How to write a novel (#2) – the scenic route

It’s not easy to improve a craft. Let’s be honest, for many of us it’s not easy even to accept improvement is necessary. As Confucius would apparently have said if he’d spoken modern English, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” It’s a bitter moment when you realise you’ve wandered as far down the less-travelled road as you could, only to discover it blocked. The only way forward is to go back to the place the paths diverged and choose again.

Getting back to the basics and getting them right is a smart move, whatever stage of the journey you’re on: whether your project has hit a stop and you’re wondering how to go forward, whether you’re wondering what to change following the last lot of feedback, or whether you’re at the planning stage for a new venture. Like journeys, more projects than not can be helped with a bit of standing back and scoping, a rekkie of the landscape and a half decent map.

Let’s say that you’re not averse to planning before you write (see the post on planning mentality in how to write a novel #1). Let’s say that you want to get the basics right before looking to the details. What’s the best next step? For me, (and I always wished I’d discovered this long before I finally did) it’s understanding scenes, understanding what a scene should contain and how your plotting work can emerge over a set of scenes.

Scenes and how (not) to write them.

If you’re the type of writer who’s tried and given up or who’s daunted and not sure where to start, then scenes aren’t a bad next thing to get to grips with. Scenes – rather than chapters – are a good means to work out what you want to say and how you need to say it. Dividing into scenes gives clarity. It gives you a unit of writing that you can assess on its own merits. It also gives you an easy set of steps through which to judge the readability of your story.

So, what is a scene?

Scenes are a built-in part of our storytelling behaviour. As long as you have an entity in an environment this could potentially be a scene. So, Person + place = scene. Easy.

What I have found more helpful is to understand where the scene stops and another begins. Person + new place does not necessarily equal a new scene as far as useful novel planning tools. Having Bill thinking about Adele on a mountaintop might be a scene; but then having Bill thinking about Adele in his car is not a new scene. So, there must be something else necessary to make a scene. This is the activity. More precisely, it is the relevant activity, activity that is meaningful to the story development.

For me, Scene = person + place + meaningful activity.

Activity is often a tricky word for would-be novelists. Partly there is a fear that “activity” is “action” and that novels which promise these things threaten to be the poor cousin of films, where action is dealt with viscerally and with an immediacy that novels are not expected to match. I’ve had students who look disgusted at the mention of the word ‘action’. But, action and activity for the novelist take many quiet forms. As Henry James says, “It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way.” (The Art of Fiction)

The definition for me here might not quite be what a playwright or screenwriter might consider a scene. For a prose fiction writer there’s no shift of scenery, no division of acts or cuts to place. The shaping of action to fit scene changes gives rise to different thoughts about the nature of the scene and for a novelist there are different opportunities and restrictions.

If we need a neat definition, let’s think of scenes as segments of high-impact writing. Maybe they take place in one place. Or take place across a phone line in two places. Or happen across three timeframes as extra-dimensional characters move through each other and about their business. What matters is that these scenes have impact. Impact given by character. Impact given by setting. Impact given by meaningful activity.

Scenes can fail by having any one of these elements missing. I recognise it in my own learning process when getting to grips with scenes and also in the difficulties students have had in recognising what was unappealing about a segment of their writing.

Divide your work up into what you think are scenes and then check if any of these flaws rings true about them:

-Dialogue rather than scene: this happens a lot. Have your characters all come back together round the same old table? Have a couple started a deep conversation that could be just anywhere but which happens to have an art gallery or the Alps or a ghetto slapped in the background. Has your navel-gazer restarted that multi-page interior monologue but this time while doing keepy-uppies on top of a log. Novelists love to have their characters jabbering back and forth, letting off their writerly steam, allowing those philosophical points have air, giving vent to that sociological thesis. But does your dialogue just turn into a cycle of banter? Try the dialogue out with a different setting and see if it has lost or gained anything. Or try removing it altogether. If it makes no difference where they are or what they’re doing then your scene is probably lacking something.

Description rather than scene: this is often a preface to the problem above or is interspersed with examples of it. It could be that the landscape or the character is over-described. Description of a character with no suggestion of meaningful incident is not a scene in itself. A truly scenic description would still be full of “incident” as with James or “character” as with Hardy (Check out first chapter of The Return of the Native). Description will be part of a scene containing the other elements, ideally not stuck onto it, ideally not easily extricated, certainly not as one wedge. If you sense a place or a character description going on and on, there’s a chance that your scene has disappeared. If you find your so called scene is like describing a picture then it’s probably lacking something. (Less common but also a potential scene-breaker is under-description, so watch that there is at least some sense of who and where as the dialogue commences.)

– Activity rather than scene: A scene can be action-packed of course but for it to work as a scene this should still be activity that is showing character and ideally be an engagement with setting. Where activity fails to become a scene is often in its direction. Is this just any old activity or is it meaningful activity. A car chase isn’t really a scene in a novel, although it might be in a film. Same goes for a slapstick routine or casual bonk-fest. Where is the action going, what are the dramatic results, what is the essential meaning of this activity.

