The Five Definitions of Scene

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Hi. Kim Gray here. Today we welcome Stuart Horwitz the founder and principal of Book Architecture. He is the author of three books, the latest being Finish Your Book in Three Drafts: How to Write a Book, Revise a Book, and Complete a Book While You Still Love It. He joins us today to discuss The Five Definitions of Scene.

imageTake it away, Stuart!

What’s the big deal about scene? Well, as a group of self-contained passages within your narrative, they are nothing less than the building blocks of your work. Finding the places where your scenes break and separating them into discrete units can help you move scenes around, divide and combine them, and eliminate them when necessary.

The most commonly heard expression in writing circles is probably “Show, don’t tell,” which means you must put us in the scene. Don’t tell us about it, don’t tell us that it happened, don’t tell us that your characters—or you as the narrator—had a certain set of feelings about it; make it happen for us as readers, as viewers.

From this we get the first definition of scene:

#1. A scene is where something happens.image

If you are working in non-fiction, consider a scene to be the material that is grouped under a subhead where you have demonstrated your point, which is the same thing as making things happen. Now that you have introduced new material into the discourse, the discourse has shifted. Which is what our second definition of scene is getting at:

#2. A scene is where because something happens, something changes.

As I said above, a scene is the basic measuring unit by which you will construct your manuscript. Once you have identified these units, you can determine if each scene is weak or strong, a hopeless aside, or the climactic scene, in large part by whether or not any given scene belongs to a recognizable series.

#3. A scene has to be capable of series.

You would be surprised by the number of scenes that are written which contain nothing that is repeated—not the characters, not the place, not the ideas. Readers have a limited ability to track information, so unless you are intentionally presenting a red herring, what are these one-iteration series doing, just hanging out? The vibrant cafe owner with caustic wit but a heart of gold: Where did he go? That cabin that seemed so mysterious: How come we never went back there?

Series is a complicated concept that I explore at length in my books, but the heart of it is: If you get a great character, object, setting, or concept—it has to repeat. When you repeat and vary your narrative elements, they each become a strand; brand enough strands together and you can fashion a strong rope which is your theme. Because your theme is strengthened by each and every one of your series threads, which in turn spool out of your scenes, it makes sense that,

#4. A scene has to be in the service of the one central theme.

If all of your scenes serve the one central theme, you almost can’t miss at that point. But if you do have a scene that is not related to the one thing your book is about (because your book can only be about one thing, that is the very definition of theme), it either has to be expandable, or it is expendable.
Finally, the fifth definition of scene is this:

#5. A scene has to have “it.”

That’s it; just “it.” I, for one, don’t think we should be above talking about things in this way. Each scene must carry with it a sense of excitement, for both the writer and the reader. A bad or forgotten scene that you decide to keep while putting together your provisional scenic order might have “it.” That might be why you haven’t dropped it yet. You may not know what “it” is, but you can still detect it; it resonates, you can’t quite shake it. This scene has “it”—not that it’s perfect.

So, that’s it: five criteria for a scene to meet for you to feel good about what it does and get information about where it goes. And then get on to writing the next one.image

Stuart Horwitz is also a ghostwriter, independent developmental editor. He developed the Book Architecture Method (www.BookArchitecture.com) over fifteen years of helping writers get from first draft to final draft. His first book, Blueprint Your Best Seller: Organize and Revise Any Manuscript with the Book Architecture Method (Penguin/Perigee) was named one of the best books about writing by The Writer magazine.

Readers: Do you recognize these building blocks while you read? Do you feel “it” and notice scenes moving the story forward? Writers: Do you employ these criteria?

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24 thoughts on “The Five Definitions of Scene

  1. I’ve never heard of the “series” concept – but I certainly use it. In the first draft I just finished, there’s a character, the victim’s grandmother, who is referred to a couple of times earlier in the book but only appears in one scene toward the end of the book. I think I either have to take her out or bring her in more. And I really liked the way she put herself forward when she finally did get on the page, so I think she’s going to make an appearance earlier on, too. Great tips, Stuart!

    • Hello Edith! Series can be a real help during the revision process for exactly the kind of reasons you have identified: when a character, symbol, or setting first appears via foreshadowing, when that element reaches a zenith or nadir, and how various elements come together. Go, grandma!!

