A scene is the largest useful building block of your novel, even though it is (generally) shorter than a chapter. Chapters are divided arbitrarily and include one scene or several. The end of a chapter’s chief use is for the reader to set the book down and do something else. Your goal, as a writer, is to make it nigh impossible for the reader to do that.
The key is to write in powerful scenes. A scene covers a happening in one place and time, and from one point of view. When I say “one place,” that doesn’t preclude a travel scene.
In How To Write Page-Turning Scenes, Holly Lisle says, “You have written a scene when something changes.” This means that the scene has a purpose for being in the story. It reveals something new about a character or about the plot. It isn’t simply a rehash of previously gained knowledge without a new revelation or angle.
When you imagine your story in advance, you’ll likely think up specific occurrences. You’ll envision how shocked the kayaker is when he paddles into a dead body after thinking the obstacle was a partially submerged log. You might feel his horror, hear his words, see the turbulent water, etc. This is part of a scene. Something certainly changed!
So step back a little and imagine what leads up to that discovery. Who’s the kayaker with? What are they talking about while they paddle? What’s the weather like? Don’t get too bogged down in those details, but know them. Start the action fairly quickly to keep your reader engaged. But think about more than the instant of discovery to what encompasses it. Now you have the makings of a complete scene. Make a note (the cork board in Scrivener is great), including where the scene takes place, who’s present, who’s POV it is, when it takes place, and 1-3 sentences to describe the kernel of action and change.
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- A scene is the biggest useful building block in fiction writing. Learn the ins and outs here! click to tweet
Scenes can be nearly any length. As you get a bit of practice, you’ll get a feel for what’s comfortable for you. It may vary by point-of-view or even by novel. My scenes are usually 1300-1800 words long, with two to a chapter. Sometimes, especially when tension is ramping up at the book’s climax, scenes may get shorter with several to a chapter.
There isn’t a right or wrong, but knowing your scenes’ average word count is useful as you plot out your novel in advance of writing. If your genre’s sweet length is 90,000 words and you are writing scenes of about 1,000 words, you’ll need about 90 scenes in your list. If your projected length is 60,000 words and your average length is 1,500 words, you’ll be writing about 40 scenes. That’s a big difference!
Hooking the reader is just as important for each scene as it is for the beginning of the novel. How many times have you decided to close a book at the end of a scene or chapter, only to glance at the opening lines of the next one and get sucked right back in?
As an author, you have that power. Use it. Don’t take too long getting into the action. Start with something compelling and weave in the location, the internal thoughts, the 5 w’s (who what where why when) as you move forward. I often struggle with finding the best place to start (that’s the pantser in me), so I’ll ease in with setting and thoughts. As soon as I find the trigger point, I’ll delete what I’ve written so far in the scene and jump into the action.
Yes, your reader needs to know this scene takes place a week after the previous one and in a different city, but there are ways to weave the information into the first few sentences without saying, “A week later in Toronto…” Readers are smart. They like the challenge of catching hints, so long as they’re not too obscure.
A good rule is to use only one viewpoint per scene. Make it clear from the first sentence or two whose eyes we’re viewing this scene from then stick close. Choose the character who will be most challenged by the change you have in store for the scene. Include all the parts of a story that you can: dialogue, action, sensory input, thoughts, description…and always conflict.
Remember, a scene is a story unit that depicts change. What new revelation has erupted to make the reader turn the page?
If you’d like to study scene-writing in greater depth, I recommend Holly Lisle’s How To Write Page-Turning Scenes. It’s a workshop with exercises that will give you a solid handle on the topic. Yes, I’m an affiliate.
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