– Philosophy rather than scene: It’s the trap for novelists with a tyrannical inner poet, the trap for novelists who hate plots and storylines and other things that make life easy for readers. It’s easy to pretend it’s not a problem because this is what marks you out as a genius. Why should you go through the trials of entertainment when you can just hide behind something that no-one understands? Your novel may get its true importance from its philosophical brilliance. Warning, though: whatever gems of careful analysis of the human condition you want to drop in, you’ll be a better-loved author if you can them within a genuine scene rather than let them be an excuse for one.

So, first check that your scenes really are scenes. A chapter might be just one scene. A chapter might have several scenes. Unusually a scene could span a chapter break but it would take a pretty nifty craftsperson for this not to be just two scenes with a pause in the middle.

Scenes need a set of components. If your scene is going to have any impact at all then check that it’s doing as many of them as possible – all the high up ones in this list and as many of the rest as possible.

Does your scene:

  • have a central conflict that grows during the action (meaningful activity)
  • end on a point that requires continuation (meaningful activity)
  • turn the reader’s emotions from a positive into a negative or vice-versa. (meaningful activity)
  • have a sense of place.
  • have a developmental element of character.
  • have no reason to be cut shorter than it is.
  • contain a readerly plot reward in the form of something revealed or a nugget of possibility
  • have an opportunity for ‘reading-into’. A ‘two-percenter’, a reward for close attention or esoteric knowledge.
  • have a concentrated moment for reflection and remembering – a quote, an exchange, a one-liner, a philosophical insight?

So, with a list like this one, be prepared to test out all your individual scenes. Don’t be lazy about locations and thinking that place is scene or atmosphere is scene. It’s not a scene if characters just wander in and out of the fog or stumble over chairs in the dark. It’s not a scene if they’re gazing at a memory of your last holiday with its unforgettable sunsets.

What does a scene do?

When you’ve found what a scene is – and you may have your own answers and ideas – it’s worth having a thought as to what a scene does, or what it can do. Importantly it makes people want to read the next scene. Your reader’s not captive. Each scene you get them to read is a chance to pitch for the next scene. See if they’ll read another. Make sure each scene works in and of itself and then make sure they join together, not just as a chain either but as an increasingly formidable structure. This is the way you’ll get the optimum plot structure in order to tell that great story that’s burning to be communicated.

The best thing you can do is get a real grip on the source and nature of the conflict in your scene. I know that would-be novelists who’ve already screwed their faces up at words like ‘action’ do so even more with words like ‘conflict’, believing it refers to super-geezers bent on destruction and survival. Yet, as everyone eventually realises – unless they give up writing altogether – conflict comes in many shades, many tones and many disguises. Conflict can be an internal struggle, a struggle with conscience, a struggle with an environment. Conflict in a story is anything that shows a valid desire being prevented.

So, question one for your planning map: Where’s the conflict? None there? No scene. Try again. Make a scene.

Conflict is the first building block for your meaningful activity. It’s the first sign that this block of text is in itself a scene. There must be a clear conflict or tension, one that either fails to resolve or which kicks off further conflict. The conflict will normally grow, subside slightly and set up further expectations for the development of that tension. This is the pulse of the writing. A pulse which needs to quicken.

Pick up your Rob McKee, turn to page 233 and read about scenes in detail: “A scene is a story in miniature – an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life.” (Story) He’s talking screen scenes of course, but there’s plenty here for every kind of storyteller to learn. To create the perfect scene takes study and thinking and a real craft, but any work of fiction – probably any story – can be improved by an attention to the function and detail of the scene.

You have your scenes, each a single element where an important move in the intensity and direction of the plot is accompanied by character revelation through decision-making, all against a well-framed scenario and suitable intensifying environment. You then need to check that each scene builds to the next and that your story arc uses them in a satisfying way (let’s save this for another post)

A normal length, normally structured novel might have between thirty and a ninety scenes. You’ll be looking to write about 90,000 words so that makes a set of 90 scenes at 1,000 words or 45 at 2,000. Much less than 40 and you’ll be lucky to have enough contour in the plot. If there’s more than one central conflict in your scene, check that you haven’t got more than one scene (at least for the planning stage, they can be blended later).

Get your scenes sorted

Cause a scene. Make a scene. And let us not forget obscene – a word which endures for those acts which were always best left as gaps, reported events that occurred off-stage…

The individual scene and your attention to both its details and its place in the overall work are a great chance for you to assess and improve your work. Or, if you’re planning, they’re a good way to get the confidence and the direction and those hard-won supplies of energy to keep going till your project has been properly conquered.

