What is a scene?
I think it was Bradbury who said a new scene occurs each time there’s a new camera angle. I’m fortunate in that I “see” every new setting and scene in that way (camera angle, in my head). For that reason, for me, every new setting holds a scene.
But how we see a scene isn’t important. What matters is that we can see (hear, smell, taste, feel) a scene through the POV character’s senses and opinions and transfer that to the page.
Bestselling thriller author John Gilstrap in a recent blog post made the interesting point that screenwriters don’t have available to them all the tools novelists have.
It’s interesting, too, that we do have available techniques that film directors often use: that ability to visualize the scene.
My minor scenes are usually transitory as the POV character moves between major settings and scenes, and major settings and scenes (combined usually with one or two minor scenes) comprise a chapter.
A transitory minor scene might be the POV character moving from a taxi cab into a building. He won’t notice much, so there won’t be a lot of description. After all, what’s to notice about a sidewalk and the façade of a building, for example (unless it holds something important to the story)?
Likewise, some minor scenes are only implied (for example him getting from the lobby of the building into an elevator, out of the elevator on the relevant floor and into the office where the major scene will take place). Those aren’t written on the page at all.
But when we talk about scenes, we’re talking about what I call “major” scenes.
My major scenes are all around 800 – 1200 words, with that number sometimes sliding upward depending on the story, the characters and whatever action is occurring.
My major scenes usually begin with a quick but in-depth description the new setting, to ground (or include) the reader, interspersed with dialogue (if necessary), whatever action occurs, etc.
But Gilstrap was right. Major scenes are so diverse, they’re difficult to explain. Let me try with two quick examples:
1. If the office belongs to the POV character, the lights are off and there’s an assailant waiting, there won’t be a lot of dialogue (or any) at the beginning, and any in-depth description of that setting probably took place in an earlier scene.
In that case, during the action or after the action is resolved, only minor description would be required to reground the reader (to bring him or her into the scene with the POV character).
2. If the POV character is arriving in his office for the first time in that novel, a more in-depth description of the office is necessary (to pull the reader into the office too).
In that case, if the office is dark and an assailant is waiting, the in-depth description will take place intermittently, some during the action and most (probably) after the action is over.
This is only two of literally hundreds or thousands (or millions) of possibilities for that one scene.
And that’s why I’m glad I write off into the dark.
Imagine how much more dull the scene would be if I planned it all in advance and forced it on my character rather than just allowing it to unfold in its own time.
When the POV character steps out of the taxi cab, I don’t know what he’ll see or smell or otherwise sense on his way into the building until he senses it and it comes out through my fingers into the keyboard.
As he steps out of the elevator and reaches for the doorknob to his office, I don’t know what’s about to ensue either. And if I don’t know in advance what’s going to happen, my readers can’t possibly know.
Which leads me back to another Bradbury quote: If you don’t surprise yourself, how can you hope to surprise the reader?
So there’s one thing we can probably all agree on: Scenes, and by extension, whole stories, are mind-boggling to explain, but a ton of fun to write. (grin)
At this point, I was going to point you to other, older blog posts on writing setting and scenes. Then I realized those posts are now marked “private,” meaning only I can view them.
For today, I’ve marked those two posts public so you can read them if you want. If you read them, you will be reading Chapter 6 of my book, Writing the Character-Driven Story.
Consider it a free “look inside” at that book. And if you decide you want the book, you can find it at https://www.books2read.com/u/bQLXP4.
‘Til next time, happy writing!
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