Examining a Scene

I opened up As High as the Heavens the other day. It was my first book. Man, did I love this book. I poured my heart into it. It has some chunks of great writing. Even some three-dimensional characters who experience some pretty gripping stuff.


It’s not publishable.

Here’s why.

I wrote that novel before I had any idea that stories have structure. I wrote it before I had any idea that scenes are the skeleton holding that structure together.

According to Debra Dixon, a scene is:
Action. A scene happens. It is not a lengthy explanation of what happened or what will happen. Or even a big stretch of internal dialogue. It’s not wonderfully evocative description or exposition or backstory.

According to Jack Bickham, a scene is:
A segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without any summary, presented onstage in the story “now”.

According to Dwight Swain, a scene is:
A unit of conflict, or struggle, lived through the character and the reader.

Dwight doesn’t say that the scene is lived through just the character, but the reader too. Which means the writer must find a way to make the reader experience the same feelings of conflict. The only way to do this is to bring the scene to life. And the only way to do that is to make the scene immediate and urgent. Most importantly, make sure something is happening.

What I noticed, while skimming over that first beloved novel of mine, is that I didn’t do this. I didn’t bring my scenes to life. I often plunked my scenes in the midst of exposition…telling the reader what happened already, instead of giving them a front seat and letting them experience it themselves. Without knowing it, I distanced the reader. In my mind, all this great stuff was happening…but I didn’t bring that to life for my reader. Instead of letting them watch the movie, I sat them down and explained what the movie was about, or what the characters were about.

So how do we avoid this? How do we make a scene come to life?

We give our character a goal, a motivation for that goal, and a conflict – something that gets in the way of the goal. Each scene should move your novel forward and it should contain at least one of the following elements (from Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, by Debra Dixon):

1. Move the character toward their ultimate goal

2. Provide an experience for the character that changes their goal

3. Provide an experience for the character that strengthens their motivation

4. Bring the character into conflict with opposing forces (I think this should be in every scene, but that’s just me)

So what about you? How are your scenes holding up?

Consider asking yourself these questions:
– Is the majority of my novel told via scenes?

– What’s the purpose of this scene? (if there’s not a strong answer to this, then that’s your sign to cut it or give it one)

– Does this scene move my story forward?

For more on this topic, see posts on goal, motivation, and conflict here, or posts on story structure here.

Questions to Ponder: What have you learned about the craft of writing that’s really taken your writing to the next level? How do you feel about story structure? Do you embrace it or resist it? I’d love to “hear” your thoughts.removetweetmeme

23 thoughts on “Examining a Scene

  1. Jennifer K. Hale

    Yeah, yeah, so I'm late to the comment form here, but this is great stuff, K. Great stuff. I'm learning so much from you. What a blessing you are, lady. A real blessing.

  2. Carol J. Garvin

    Katie, there's another nasty spam comment directly above this. Just thought you'd want to know so you can promptly delete it.

  3. Tamika:

    Sometimes I wonder if this first attempt at writing will be publishable too. I've agonized over pages for almost five months, and I still can't tell.

    The beginning is very weak due largely in part to inactive scenes. I'm reworking that now.

  4. Carol J. Garvin

    Boy, can I relate! My first novel was a pantser that wandered and wallowed. Even multiple revisions haven't been able to fix it. It needs a total rewrite but I'm thinking it will just remain stashed away. It was my learning experience.

    Now, whether I'm using cards or a spreadsheet, my novels are a series of scenes each with the headings of Motivation, Conflict, Resolution. I think even transitional scenes need a reason to exist, but I really like Jody's idea of eliminating transitions altogether. I'm currently revising an old novel and I think that might make a big improvement.

  5. Cassandra Frear

    Right now I am pondering something from Don Miller: "A character is what he does." That's how we know a character. Or a person in real life.

  6. Janna Qualman

    Brilliant! I'm working edits right now, and all this is relevant as I work on flow and style. Thanks!

  7. Lynn

    Thank you Katie for this post. These are all points I will keep in mind as I edit my short stories.

  8. Terri Tiffany

    Good post Katie! I too learned that along the way and I think finally I am grasping that concept. I wrote way too much head information and my critique partners shared that with me. Learning as we go!

  9. Lynda Young

    My first two (unpublished) novels just about gagged to death with far too much ramble and not enough tight structure. Having learnt that lesson the hard way, I realise how important it is to stay on track.

