Give the Gift of Good Scenes
by Dina Sleiman
Monday I was reading a book submitted to WhiteFire Publishing. Awesome voice, compelling subject, talented author. But I had to give it a "not yet" because the scenes still need work. I've turned down a number of books for this reason, although I asked this specific author to resubmit due to her skill in other areas. This made me think that perhaps for the New Year/Christmas combo, I should give us all the gift of good scenes. Here is an excerpt from my online writing class, "The Inspiration and the Perspiration."
In contemporary fiction, a simple “***” takes us effortlessly from one time and place to another, and requires little or no explanation of how we got there. The reader understands that we are cutting to the vital information that moves the story forward. This allows the author to keep the tension high and the pages turning by eliminating a lot of fluff. In your own mind, you will want to figure out what happened in between and how the transitions occurred, but your reader needs only the briefest explanation and does not care about irrelevant details.
As you edit, make sure that each scene is doing its job in advancing the plot and/or deepening characterization. Something vital should happen in each scene. If not, cut it. If you have a scene where nothing happens but reflection, weave the relevant reflection into a different scene. If you have a scene where nothing is happening but description of an important setting, weave it into a different scene. If you have a dialogue scene that’s interesting but nothing really happens, weave the conversation into a different scene. Every scene should have tension and conflict and end with something to thrust the reader forward into the next scene.
Are you getting the point? Of course, not every single scene requires every element. Certainly stories and examples in your nonfiction will not always need every element. However, check every scene and story for places you could strengthen it by weaving in characterization, action, dialogue, inner dialogue, and description.
First when editing your scenes, decide if they’re pulling their weight, and if they earn staying in the book. Second, look for a nice balance of elements above. Also, look at the progression of your scenes. In a story, it is good to be continually moving in a cause and effect progression. You don’t want to say. “She entered the room and turned on the lights because it was dark.” Say, “She entered the dark room shrouded in nighttime terrors. Her hand scraped across rough stucco, searching the wall for the switch. Light flooded the room, chasing away the shadows…”
In the first version, “because it was dark” stops the flow of action. In the second version, it’s actually hard to find a stopping place. One sentence flows into the next, and there’s a feeling that we must keep going. Notice how I also wove characterization and description into these simple action sentences. I even created a tone.
The fourth thing you want to look for in a scene, is a clear and consistent point of view. In a first person story or limited third person point of view, this will stay consistent throughout the book. However, still check to make sure that what they see and think is true to that character and is not your author’s voice intruding with things that they wouldn’t know or contemplate.
For example, if you’re character is standing behind someone, remember that they can’t see their facial expressions. You can move them to a different vantage point, or they can comment on general body language. Likewise, a character will not comment on their own facial expressions, unless they are aware of the face they are making. You wouldn’t say, “Confusion flashed through my eyes.” You would instead describe how confusion felt in their body, or give of a glimpse into their confusing thoughts. A male POV character will not describe another guy as "cute" or "sweet."
The most popular point of view being used these days is multiple third person point of view. In this POV, each scene should take place from the perspective of a specific character. Since we’re using scenes anyway, think of this as the cameraman for the scene. We can only see what they see and hear what they hear. If we are in “close” third person point of view, we can even hear their thoughts.
So perhaps this is a cameraman whispering commentary to the audience. If you are writing in multiple third person, give thought to who will be most changed or effected by a given scene, and put the scene in their POV. If during a specific time and place you want to switch point of view, that’s fine, but it still constitutes a scene change and requires a “***” break. If you aren’t sure if you are firmly in one head, try rewriting the scene in first person, then change it back when you’re finished.
As each scene opens, drop us firmly into the head, even the body, of the point of view character. Set up the scene by letting us know where and when they are. Twang at least one of our five senses so that we can see, hear, feel, smell, taste, or touch what they are experiencing. Then we will be ready to join the character in the fictional world of the scene.
And one last thought to connect this back to my tension post from a few weeks ago. Be sure to end your scene with a hook to drive the reader forward into the next scene to keep them going. Don't want them putting that book down, you know.
So there are a few tips on writing good scenes. Writers, what tips would you add? Readers, what do you look for in a good scene? What authors use scenes to great effect?
Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion with Whitefire Publishing has just released. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at http://dinasleiman.com/