I’ve been taking the scenic route again. One thing I’ve found more helpful than it ought to be is to accept that ‘scenes’ can be meaningful in the novel as well as the play and screenplay – whatever ‘scene’ is and we’ll come to that in a moment.

It’s a fact of my own practice, though, that once I’d accepted the idea of scene and how it can focus a passage of writing, I realised there was a strong chance that any slackness in the dramatic thrust of the work can quickly be put down to a poor scene.

There are a lot of poor scenes in first draft novels. Bad scenes – non scenes – flat scenes… One reason for this is to do with the old chestnut that has preoccupied me throughout this blog. Novelists don’t like the trappings of the screenplay trade. Novelists like ‘voice’ they like ‘word’ they like character. Novelists like psychological tension and complex internalised brooding. They like slow pace and the see-saw between showing and telling. They hate ‘scenes’. They hate all that associated scenic scaffolding that underpins success for the mass-audience screen industries.

Yet it is ‘scenes’, in a very theatrical sense, that make up many of the most memorable chunks of favourite novels. Scenes are a dramatic unit, of course, and a scene shouldn’t be confused with a setting, To my own lists for regular examination I’ve recently added Sergeant Troy’s sabre wielding and Eustacia Vye’s twilight bantering from Hardy, Austen’s Mansfield Park theatricals, her P&P dance, Jeanette Winterson’s school scene with Sister Virtue in OANTOF, Hornby’s Quiz questioning in Fever Pitch, the Cricket matches in Fry’s The Liar or LP Hartley’s Go Between and certainly anything by converted screen writers like David Nicholls.

Even if you reject the practice, it’s important to recognise what a scene is and to make the most of one as it begins to suggest its place in your novel.

But what is a ‘scene’?

The best definitions of scenes, like it or not, come from playwrights. Scene is something that imposes itself much more readily on structure in theatre and film – it chimes with the audience’s consciousness of place and time, a contained unit of physical activity. A scene is more clearly a something when we talk theatre, and cinema is a short step away.

Historically, however, the English novel is rooted in epistolary practices rather than the stage drama, and this leads to obvious differences in approach. Technique at the arty end of prose writing tends to eschew scenic structure in favour of tensions between word groups and spidering psycho-dynamic evolution. I even reckon some scenes in novels only seem like scenes after they’ve had a film or play treatment – as we can see from films like Mrs Dalloway or Ulysses.

Yet it’s useful to reflect on what a consciousness of scene can do. Thinking in scenes brings a focus on contained environment, characters meeting for dramatic reasons, dialogue and action that has progress, dynamism and a shift in tensions. For the dramatist who has to haul their players into a space – real or imaginary – for a finite timeframe, the drama is driven by the act of creating scenic unity, the containment and the resultant tension. It is the scene that proves the dramatist’s best method for building dramatic tension.

This is not always how chapters or paragraphs are driven, and sometimes, perhaps, they should be – for their own good.

Scene shifting and the writer’s idle drift

Scenes – and its important that this means a unit of drama rather than a block of prose – attract attention and live long in the memory. They can be any length – any percentage of a chapter. Yet as novelists we can end up with scenes that fail to work in the way that dramatic scenes should. Sometimes this can be because the writer is not aware that they have a scene or because they are purposefully rejecting the notion of scenes.

Often a scene has emerged not through conscious, artful dramatic building but instead has crept up on us unawares. It’s common to find a scene has developed and been quickly killed flat through what I think of as my “writers’ idle drift’. They appear something like this – writer knows that there are ten pages needed before the crucial pivot action is delivered, ten pages of time need to pass in order to have too sudden a leap since the last main action. So what to do? Needs some build up, bit of tease, bit of foreshadowing? Or maybe now’s the time to make sure everyone’s fully aware of the troubled childhood of the character; or the grand philosophy of life from the point of view of the antagonist…. Or, while we’re wondering, look,  there’s a handy table for the characters to sit at, great, and they need some descriptive dressing of the  shadowy bar and there’s some menacing extras at a distant table and… they can talk…. and I’ve got some beef to get off my chest so one of them says that and then they keep talking… about…

It’s a horrible but common trap – a ‘scene’ becomes a place to bring characters rather than a unit of drama. This is especially true if our characters start gaining a life of their own. If we’re not careful they begin not to understand their place as fictions but instead become friends and enemies, lovers or dopplegangers. Soon, instead of functioning within a framework of drama, the characters are suddenly having quiet cups of coffee together, sharing a silence over a pint, yarning about their troubled weekends, playing unnecessary sports. Characters are soon running the show, having a gossip while you wonder what they’ll be up to later. They’re not part of a dramatic scene, they’re just there and you’re building the atmosphere around them and just hoping it’s a scene.

It’s essential to check first drafts for failed scenes, non-scenes, accidental scenes. To get myself to focus on these I put together a quick check list. This practice probably isn’t for everyone, but it’s a handy class exercise for you to invent your own system of ladders to get out of holes. Here’s what I ended up with as a first go:

Checklist for dramatic scenes

  • A charged environment. Some environments are naturally ‘charged’ and it’s important that they’re charged with expectation and potential rather than just noise or lights or gloom. Weather alone does not a charged atmos make. What’s charged about the environment here and how can that develop through the scene?
  • Conflict. The usual first request of any scenic endeavour. Opinion on this is often extreme and says “no scene without conflict”. It’s certainly difficult to make sympathetic, patient explanations work for you in terms of gaining interest from a reader who could put the book down at any second. What dynamic is there that pits one will against another. In other words what does one character want and how is that want being prevented. Is there any conflict in the scene? If it’s not open conflict is there a sense of tense expectation and an aim to achieve.
  • Unanswered questions. A staple from basic literary theory. What question is being asked at any given point and how long are we likely to wait for the answer? We could be waiting for explanation, or detail or the why and what that will fill out the theme.
  • Unresolved action. The other staple. If you’re trotting out a sluggish scene, is there something before it that we should be waiting for? Something as simple as a hovering fist or a lover doubting the next kiss can be enough to lift the flagging dialogue.
  • Change. Meaningful change, that’s another thing that everyone feels should be part of the whole work but often fails to be built into the individual scenes. Have a go. What change has taken place over the two or three pages you’re dealing with. Growth, realisation, disillusion. If it’s a scenic scene then how does this change, what steps what patterns of focus – how is this made meaningful? What swings have you established between high moods and low moods, positive values and negative ones, seeming success and seeming failure.
  • Beats/Steps. A movement towards a known goal.  A movement away from that goal. A shift of power from one character to another. A change from low to high mood, pessimism to optimism. A shift of pace in terms of change. – these all count towards a beat planning – beats make scenes – and again it might seem a bit screenplay and rigid but its amazing how much more effective a passage can be if it’s scenically viable in these terms.

Is my scene a scene?

One to answer for yourself and evolve what a scene usefully is for your practice. Basically, though, does your scene contribute to an ever strengthening set of reasons to keep reading?  It’s  worth asking yourself the question at any point – could I put this book down? What’s making me want the next parcel of information? What’s up in the air? When will the secrets be revealed? Will it go in that direction or the other? What if these people don’t move on?  Of course if you over-dramatise these elements then the cliffhanger effect can skew your attempts at subtlety, but at  every dramatic unit – scene –  think what is shifting ground, moving, threatening to change.