An Empowering Perspective on Writing Scenes That Work

Having viewed four movies in four days, I am reminded of the learning (for novelists) that is avaiable there.  In particular, the art and craft of defining and shaping scenes, which are the building blocks of dramatic narrative.

Novelists too easily, and too often, don’t regard scenes for what they are: the delivery of story.  Novelists get to fill pages with expository backfull and transition, forgetting that these are placeholders for scenes and, therefore, just as critical to pace and exposition.  And that the scenes we do write are defined not by our words as much as they are by what happens in them.

Consider how scenes in movies are created, — they aren’t written and then shot — and how this differs from the process  novelists use. 

Just this morning Jeffrey Deaver spoke to this in a feature in our local daily (he’s coming here for a signing at The Poisoned Pen, the top gig in the book signing world) — movies are written by committee.  Of course, novels aren’t… but perhaps, if we’re seeking ways to be better, we should look at how the film process in this regard might add value to what we do, especially when it comes to scene writing.

Maybe we should write our scenes by committee… a committee of one, with multiple perspectives and focuses on how the scene is set, staged, written, acted and edited.  Instead of just splashing it onto the page within the flow of our creative momentum and then moving on.

Each scene should be viewed as an opportunity to tell a story within a story.  Something driven by an expository mission, and interpreted by readers as the sum of many interactive forces comingling toward an outcome.

Long before cameras roll, each and every scene in a film has been vetted and molded by several specialists. 

The screenwriter, of course, who creates the bones of the scene and determines the expository goal.  Then the director, to make sure it works within the big picture, that it’s shootable and won’t bust the budget (and — this one being very important to novelists — to make sure the writer hasn’t created a sidetrip, an agenda or has lost track of the spine of the story).  Then the set designer, to make it beautiful or scary of whatever is required, in collaboration with the cinematographer.  Then the actors, to make sure the lines ring true to the character and the unspoken context speaks volumes. 

Then, during shooting, everyone is on their toes to adjust things.  Because what’s on paper, even after all this input, may yield to a better idea.  Something to speed things up, deepen tension and texture, add to characterization, tweak the lighting, adjust the wardrobe, assure continuity.

And then, it all comes together in the editing bay (theirs are catered, ours aren’t.  Here’, everything is subjected to another round of analysis… trimming here, adding music and sound effects there, maybe cutting the dang thing out of the story altogether.

That’s often a good option for us, too.

Imagine what we could do, as a committe of one, if we viewed our scenes with this level of detail and creative standards?

Our scenes are the intersection of our intentions and our effectivness.  And you know what they say about best intentions — if the moment falls short, none of the planning means a thing.

Take another look, ask yourself if the scene you’ve planned — or even better, the scene you’ve written — is the best scene it could be… or if you should listen to another voice. 

In our case, it’ll come from within, and it might just be right.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

9 Responses to An Empowering Perspective on Writing Scenes That Work

  1. Hmm…writing scenes to deliver a purpose…

    I’ll have to think about that a little more. And rest my eyes from the computer.

  2. Not a bad post, Larry, I’ve been working on this over the last few months as I’ve read through all these new narrative structure books (yours included) and tried to synthesise things as I start writing my novel. This is the scene checklist I’ve come up with so far, top to bottom, maybe it helps someone else:

    – Scene’s mission, job in the story
    – Reader emotion from A > B + finds out C
    – setting, physical elements/objects
    – time, time of day, urgency, lighting
    – sounds, smells, tactile sensations
    – characters
    – X is trying to do 1
    – is opposed by Y, who wants to do 2
    – character words, emotions, thoughts, movements/actions, reactions
    – POV, focus, shifts
    – scene opening
    – scene development I
    – turning point
    – scene development II
    – scene ends on
    – and opens up a gap, the question of ??

  3. Hi Larry,
    Thanks for a great post. I love movies and often I end up really liking some that get negative reviews. One example is John Carter, which apparently did so badly in the USA that the head of Disney resigned over it. (However, abroad the Russians loved it!) It is an exciting movie; lots of action; a story that, while complex, did not lose me or itself as it unfolded; great effects; humour and pathos; a cute (alien/Martian) dog creature that stole every scene in which it appeared; interesting relationships; and a really surprise but fantastic ending, leaving the story open to more of John Carter’s exploits. I wondered about the bad reviews when to me it captured what we are all seeking … an audience’s undivided attention! Movies can teach us a lot. I won’t mention Prometheus, which wins the 2012 Award for Plot With Holes So Big You Can Drive a Truck (I mean Spaceship) Through.

  4. This post can go in an editor’s arsenal, too. 🙂 Thanks, Larry, for the added ammo.

    I like your list, Matthew. I suggest adding tastes and sights to your “sounds, smells, tactile sensations” to round it out.

    Good luck with your writing.

  5. John Nicholas

    Hey Larry,

    Out of curiosity, what were the four movies you watched?

    Excellent tip!


  6. Thanks Nann, of course, hadn’t followed all the way through with that thought, well done!

    Am juggling quite a lot of things at the minute but still on target to get the first couple of draft chapters up for people to read by the end of the week or perhaps the end of the first week in July.

  7. I really like this idea, passing it on to our authors! 🙂 And thank you for the list, Matthew Bennett.

  8. Hope you find it useful, Jaesi!

    I think you can break down the conflict bit a little more too, into conflicting subgroups that work their way towards each other over the course of the scene, but also within each little subgroup as the scene develops.

    In my first scene, for example, I have a tourist family and a small group of anarchists bent on destruction converging on a petrol station, which is clearly going to culminate in something bad. But within the tourist family, as they make there way towards the petrol station, the husband is in conflict with the wife over what to do and how best to do it; and within the anarchist group, the members are more carefree and wantonly destructive than the leader, who is more aware of the consequences.

    This is the first time I’ve tried something like this, but the structural stuff has really helped and what I’ve scribbled down seems to fit the theory at least.

  9. Loyd Jenkins

    I came across something for rewriting scenes. It made me think of your scene mission. You should be able to list the objective for your scene. The secondary objective for the scene. He said that movies should have two minor objectives below that, but you probably don’t need that for novels. I don’t know about that.