    With novel writing, however, I can't pre-structure. I just can't. But I actually like editing so taking out huge chunks is no problem – it just requires a LOT more work.

    Great set of questions to help in that regard though ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. sarahenni

    This is such a helpful post. I am trying like heck to make everything in my WiP a scene, and I use no transitions whatsoever. I think my major challenge in revision will be structuring those scenes and combining/cutting to root out the weak ones.

    Your note about what role the scene plays in relation to the character's journey is a fantastic reminder of what's really important!

  11. Katie Ganshert

    Elana – I hear ya girl. I don't think writing in scenes has anything to do with plotter or pantser though. I think the questions I have above are for anybody…the plotter would askt he questions before writing, the pantser would ask the question after the first draft. ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Elana Johnson

    I agree that every scene must have a purpose, but I'm fully going to admit that thinking about writing in this way freaks me out to no end. I can't handle the structure of it. I can't handle outlining and thinking far ahead and asking myself questions about writing.

    I like to just sit and write.

    Once I have the first draft out of my brain, then I have major major work to do. More than people who think about stuff, I think. But I just can't think like that.

    But I do think there are many people who can. And they are great questions to ask, and good points to think about.

  13. Kristin

    Katie! Yes, yes yes!!!

    I'm over-hauling a MG that I wrote (but still loved the premise) because I knew nothing about scenes or plot structure.

    Thanks for posting this. I can so relate!

  14. patti

    Sigh. I am just learning this lesson, made harder by the fact that I prefer novels that dabble with literary fiction and veer a bit from this formula.

    See, I might really devour and love your manuscript!!!!

    But you are so right in the general premise.
    Still, there is room to ponder what God would like written and not just the market…


  15. katharrmann

    I do okay with scenes, but I sometimes overdo the adverb/adjective relationship … the idea of "show, don't tell" sometimes eludes me. I tend to want to explain things for people, instead of letting them figure it out themselves. Was it Hemmingway who had the iceberg theory on writing? … For every 1/3 part that shows, 2/3 is lurking underneath and out of sight. Yeah … only showing that 1/3 is something I struggle with.

  16. Jeanette Levellie

    I always learn so much from you fiction sistahs. It helps my non-fiction zing!

  17. T. Anne

    I've learned something along the same lines. I need to have each scene contain a goal and tension. AND if I write a not so great scene I try not to stress over it during the first draft. There are always revisions…

  18. CKHB

    I'm trying to plot more, too! The pantser method works for some stories, but I'm leaning towards gaining more control of my stories so that if inspiration fails me, I still have a path to follow…

    I'd be so curious to see a first page of your first book side-by-side with the first page of the book that got you your agent!

  19. Keli Gwyn

    I've recently been converted from a pantser to a plotter. As I plan my scenes on my plotting boards, one of the aspects I note on my colorful sticky notes why that scene is there. If I can't come up with a reason, out it goes.

  20. Jody Hedlund

    As I've grown as a writer, I too pretty much use scenes. In fact, I'm getting to the point where I cut from one scene to the next without any exposition or transition in between. The Preacher's Bride has a little more exposition, but as you know, we all grow and fall into our style, and so this next book will have even less and hopefully be even tighter.

  21. Laura Pauling

    I love looking back on my first stories to see how much I've learned.

    The biggest thing I've learned recently – through books I love – is that it's great to start a scene right before the important stuff starts and to end it right after the important stuff ends. Too many times I followed the character from the scene back home, showing the transition between the scenes. Even thought they might have been fun or interesting, I'm learning to leave those parts out.

  22. Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought

    Embrace…it's all part of the learning. I'm learning to cut those beautifully written chunks of exposition for the sake of the powerful and felt scene.

    Thanks to a little birdie.
    ~ Wendy

  23. Krista Phillips

    Love this! My first book had major issues too, but I have a horribly thick skull and used that book as a manikin so to speak. Those first two years after writing it, while I learned the craft, every time I learned something, I went back to that book, applied what I learned, and fixed it. It's been through SO many drafts it isn't even funny! I almost don't like reading it now, but the end result is, I'm hoping, a saleable book someday.

    The whole GMC thing was huge for me. I found that instinctively, I did that most of the time given my writing personality, but there were many times it was fuzzy or unclear, and just going back through and reading scene by scene helped me cut through a bunch of crap and get to the heart.


Comments are closed.