If you’re in the planning frame of mind, try and get each scene nailed before you start. What will the scene do? What will the conflict be and how will it build? What will the dynamic of emotions be? Ideally some move from positive to negative, with the next scene going from negative to positive. [Screenwriting gurus even recommend index cards with these things on them coded with +/- (emotional shift) and >< (source of conflict).] What character point will come across? What will the imagery be and what elements of your main theme will be delivered through this package. If you can’t do every single one of your scenes with this kind of close plan then at least try the most important parts, the places of maximum plot shift, the turns if you like. If these major turning points are in place you can have a much more sketchy sense of how those in-betweener scenes might fit and how many you’ll need.

Look back at many successful books and the scenes often stand out as almost effortlessly shaped, delivered and conjoined. Collect your favourites and keep going back over them, check out what makes them work. Troy’s sword scene in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), the Circe episode in Ulysses (1922), Sister Vertue’s class in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1984), the maze scene in One Day (2009). It’s interesting to compare screen scene treatments of literary scenes and with David Nicholls, for example, there’s a chance to see someone with a training in tv and screen who’s now writing novel scenes – worth a study regardless of your personal taste in rom-com.

Successful planning of the scenes needs more than just a sketch of major events. It’s not very helpful to have a bald plot sketch such as: Alice meets Bob, Alice gets a new job, Bob dumps Alice. A good plan will have a scenic development that increases tension and emotional charge around each of these major events. Through each scene there will be clear conflict and a shift of emotion… Alice having to wrestle her conscience in order to do steps x,y and z into the meeting with Bob, Alice moving from depressed to joyful. Bob moving from joyful to depressed as he finds himself saddled with career obsessed Alice… probe the scene, check out which elements need to be tightened, expanded, enlivened. Decide on the shape – set of short sharp scenes? Short then long? Linger and wait then punch? This sense of rhythm in the run of scenes can best be done away from the detail of close writing. This scene scoping work before you get too bogged down with dialogue and description will help you save your best writing for the right moment… and it’ll give you something to work on if another bit seems to be flagging.

So, back to the storyboard….

It is a hard thing to go back to the basics of something you thought you’d mastered, but a picking apart of a work, a defining of scenes and a plan of how to assess, perfect and rebuild, this could save your project.

There is a classic scenario which most obviously hits language learners and the learners of musical instruments, but which wreaks equal damage on amateur writers. It’s what teachers come across as false beginners. More precisely it’s the person who’s self-taught, or who has learnt in the field or just picked it up as they went along. It’s not just the grandiose and the egotistic. It’s also the nervous and the fearful. Keep going blindly on, keep writing, keep stretching filling the pages, keep your head pointed in this direction rather than look down and check if the path is right.

The problem with practitioners of this kind is not that they’re necessarily bad, the problem is that they cannot get any further without unlearning everything they depend on. Typing is another one. How may people get to a decent pace with their hunt-and-peck or unusal keyboard fingering. What if they now wanted to add an extra 40 words per minute? The problem for them is the same as for the strum-it-quick guitarist or the grammer-less language learner. To get any better they would have to join a beginners’ class in at least one of the key areas of the disipline. And by now they are too adept at getting by, too skilled at making do. Getting any better is impossible because un-learning is impossible. Getting better is impossible because going back-to-basics is just too demoralising.

Writing projects are not so different. Eventually you can get to a point where you’d rather keep tinkering with a shapeless mass of words than pull it apart and check what’s wrong with the fundamentals. Try it though.

The mastery of any craft is the gradual reassembly of root elements, each one known, understood and perfected. The exploration of the furthest reaches of the discipline can only come with this craftsmanly depth of understanding, a flow of expertise that depends on the engrained skills and their usage unencumbered by awareness. Eventually all those basics will be second-nature. To get to that stage take everything apart if you have to, keep checking, keep making sure. Be prepared to ask, how good am I? Am I perhaps just good enough at this to impress those few people who aren’t? Or could I be really good? Good enough to be proud of myself? What do I have to do to get there.

Like a great chef checking whether potato fries best at 169 or 170ºC, checking that each basic element is absolutely spot on, this is the key to a successful dish.

I wish I’d learnt this sooner for myself. Eventually I’d had enough slaps around the face to get the message. Learning to write better – learning to do anything better – would probably need a back to square one approach. It would need a forceful rejection of what seemed engrained and obvious. It would need a separation of elements into their constituent parts. It would need the perfecting of each element and then the gradual pacing back out from the most solidly erected base camp…. it was too late, maybe. There’s only some much rebuilding of base camps you’re prepared to do, just as there’s only so much beginners’ grammar or beginners’ scales passages you’re prepared to do if you can already chat to señoritas and strum them a swift song.

Never mind.

With a brave sense that it’s better to be journeying than just to sit by the side of the road, take a good look at what you’ve written. Check where the scenes are and check what can make them better.

Booklist for writers of scenes

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing