By Shannon Donnelly
Everyone knows there’s a story arc—story goes up in tension, reaches a peak, and falls down. And there are character arcs, too, since story is character and character is story. But what about your scene arcs? That’s right—every scene needs an arc.
Jack M. Bickham (a student of Dwight Swain, whose book Techniques of a Selling Writer I highly recommend) describes a scene as: “…a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’” (From Scene & Structure, How to Construct Fiction with Scene-by-scene Flow, Logic and Readability)
This means the scene starts, it has middle, and the scene ends. Wandering or pointless scenes need to be cut. But how do you make a weak scene better so you don’t have to cut it?
1—Make sure every scene has one focal character that comes into the scene wanting one thing (or in one state) and comes out changed. This is just as the character is changed during the entire story in a character arc.
For example, a scene could be your main character wanting to ask her husband to fund a charity. The scene starts with the characters sitting down to dinner. As the scene progresses, the character may be diverted off her goal—perhaps her husband is called away on an emergency. That scene now ends with main character frustrated (she started optimistic, so she has changed state).
NOTE: Having one focal character does not mean you have to limit the viewpoint to one character. You can switch viewpoints. However, if you do, make sure you know if this gives you better tension and emotion. Otherwise, that viewpoint shift is a place where you risk losing your reader. In general, you want to use the viewpoint of the character with the most (emotionally) at stake. And change viewpoint only if the emotional stakes change, too.
2—In every scene, make sure every character wants something. And set up conflict so your main character doesn’t get what he or she wants too easily.
In our above example, the husband may just want to eat his dinner. Or perhaps he’s thinking about business problems. Or maybe he’d rather slip into bed with his wife and money is the last thing on his mind. Checking in with your characters for what they want in every scene will help you avoid the dreaded “chit chat” when the dialogue is flat, or even worse, when the dialogue turns into stiff plot exposition.
3—Set the reader into the scene. Tell the reader when and where we are. Scenes need to start some place and be set in a world. If you throw the reader into the deep end without vivid details that “set” the setting, the reader’s interest will not be as strong as if you make the reader “see” and “feel” everything.
4—Make sure you introduce all characters. This is very important for a character the reader has never met before. Weave in a few details. You don’t have to dump information onto the reader, but a few brush strokes of description will make your scene better come to life.
5—Move the story forward. What this means is you must beware of flashbacks—they take the story backwards (or stop it dead). You want all your best scenes to be happening now. If the best story happened in the past, you need to look at telling that story.
6—Reveal and develop your characters in your scene. This is where the “show, don’t tell” advice comes in. Within a scene, you want to show your characters in action so the reader gets to know that person better (actions reveal character). If you were filming a scene, would you want your actors to just stand there and talk? Or would you want them doing things so the visuals are interesting? That last option sounds better for a movie, right? Well, it’s better for a novel as well.
As you develop characters, do not think this means dump in a lot of backstory. Look at this word – back and story. Literally, you are taking your story BACKWARDS. This means you have stopped the forward momentum of your story to fit in background information. You’ve killed your pacing.
Now, all stories need some background—readers need to know setups and character history in order to care about the events and the people. However, too much backstory and your pacing drags to a halt. Weave in backstory with a sentence or three, not big chunks of paragraphs.
7—If you need to tell the reader some bit of information avoid the temptation to have characters talking about things everyone already should know. Plot exposition coming out of a character’s mouth is almost always awkward and stilted. You do not want to turn your characters into Mr. Exposition (from the Austin Powers movies). A line or two of exposition will not kill your pacing and may help keep the story clear.
8—Do not resolve the focal character’s issues without introducing two more. These can be small things or big, but you want to keep making everyone’s lives more difficult.
If we go back to our example of the woman who wants her husband to donate money to a charity, we want to look at the options and come up with the one that makes things worse for her. So the option of the husband leaving is not going to give us as much as the one where the husband tells her his businesses aren’t doing well—now she has both her charity in trouble as well as her personal life.
9—Make sure your characters act “in character”. If your scene has you manipulating your characters or contriving situations to “make” a certain event happen, the reader is likely to find that scene implausible, or will just feel the characters are flat. You must always go back to asking, “What would I do if I were this person?” Set up the situations, the problems, but let your characters deal with those issues. Let the characters come through the scene in ways that make the scene fresh because the characters are fresh, too.
Now, how long is any scene? A scene can be a few sentences…or it can be twenty pages, or it can be the entire story (yes, it’s been done, but usually only in literary fiction). A scene is as long as it needs to be to take the focal character through the arc of that scene. However, in general, it takes most readers about three pages to get into a scene.
