The Five Definitions of Scene


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 ( 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?


Ask the Editor: Ramona DeFelice Long

Edith, somewhere in southern Indiana

I’m delighted to have our good friend, independent editor Ramona DeFelice Long, as our photoAsk the Editor guest today. She’s smart, funny (in that delightful southern kind of way), generous, hardworking, and has a knack for gathering people into the most intriguing of conversations. She’s also a great writer who several of us Wickeds first met at Seascape 2009. Take it away, Ramona!

The Language of Editing

Consider these scenarios:

  • You’ve finished the first draft of a novel.
  • You’ve completed a short story.
  • You’ve run your manuscript through beta readers.
  • You’re in the middle of a manuscript and hit a wall.
  • You’re considering self-publishing.
  • You’re unsure if your 100 pages have enough story for a novel.
  • You have interest from an agent and want your MS to be in its best shape possible.

The next sentence for all of these scenarios may be: Now consider hiring an independent editor.*

The question after that sentence may be: How do I know which type of independent editor to hire?

It is ironic that, in a job focused on word choice, nuance, and precision, the terms used about self-employed professional editors can be confusing. There is no helpful glossary in the back of an Editing 101 textbook—because there is no Editing 101 textbook. A person cannot go to college and earn a Bachelors of Editing degree.

Even the terms to describe editing itself are not set in stone. This is what I call editing in practice:

Editing – Editing is what a professional, paid person does when they examine a writer’s manuscript.

Revision – Revision is what a writer does when he/she works over his/her own draft of a manuscript.

Critique – Critique is what a fellow writer does to a peer’s work.

By my definitions, “self-editing” is a misnomer but “self-reviser” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?

Job descriptions for the various types of independent editors can be confusing, too. good-guy-vs-bad-iclipartThere’s a notion that “hiring an independent editor” means paying someone to check out your antagonist and protagonist, streamline your plot, catch your typos, strengthen your sentences, fact check, and help you write a query—all for one low, low price.

Stop dreaming that dream. While editors do cross over, different editors perform different functions at different stages of a manuscript. This is true for the staff at a traditional publishing house, and it is true for independents. Each step of editing requires a particular skill set.

Below is a lexicon to help writers who wish to collaborate with an independent editor.

Content/Developmental Editor – examines the manuscript for structure, appeal, story logic, effectiveness of scenes, character development, flow, plotting, genre expectations, etc. A developmental editor reads for the big picture of the story—Is it logical, pleasing, and publishable?—and will make suggestions designed to create a stronger overall manuscript. Content/developmental editors work with works in progress (WIPS) as well as completed drafts.

Copyeditor – Copyeditors check tense, POV, sentence structure, redundancy, readability, character and scene consistency. A copyeditor will also fact check. A copy edit will aim for clean copy, which means removing errors in  spelling, grammar, style and syntax, as well as technical errors such as typos, missed words, and punctuation flubs.

256px-Text-x-generic-highlight-red-marker-round.svgLine Editor – No pun intended, but there’s a fuzzy line between copy and line editors. A straight line editor will read for technical errors– typos, missed words, punctuation errors, sentence by sentence–without considering bigger issues such as character development or scene value.

NOTE: Copyeditors and Line Editors are often combined as one skill.

Proofreader –  a person who reads a manuscript to catch technical errors. Sometimes a skilled amateur, a proofreader may work for pay or by barter.

Book Doctor – some people use this term interchangeably with content/development editor. A book doctor is a manuscript fixer-upper.Ghostwriter

Ghost Writer – an anonymous person who writes a book which is credited to someone else as author.

Writing Coach – a mentor who provides guidance to a writer beyond reviewing manuscripts

Beta Reader – not a professional editor and so works without pay, usually for barter. A beta reader is a skilled reader with genre familiarity, who examines the draft of a manuscript and offers a critique.

Reviewer – not an editor, but a person—professional or amateur—who shares his/her opinion of a book after it is published via trade journals, periodicals, newspapers, review sites, blogs, booksellers (Amazon & B&N).

And now for some lagniappe terms about editing:

Turnaround Date – the date you can expect the return of your edited manuscript. If an editor posts a turnaround time of one month, that’s how long the editing job will take. A writer should always ask for, in writing, a turnaround date.

Track Changes – the easy-for-editors, tedious-for-writers editing system built into Microsoft Word.

Style sheet – a publisher’s list of preferred style and syntax choices.

Acknowledgement – the “thank you” a writer includes in a published work. Some editors require a permission to be acknowledged.

Pilcrow – the paragraph mark () is used in copyediting to note a new paragraph. In Microsoft Word, a pilcrow sign appears in the tool bar. Clicking on the pilcrow shows every hidden space in a manuscript. A space between words gets a dot. A return gets a pilcrow mark. The pilcrow helps you find unnecessary spaces you can’t see. Many writers have no idea this useful function is available.

Now back to the questions at the top of the page. If you are in one of these scenarios, do you understand which type of independent editor you need to hire?

Extra credit: Did you know about the pilcrow?

*Disclaimer: I work as an independent editor. I also hire independent editors for my writing.

RamonaLogoFinalRamona DeFelice Long is an author and independent editor who specializes in mystery novels. She works with private clients as well as through organizations such as Sisters in Crime to edit chapter anthologies and teach online courses. Her own writing has appeared in literary and regional publications, and she’s been awarded fellowships, grants, and residencies from multiple arts organizations. Ramona lives in Delaware. Her literary website features a new blog post every Tuesday as well as a collection of tips for writers.

Readers: Stop in and ask Ramona questions! And how did you do on the quiz?



The Wicked Ask

The Wickeds are going to start two new blog series, and we’d love to hear what you think.

imagesWe Asked The Editor

Did you know that our own Sherry Harris is an editor? Other readers of this blog are as well. Editing is a different skill set than writing, so we are going to start asking editors for their thoughts on plotting, structure, character development. . .and what else? What would you like to ask an editor?

We Asked the Expertquestion-mark

We’ve had a few conversations about research on the blog. So we’ve decided to start a series called “We Ask the Expert”. One of the great things about doing research is that you meet very interesting people who have expertise in specific areas. We want you to meet some of them.

Also, what would you like to hear more about? Anything you’ve always wanted to knowhat-if1-1024x1024w, but weren’t sure how to ask? Can the Wickeds help?

So, dear readers, any questions for our editors? Thoughts on experts? Share all in the comments.