Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lesson Two: Writing a Scene

Camille Minichino/Margaret Grace here, joining the week long online writing clinic with a piece on writing a scene.

As a beginning writer, my biggest challenge was how to construct a scene. I'd read many books on writing, heard many lectures. They told me WHAT to do: make sure your character has a need or desire that propels the scene; provide conflict; give details using all the senses; use plot points for escalating action. And do it all well. But I never heard or read HOW to do it.

I owe the following HOW TO to Mr. Zachariou, (if you're out there in blogspace, Thank You!) a writing teacher who finally gave me an answer I could relate to.

Here's how it works.

There are six elements to a good scene. Or, there may be 118, which is the current number of elements in the periodic table. No one really knows, in either case. If you're old enough, this will remind you of those books and articles in the seventies when we were led to believe that there were four rules for a happy marriage, five steps to better skin, seven wardrobe basics, and so on.

In the same way, six is not a magic number, but let's just say that it's very handy to think of a scene in terms of six basic elements:

1. Action — from a simple movement like taking a seat, to leaping tall buildings
2. Dialogue — words spoken aloud, even to one's self
3. Physical description of setting — details about the environment, space/time; mood; weather
4. Physical description of characters — status details such as facial expressions, clothing, distinguishing features and appearance
5. Internal thoughts — "quoting" what the character is thinking
6. Physiological sensations — reactions not visible to others: clenched teeth, tensed muscles, upset stomach

You notice that good stories don't have page upon page of uninterrupted dialogue, or of any other element for that matter. So what's the order of the elements that makes a scene read smoothly?

It's as easy as 2-1-2-4-3-5-6-2-1.
As an example here's a short scene. I've put in the numbers so you can see that it follows the pattern.

Thanksgiving Dinner

(2) "You promised you'd never do that," I said. (1) I pushed my dinner plate away from me and folded my arms.
(2) "I had no choice," my father said. "We needed food." (4) He wore his faded flannel shirt tucked in to his baggy pants, a pained expression on his face.
(3) A brisk fall wind blew in through the flimsy window frames of the old house, sending a chill through the tiny dining area. The others at the table were silent.
(5) No one else cares, I thought. (6) I held back tears but I couldn't stop the awful churning in my stomach.
(2) "He was our friend," I said.
(1) I got up from the table and left my family to eat the turkey we once called Tom.

I hope you get the idea. In this piece I've given nearly equal weight to all the elements and followed the pattern rigidly.

Of course for your story, you'll decide which element is most important to carry the point of the scene. Sometimes you'll want a few lines of uninterrupted dialogue. If you're writing an action scene, you might have no dialogue at all for a page or so. Overall, however, you need all the elements to carry the scene.

If you're having trouble pacing the elements of a scene, try this! One side benefit is that you'll be able to easily identify your own strengths and weaknesses. Does the dialogue flow? Do you have trouble coming up with something more interesting than an upset stomach (I do!)? Work on the elements that give you the most trouble.

Post a scene here and I'll put your name in a drawing for a special (inanimate) Thanksgiving treat!


Cryptoman said...

When do we eat?

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great advice...I'm tweeting again!

Mystery Writing is Murder

Ellen said...

You want scene? I give you scene.


Mist shrouded the trail as Godwulf rode from Northlanding towards the fairgrounds. Several pack-horses laden with supplies and trade goods followed, led by two men still half-asleep. Godwulf was quite awake: his night-watchman had roused him as soon as light quickened in the east. He'd had his breakfast of sops in wine, and a short prayer in his rooms, by the time the rest of the household had begun to stir.

Don't they realize the first day of the fair is no time for laying abed? he thought, as he looked back at his little caravan.

Suddenly his horse shied, dancing sideways towards the river. The other horses, too. Godwulf and the men fought them back under control. "Hob! Joseph! Do you see anything to upset them? Pest and bother! Blast this fog!" But nothing seemed amiss, and the horses were avoiding a spot much closer than the woods looming dimly at the edge of vision.

Probably not a bear, Godwulf thought as he dismounted; but he had his sword, Hob his staff, and Joseph his whip as they went to investigate.

Thorolf Pike lay in the tall grass between the trail and the woods. Droplets of morning dew spangled the grey-goose fletching of the arrow piercing his side. His neck was bent unnaturally, and his crumpled form looked as if he'd been thrown by a horse – thrown far.

Camille Minichino said...

I might have known there'd be a great scene that did not follow the pattern! Thanks, Ellen.

Others should not be discouraged by this first wonderful entry. I'm awarding Ellen a separate prize.

Joanna Campbell Slan said...

Great piece, Camille. I never looked at scenes like this...but now I'm going to have a much better, more organized approach to them.

Camille Minichino said...

Thanks, Joanna.
I'm expecting a flurry of short scenes today!

Maggie Bishop said...

Thank you for listing this on SinC group. Great information.

Betty Hechtman said...

Great post to read when I'm rewriting!

Joanna and you have done such great posts, I hope I can measure up on Saturday with Setting.

misterreereeder said...

Great series idea. I will definitely be checking it out.

misterreereeder said...

Just Three Steps More -- A Misterreereeder Original

Just three steps more!!! If he would have just taken three steps more, he would not have found himself in this situation. He could not think why he did not – heck he was not thinking at all!!!
It was dark and he could not find what he was looking for. That is when he started thinking - where is it –and – where am I? He was reaching around and trying to find something familiar. He could not locate a light switch.

He banged into the wall on his right. Not just once but several times. Then he heard her scream but he was in a haze and could not respond. Then he hears a door open around the corner and hears a voice, “Is everything ok in there?” He mutters, “Yes” but that is all he can say. He is still confused.

It must have been the pill he had taken. He had not slept through the night the night before and he wanted to be sure he would get enough rest tonight.

Now he seems to realize what had happened. He had not taken enough steps before he turned. So he backed tracked, hit the wall a couple of more times, and took those extra steps he had missed before. Once he had finished, he returned to his bed. Then she asked him what the heck was going on. “I got lost going to the bathroom.” She burst out laughing but he just turned over and went back to sleep.

Camille Minichino said...

Soon I'll be asking for addresses for the winners, but there's still an hour to go!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

What a nifty idea! It looks like a good way to get going when I hit one of those slow days. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great advice and very well explained. This was a very helpful read.

Becky Levine said...

Beautiful, Camille--I love that breakdown. I think you're right, it would really show up what piece (pieces!) is a struggle for us. :)

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