If you look at your favorite books, I think you’ll find they all do the same thing—longer scenes in the opening to get the reader into the story and the world, and shorter scenes as the pace of the story picks up, and when there is less need to develop the setting and characters because they have already been established. When a scene ends, you can transition to the next scene with a reaction to what happened, which is where sequels to scenes come into play, and more on that later.
Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others. Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”
She is the author of the Urban Fantasy “Demons & Warder” series, with Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire, as well as Regency Historical romances. Her books can be found n print or as ebooks on all formats, and her Regency Historical, Paths of Desire, is currently on sale at Amazon.com at a special price of 99 cents in October.
Shannon, how right you are. It also explains why I’m wallowing in the middle of my current WIP. Thank you SO much!!!
Sounds like you found the right teacher at the right time 🙂
Interesting post. Shared.
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Excellent tutorial on scene arcs, Shannon. Thank you!
Good, tight scenes make for good, tight novels with pace. I’m glad to find this post. I don’t think scene arcs get enough “air time.” Thanks. 🙂
It’s surprising how little time is given to constructing a scene. And it’s so important. Plenty of good scenes make for a good book.
Great post, thanks. I do have one question though: you mention backstory. Now, my first book is a sci-fi book that relies on the reader being able to understand and – more importantly – relate to the various technologies. Does an explanation of the technologies I am using and why they have been adopted in my world count as backstory, or is it more sidestory, and therefore less of a distraction? I appreciate this is quite difficult to answer without seeing my story, but as a rough response, what would you say?
Explanation of technology is backstory if you’re explaining how something came to be. It’s plot exposition if you’re explaining plot stuff, and that can still distract from the story.
I think Star Trek did it well–they didn’t explain things everyone took for granted (phasers, tricorders). And they only explained what they had to for the plot in ways that made sense (the birth of the briefing, and the Captain’s Log). You really want to get over rough ground like that as smoothly as you can.
That said, Tom Clancey made a career of explaining technology and some folks loved it. So just make sure you make the writing very good, and the information fascinating.
I do understand that every scene must accomplish a goal; just didn’t think of if as an arc. It puts everything in perspective. Thanks.
Shannon, another horsewoman, fantasy writer!
“Make sure every character wants something.”
Now there’s a huge gap I can fill. (I’m turning this into a checklist for myself until I make these checks habit.)
Joel, I always need the checklists (I always forget this stuff, and then have to remember again). That’s why I blog on it 🙂
Story is story, whether a novel or screenplay. In screenwriting we look at each scene and diagnose how it starts and ends – they can’t be the same. Does it start positive and end negative, or the opposite? Does it go from positive to negative to positive – that is okay since it did not stay the same.
Michael, Yep, structure is structure and that advice applies to any format.
Ahhh, a horsewoman! Love it! Also enjoyed reading about scene arcs. Thank you.
Thanks, Patricia–and we’re planning a ride tomorrow 🙂
Very helpful. Thanks. New perspective is always good.
Trish, So glad this is helpful.
I agree with Robyn – scene arcs don’t get the love they deserve. Great advice as always, Shannon!
Thanks, Orly. I think you could spend a long time taking apart good scenes to see how they work.
Loved it, Shannon. Shared your great information.
Suzi–thank you 🙂
You are such a great teacher, Shannon. Thank you for this “obvious” lesson that I never thought of. In this case, a little micro-managing of structure can really answer the question, “What does this scene do for your story?”
This is the clearest explanation of scene arcs that I’ve come across. Very helpful. Thank you.
Very useful. Thank you. This ties in nicely to a podcast I was just listening to (Writing Excuses) where they were talking about scene structure, including varying the length of dialogue and exposition and setting up a “pyramid of abstraction.” I think this was the one: http://www.writingexcuses.com/category/scenes/
I mean this one: http://www.writingexcuses.com/2013/08/04/writing-excuses-8-31-combining-dialogue-blocking-and-description/
Shannon, this is one of the best posts on scenes I have ever seen. Will be adding it to the Seekerville Weekend Edition. Many thanks. (www.seekerville.net)
Thank you, Tina.
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I’m traveling in the cold wet East Coast, so there will be no Sunday news today, Please join me next week. In the meantime I leave you with this great post by WITS.
Really, really, good advice, Shannon!! I tweeted, shared on FB, and reblogged.
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Shannon, being horse crazy, I always read your posts on the Beau Monde and your books when I have time. Great post about story arcs within scenes. It makes perfect sense that your expertise extends beyond the paddock to the craft of writing.
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