A reader asked why I focus on scenes when writing fiction. It’s a good question, because there are many reasons.
“Because I’m lazy,” I said. Although I meant it as a joke, it’s nevertheless true.
Life’s too short to bend your brain writing a lot of material you’ll toss away in revision. When you focus on scenes, you leave out the boring stuff: readers turn the pages faster.
Think of scenes as the building blocks of your fiction.
Writing fiction: build your novel, block by block
Each scene is like a little play. Your characters are on stage, acting in a drama which takes place in real time.
Writing in scenes makes plotting much easier. Your characters are acting and reacting, being themselves. Their actions set the foundations for future actions. You don’t need to label your characters, you allow a reader to make up his own mind about each character.
Generations of readers, over two centuries, have read Pride and Prejudice with pleasure. Jane Austen wrote the novel dramatically; she relied on her scenes. The Victorian novelists writing after Jane Austen could have learned from her elegant prose. (Here’s a link to the novel’s text.)
Austen begins the second chapter of Pride and Prejudice, like this:
Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid she had no knowledge of it. It was then disclosed in the following manner.
The entire chapter is one scene — if you’re not sure how scenes work, read that chapter.
Let’s look at some reasons to write in scenes.
1. Outlines almost create themselves, when you focus on your scenes
Scenes are action; they’re the “showing” of your novel.
Your characters act out your scenes, so even if you’re a new fiction author, you’ll automatically write drama. When you do, you avoid the most common pitfall of a new novelist: telling (narrative), rather than showing.
As you may know, I’m by nature a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants), rather than a keen outliner. If you’re a pantser too, outlines need hold no terrors for you if you focus on your scenes.
Scenes lead to additional scenes.
Let’s say you’re a pantsing author. You’ve decided to write a mystery. As many mystery authors do, you begin with the discovery of a body: when you begin writing, that’s all you know.
You write the scene. A dog walker has found the body of a handsome young man… That’s scene 1. While writing this scene, another scene occurs to you.
(This will be scene 2.) A woman’s seeing her children onto the school bus when a police car pulls up. Who’s the woman? Who’s in the police car?
When you write scene by scene, outlines magically grow, even for pantsers. Try it.
2. Scenes require action, so you’ll automatically develop your characters
Getting back to Pride and Prejudice, Austen ends Chapter 1 with a final paragraph which begins with this sentence:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.
The sentence above labels Mr Bennet. If Austen had left it at that, that would weaken the novel. However, in the very next scene (Chapter 2) Austen proves to readers that her label is accurate.
Take a tip from Austen: prove that your characters are as you say they are in your scenes.
When you write in scenes, your characters reveal themselves to readers.
3. (Most importantly) Scenes help you to write page-turner novels readers love
One of your biggest challenges is keeping readers reading. You want to write a page-turner of a novel which sells. That will happen when you become familiar with emotions and how to write them.
When you write fiction, you basically have two ways of telling your stories: narrative (telling) and scenes (showing.)
No matter how exciting your story, if you tell, tell, and tell some more, you’ll kill your story stone dead. Readers don’t want to be told: they want to experience. Your scenes do that: they give readers experiences.
Writing fiction in scenes makes revision easier too
I’ve been revising a novel over the past few days. By the time I’d finished this novel, I was worried. I hated it… Was the novel as awful as I expected?
A couple of weeks after sending it to my beta readers, I was relieved. All their comments were favorable. Still sceptical, I started revising… And hey, it’s not only readable, I’m enjoying it too and the revision’s going quickly.
So, if you’re writing a novel and you’re convinced it’s trash, complete it. Ensure that you’re writing in scenes. With any luck at all, you’ll be proved wrong: the novel will be just fine.
Happy writing. 🙂
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Copywriter and marketing pro Angela Booth maintains a busy copywriting and ghostwriting practice. Fascinated by online marketing, she wrote one of the first business books for internet marketing, published by Allen & Unwin. She’s been an enthusiastic blogger since the late 1990s.