  2. Excellent advice. But I have a question: for those of us who write ongoing series, how do we incorporate scenes (or information within scenes) that may not be relevant to the particular book but that add to our knowledge and understanding of a recurring character? Some readers seem to feel cheated if their favorites don’t appear in each book in the series, but sometimes the character may not contribute to the plot.

    • Hi Sheila,
      What a terrific question. I would say that every novel has some room for tangents — not the purely whimsical, why is this here, this doesn’t even make sense kind of scene — but the we have a firm grip of what is going on in a scene and oh by the way this is also happening kind of thing. I think if your scenes are driving the work forward, with a beginning, middle and end, you have a little slack that you can devote to any number of flourishes: description, philosophical insight, or fleshing out your readers’ favorite characters. Short answer: We have to listen to our readers. 🙂

    • This is so interesting. I have a strict, “This is not your book” policy with series characters. If they’re not part of the story, they’re not in it. But I do get dinged for it occasionally in reader reviews, and I understand why.

      On the other hand, I have stopped reading several series because the author felt beholden to bring every single character we had ever met in all the books (except for the killers and the victims) forward. Hate that.

      • I agree with that Barbara — anything gratuitous smells bad…and readers have great noses. Each volume in a series of books needs to be able to stand alone. And every chapter chapter within that volume. And every page within that chapter.

      • It’s definitely a balancing act. But you can have your protagonist wave at her friend from across the street, so readers know she’s not dead. Or send her on a long sea cruise (but you can’t do that with the entire village!).

  3. Hi Stuart. Welcome to the Wicked Cozies. I love the notion of series. I have always unconsciously used it, thinking in the rule of threes for minor threads and five for more important ones, but I never had a name for it! Downloading your book now.

    • Hi Barbara — thank you so much for having me! I said yes instantly when Kim asked me. I think you will find in my work additional ideas for using threes and fives (and fours and seventeens) energetically and unexpectedly. Keep me posted!

  4. Great information. It seems to me that sometimes you have to write the scene and see it in the bigger context of the book before you can decide if it “belongs.” Especially regarding theme, which I never seem to know until the end of the book. Is that right? Or is there a way to identify these scenes to toss earlier?

    • Me, too, Mary. I always think the theme is one thing, and then it turns out to be something else. In Fogged Inn I was convinced through the whole first draft that that the theme was “home,” but when I read the draft, it turned out to be “Old Friends,” which then gave focus to another subplot.

      • Completely agree here. I think concepts change as we complete them. I liken it to the movement of the hands of a clock (on the kind of clock that has hands). What you set out to do is your theme at 12 o’clock. By writing the messy draft (the first of three I talk about), you move the hour hand forward to 1 o’clock. Then you can look at your theme at 1 o’clock and, during the method draft (the second draft), consciously push it forward to 2 o’clock.

  5. Welcome to the blog! What a great conversation. I am a plotter, and work hard on scene cards before I start writing. You’ve given me more to think about as far as shaping them goes. Overall themes–such an important frame for a manuscript. I don’t know that I really understood that until I started writing. Thanks for visiting, and for the food for thought.

    • Thank you! As a self-identified outliner, you might get some discussion out of the interaction between pantser and outliner in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts. Basically, I think it is an interplay — and that we are all both of these, and negotiating that psychic discussion is where we all need to evolve so that we can have the best of both worlds. Even the hardest core outliner has to allow themselves to be gloriously surprised, right?

      • I just ordered it. Read about it on another blog, and it spoke to me. My obsessive plotting does make the first draft hole filling a bit easier for me. Just submitted book 3, and found that trusting the outline was critical. I spend a long time working on my scene cards. Looking forward to the book!

    • Absolutely, Jessie! I also think these three thoughts come in handy:
      *Scenes often occur in a single time period.
      *Scenes often occur in the same place.
      *Scenes often have one central subject matter.
      These diagnostics are based on Aristotle’s three unities: a play should operate in a single place, it should depict a limited time period (either twenty-four or thirty-six hours), and all of the events presented should contribute to a single action (or, as I like to say, your book can only be about one thing). While the unities are a little restrictive for an entire novel, I think they can be applied profitably to individual scenes.

  6. As a reader, I can definitely tell when an author is adding a scene just because. I am okay with some things that add atmosphere or update us on series character lives in a series I like, but sometimes the author needed someone to ask them what that scene adds to the book and then kill it. Or beef up its importance in the book. Either way, it would improve things.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Mark. That’s why my mantra for those scenes is: Expendable or expandable. Getting caught in the middle is death to the momentum!

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