Fiction Writing Essentials: Avoid Scene Pitfalls

All fiction is constructed of scenes, including novels, movies, and TV shows. So, getting to grips with scenes is the foundation of fiction writing.

Every novel you write has a certain number of scenes. Even if you hate outlining, the number of scenes gives you a clue to the action at various points in your novel.

I know that many new authors struggle with scenes.

If this sounds like you, read on. We’ll start with what a scene is, as opposed to narrative.

Think of scenes/ narrative like this:

  • Scenes: the “show” in show and tell;
  • Narrative: straightforward telling.

You need both scenes and narrative in your novel.

Fiction writing: what’s a “scene?”

A scene is a unit of action. It takes place in real time: it’s happening NOW.

In a way, a scene is a microcosm of your fiction. A scene has rising action, a climax of some kind, and a conclusion. Important: something happens in a scene — something changes.

Scenes can be short or long.

This might be an entire scene: “He tried the door. It was locked.”

Or, a scene might be 4,000 words in length.

Most authors aim for a certain number of words in an average scene, depending on the genre they’re writing.

Assuming that in a novel your average scene length is 1500 words, you need around:

  • 7 scenes for a short story: 10,000 words
  • 27 scenes for a novella: 40,000 words
  • 60 scenes for a novel: 90,000 words

A rough guide to the number of scenes you need

Show and tell: scenes and narrative

As we’ve said, scenes are showing; narrative is telling.

For example…

(Scene) When Jane entered the tiny cafe, she spotted David and Cheryl at once. She inhaled deeply, trying to get her breath.

(Narrative) After dropping the kids off at school, Jane decided to stop for a cup of coffee. Then she saw Denise’s car and headed home instead.

Now let’s look at a couple of scene pitfalls.

1. Scenes speed up your story’s pace: slow down occasionally

Some authors write primarily in scenes, and their followups: short sequels.

A scene is drama: action. Readers can’t flip the pages fast enough; they’re engrossed.

Your viewpoint character has a goal for the scene; at the end of the scene, he’s failed to achieve that goal. Alternatively, he achieves that goal, but something else goes wrong.

Whatever happens in the scene, it’s followed by the scene’s sequel: your character taking stock for a moment, and deciding what to do next.

The trouble with writing fiction (whether short stories or novels), is that if your story is a continuous up and down process of scene and sequel, your story can lose energy. This happens even though your story’s moving quickly.

Readers sense that they’re being manipulated. They don’t like it, because they’re taken out of the story.

In your first draft therefore, hew to scene/ sequel, but in the next draft, add something more. This “more” can be backstory, juicing up some scenes — it’s up to you.

If your beta readers tell you that they loved your story, but… and then can’t explain what the “but” is, because your story seems perfect on the surface, that may be the problem. It’s all surface; you need to dig deeper.

2. To cut flabby scenes, ask yourself what CHANGES in a scene

When you’re revising, after your first draft, look at your scenes with a cold eye and heart. Ask yourself, for each scene, what CHANGES HERE?

If nothing much changes, and you say to yourself: “But my character’s walking his dog in the park: I need the scene because it shows that even though he’s a billionaire, he’s just a normal guy at heart.” Or you say: “But I need this scene. This character is murdered half way through the novel; no one will care if they don’t get to know him…”

In both instances above, the writer will be 100% correct. The scene works, and it’s needed: highlight the character’s change.

Your dog-walking billionaire sees a bunch of kids playing in a sandpit, and realize that he wants his own children — that’s a change.

The murder victim may realize that he knows something related to one of the other characters in your story: that’s a change too.

If you always ensure that something dramatic happens in a scene — something changes — your scene works, and readers will be happy to keep reading.

When you’re comfortable with scenes writing fiction becomes easier.

Happy writing. 🙂


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