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.
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?
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