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 Expert- Agent John Talbot

Jessie: In New Hampshire, neck deep in knitting projects to stave off the cold.

Today we are delighted to have literary agent John Talbot visiting the Wickeds today. John happens to be the agent for all of the Wickeds and as such helped each of us to navigate the complicated world of proposal writing.  Proposals involve several components. We’ve covered the basics over the course of the month but are pleased to get John’s take on them. 

JohnTalbotJohn has twenty-plus years of book publishing experience as an editor and literary agent. As an agent, he has placed books at imprints of all of the major publishers including Doubleday, Random House, Bantam, Dell, Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, HarperCollins, Morrow, Grand Central, St. Martin’s Press, Putnam, Berkley, Dutton, NAL, Wiley, Macmillan, and McGraw-Hill. His clients include several New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, multiple Agatha Award winners and nominees, a National Book Award Finalist, a National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee, and a New England Book Award winner. He is a member of the AAR.

Prior to becoming an agent John spent over a decade with Pocket Books and Putnam Berkley (now part of Penguin Random). At Putnam Berkley he rose to the rank of Senior Editor and worked with such global bestsellers as Tom Clancy, W.E.B. Griffin, and Jack Higgins, as well as then-rising literary stars such as Tom Perrotta. He edited over a dozen national bestsellers and had five New York Times Notable Books for the Putnam, Berkley, and Riverhead imprints. He began his editorial career at Simon & Schuster/Prentice Hall Press. John received his B.A. in English Composition from DePauw University and also spent semesters at Washington University in St. Louis and Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan.

Thanks so much John for taking the time to be with us today!

John: It’s a pleasure.

JessieLet’s dive right in! Synopses can be such a challenge to write. What do successful ones include?

John: Synopses should be short, about a paragraph. They don’t need to be detailed in a way that includes every plot twist. I want to know the premise for the series and who the main characters are, a little bit of the setting and milieu, and the general trajectory of the plot. It’s not exactly like the back cover copy of a book, but it’s close enough that you can read a few of those to get yourself into a mental rhythm and then try it on your own. I would use cover copy, descriptions from the deal listings, since they are really compressed (usually one long sentence!), and reviews from Publishers Weekly to get the blueprint down. But of course try not to be too influenced by the marketing or review descriptors…. Another way to look at it is that it’s going to be similar to what your query letter description should be.

Jessie: Characters are arguably the heart and soul of a successful series. What makes for compelling character sketches?

John: Most of the characters I enjoy are aspirational, they are likeable, yet they have a tough circumstance to overcome, and they have a – and I don’t like this word exactly but it’s the only one I can think of – they have sass. They are everyday people who have obstacles to overcome and must rise to a challenge, they must find inner strengths they didn’t know they had. And they are not static. A good main character has the potential to become a friend to the reader, someone she can identify with and root for. Also, no one works independently of someone else. The characters are a pretty tight mesh, and everyone affects everyone else. To me they have to feel real, like people I know or might see every day of my life. You might be giving depth to that person I see every day but don’t know really well. You’re inviting me into that person’s life. It’s personal, even intimate.

Jessie: What do you like to see included in the first three chapters? What’s best left out?

John: What do you want your reader to experience when they pick your book up in the bookstore? What do you want them to experience if they download a sample electronically? This is a dress rehearsal for that experience. You’re barely going to have time for the plot itself to kick in — though you do need to have a body within those first three chapters – so what you’re really doing is trying to hook the reader on voice and milieu, and character. Readers can tell pretty quickly whether they’ve found a voice they’ll want to spend time with; it happens within the first few sentences. A proposal is a gift to the writer in the sense that with a shorter commitment, you can go over those first pages until you get the voice just right, rather than completing several hundred pages and finding you have to start over.

Jessie: We all know writing is an art but it’s also a business, even at the proposal stage. For some writers one of the most confusing and challenging parts of the proposal package is the marketing survey and comps component. Could you give us some pointers on crafting this section?

John: The marketing section, which can be very brief, is about showing your ability to find and bring an audience to your work. If your premise involves a unique setting, how many people visit this setting each year, and is it a locale with a strong book audience, with bookstores and specialty shops that might carry the book? What about national and local organizations that promote (for example) the craft or activity that your main character engages in? What is the national participation number for this activity and what are the membership numbers for the top organizations, and how could you as the author help your publisher to reach these potential buyers? Then you bring it back, most importantly, to the book world. Are there successful titles and series in this subject area? How might your series be similar and how might it be different to those?

An easier way to do this is not to have the marketing section separately, to just fold the crucial parts of it into your author bio. Social media is vital now, so you need to have a presence on the Web and show how you could expand that around the books; that obviously fits right into the author bio. Then your own participation in the relevant activities and organizations is helpful, and of course any writing credentials, groups, awards, and publications (as long as they are in the same genre).

Specifically on comparables, you want to point out three or so series from authors with the publishers you are targeting, whose readership might also find your work appealing. One or two comparables might involve a similar subject that you are adding a personal twist to, one or two might involve just a milieu or voice that might attract some of the same readers.

Jessie: What is the single best thing a writer can do to improve the possibility of her proposal being offered a contract?

John: Flexibility, responsiveness, and an ability to work quickly and reliably are all important in getting a start and for the long haul as well.

Keep at it and be willing to re-work a proposal. There are so many moving parts to a good piece of fiction that it is almost impossible to get everything in balance the first, second, or even third time. But eventually you do reach that point of balance and that’s when it’s time to go out.

Work with a spirit of collaboration on the final product. In other words, craft the work in whatever setting you work best, but when it’s time to shape the final draft be sure you have your support group of first readers and writing group such as Sisters in Crime, and that you are willing to think hard about prompts and coaching from your agent and an editor.

The times when I sell a book or proposal untouched or unmodified are far fewer than the times an editor has made a suggestion to me and I’ve found a writer willing to work towards that suggestion. Editors know the market deeply and have passions and a vision for what they might want to see two years down the road. As a writer you’re looking for hints and guidance on how to fit your work into that vision. My job as an agent is to be the connector between the two. In practical terms that means sometimes you the writer will need to open yourself up to modifications that might range from tweaks to wholesale reworking.

Be willing to adapt to the needs of an editor. I’ve seen many good writers have a hard time getting published at first because they are stuck on a narrow vision for their work, and don’t realize that an editor may have a broader vision that improves the book and gives it an appeal to a wider audience, or that an editor has a very specific vision, and they are looking for someone who can retool or craft something new to fit that vision.

Jessie: And before we let you go, are you currently open to queries? If so, how would those interested do so?

John: Yes. Via email on the submission page of the Talbot Fortune Agency website is best. A brief cover letter including contact information (and phone number!), the synopsis and author bio, and the option for me to request a full proposal.

Thank you for reading this! Happy writing to all of you.

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.