introspection. A
character is doing something, experiencing something, not just in her own mind, but in the external reality of the story. That can mean she's
taking an action, discovering a secret, encountering another character,
having a conversation, creating something new, enduring a trauma– but you should be able to identify what event has taken place in this scene.
Plot development– Events are important because they are concrete and real and have consequences. Most important, they have consequences on the plot. This event, this scene, should cause a development in the story.
All this adds up to CHANGE. At the end of the scene, the characters
and the plot should have changed in some increment. It doesn't have to be a major change (although turning point scenes will lead to major
changes)—just a change of some sort.
Now I don't think most writers actually plan every scene. Sometimes
scenes are magically generated, top to bottom. I'm thinking of my own
experience... scenes come to me when I'm lying in bed in the morning half-asleep. It's something between dream and creation-- directed dreaming, only it's much more coherent than any dream.
That sort of inspiration/dreaming/imagination/subconscious stuff
works well early in the writing process. Big scenes, important scenes,
come to me, and I learn all sorts of things about my characters and plot
just "viewing" these scenes in my head.
The problem is, we can't rely on magic. The majority of scenes have to be invented because they're just not "inspired".
And that's where scene-planning comes in-- for all those scenes
in-between, the workhorse scenes, the ones that get the characters from
here to there, ones that we have to think up! Even a few minutes of
planning-- determining the scene purpose, the POV-character or
scene-protagonist's goal, the conflict, the central event, and the
"surprise" at the end-- can make the scene meaningful.
So let's try planning your scene before you get started writing it. Just answer these questions to give you an overall sense of the purpose and progress of the scene.
1. Give this scene a temporary name that identifies the main thing that happens.
Example: the "Max Mugging Scene," because, natch, what happens is Max gets mugged.
2. When and where does the scene start? When and where should it end? How long a span of time is that? How long a distance in space?
Example: The scene starts early in the evening—dusk- as they are walking through Soho to Covent Garden. It ends about an hour later, when it's fully dark, and right back there where the mugging took place. So it's about an hour later, but the same spot.
3. What do you want to change in this scene—in the plot, emotionally, in the characters' understanding, or…
Example: I want Max to end up with a broken leg so that he misses his dad's company banquet.
4. Who would be the best "narrator" or point-of-view character for this scene? Why?
Example: I want Val to narrate the scene as that's who is going to come to a realization about Max.
5. What is the character's immediate goal at the start of the scene?
Example: Val has been given the assignment of sneakily preventing Max from getting to the banquet where he would probably just get drunk and make a scene, which his dad the boss doesn't want..
6. Is that goal going to be fulfilled by the end of the scene?
Example: Yes, Val keeps Max from going to the banquet, but feels guilty because Max got hurt.
7. What's the main conflict or problem in the scene?
Example: Maniac Max and Nebbishy Val don't understand each other at all, but Val's job is keeping Max out of trouble.
8. What's the central event of the scene?
Example: Max gets mugged, and Val has to intervene to save him.
9. What's the surprise at the end of the scene?
Example: Val returns to the scene of the mugging, and finds a clue that implicates Max's dad's private security force.
Okay! You have the scene designed… Now read over your plan, and then just start to write!