NaNoWriMo #27: How to Optimize Your Scenes

Two words have filtered from the computer programming world into the lexicon of writing fiction.  Three if you count the word architecture, which the pioneering computer geeks actually borrowed to describe programming in a design context.

The two words are paradigm, and optimize.  Ironically, it is architecture that programmers — and writers — seek to optimize.  As for paradigm, the framework of givens and expectations that put a fence around a task or element… that’s either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on which paradigm one works from.

Republicans and Democrats… different political paradigms.  Fiction and non-fiction, different at every level.  Planning and pantsing… not as different as you’d think (both are a search for story), but regarded as different process paradigms.

To optimize is to work toward making something the very best it can be, given it’s use, context and mission.  The latter caveat is critical to incorporate into one’s understand of the goal of optimization.  Sometimes a whisper is the optimal corrective tool, sometimes it’s a two-by-four… so context is critical to this understanding.

If you don’t completely know where a story is going, there is absolutely no way you can optimize your scenes.  Any writer who claims they can is… unpublished.  Trust me, there was a honkin’ rewrite in there somewhere.

This is even more applicable, and true, when it comes to writing scenes in a novel.

Scene construction and execution is the make-or-break skillset of storytelling.  You can plan like a mad genius, but if you can’t execute scenes at a professional level then your all that planning collapses in a heaving mass of unfulfilled intention

Planning is the creation of an architecturally-sound blueprint… scene writing is hammers and nails and drywall, assembled with the touch of a master craftsman instead of, well, an architect in a bad suit.  As writers, we need to study and master — to optimize — both realms of skill.

This is why scene writing is one of the essential Six Core Competencies…

… it’s worthless without a contextual mission and plan… yet essential to the successful execution of one.

To complicate matters, there are different species (categories) of scenes, with differing missions and therefore discreet forms. 

Opening scenes read differently than mid-part expositional scenes… which are different than milestone scenes… which are again different from scenes with unique and vital roles in a story (like flashbacks, behind-the-curtain cutaways, first-person reflections, etc.).  To a great extent these differences are defined by an understanding of the four different contextual realms of a story (which go a long way toward defining the context of the scenes within them), and what happens just before and after a given scene.

I’d like to share a few tips about scene writing…

… all in context to the bigger picture of understanding the nuances of story architecture as described here in this series, on my site, and in my book (among many other excellent sources out there).  In other words, learning to write scenes is like learning how to land an airplane… it’s just one essential aspect of the overall process… it only works in context to operating an airplane in general (landing is a sub-set of a whole)… which in turn isn’t possible without competence in multiple skillsets and realms, all in context to the phyics of aerodynamics, navigation and weather.

It could be argued that you can’t really write an optimized scene until you’ve planned one, and you can’t plan one until you understand the Big Picture of your story.  The first thing that breaks down in a pantser’s pre-discovery, still-searching-for-the-story draft is, in fact, the scenes themselves.  They ramble, they have soft focus or unclear purpose, or if they do, they may not connect to a forward-moving spine (plot exposition and character arc).

One step at a time… we’ll get there. 

We are learning aspects of a process, and the process either works as a whole, or it doesn’t work at all.  It can’t.  A great scene in a flat story is a failure… and a flat scene in a great story is, well… it’s not optimized.  And it should be. 

First… the most important point of view, the most critical essence, of any scene is this: the author understand’s the scene’s’ MISSION.  It’s purpose in the flow of narrative exposition, which by definition includes its placement.  The primary piece of new information it puts out there.  And, the use of continuing characteriztion, sub-text and story context with which it is imbued.

A scene that is just characterization,, with nothing added to the exposition… not good.  Not optimized.  When you add a piece of narrative exposition to that characterization… now the scene has a mission.

Think of each scene as a frame in a PowerPoint presentation. 

Such slides are it, with the narrative window dressing left to the speaker.  It delivers the point.  The bottom line.  The next step.  The necessary chunk of sequence to build a whole message.

That mission, and that point, comprise what your beat sheet seeks to define for your scene.  Nothing more, at least at first.  Later you can grow your beat sheet bullet into a narrative/creative description, but the core of it consists of mission and point.

Begin planning each scene with that simplicity, that clarity. 

Ask yourself: what does this scene need to accomplish?  Why is it here?  How does it propel the story forward?  What about it is interesting, comes off with emotional resonance?  What is the conflict within this scene?  The sub-text? What is the star of this seeking seeking to accomplish? 

How can I use the scene to embellish character, and how can I use the character to add to the scene?

Then, decide where to take it from there. 

Sometimes a key moment within a story calls for a major scene, a microcosmic drama that stands alone as a chunk of dramatic power.  Big moments call for big scenes.  Other times it’s in and out, quick and clear.  You get to make that call… but in either case, your scenes work best — they are optimized — when conceived and then executed from a mission-driven perspective.

Once you get that down — you know the mission for each scene — the next step is to, in effect, conceive a creative treatment (approach) for the scene.  One that makes it as effective — scary, dramatic, multi-faceted, mysterious, impactful, sexy…. whatever it needs to be — to best fulfill it’s mission.  This, too, is the art of it… an intuitive feel for what type of creative treatment is indeed optimal.

The more you understand about the Big Picture of your story, and the principles that prop it up, the quicker and closer you’ll come to that intuitive creative solution.

Once there… apply these principles to your creative treatment for each scene:

Enter your scene at the last possible moment.  This can only happen if you do, in fact, understand the mission of the scene, and have defined the single kernel of essential exposition it delivers to the reader.

Is the set-up of the scene necessary?  Is there extraneous chit-chat, character greetings, side conversations? Is there gratuitious characterization, unnecessary backstory?  Are descriptions of places and people required to get the point (the mission) across? 

The deeper you go into a story, the less minutiae in this regard there should be. 

Even then, don’t describe things that don’t need describing, stuff that the reader can intuitively understand (don’t describe how a coffee maker looks, even when coffee is being served in a scene). 

Get to the point.  Get to it.  Less is more.

James Patterson is a master at this.  So is Connelly, and most of the other genre superstars.  If your story leans to the more literate and character-driven, these rules still apply, but with a different veneer.  If your words don’t reveal and connect to a mission, to a purpose, then chances are they should be economized or re-thought.

Make your scenes microcosms of dramatic theory. 

They have a set-up (often done with prior context), a confrontation, and a resolution.  Sometimes the elements can be implied and not shown, that’s your call.  Just know that overwriting of scenes is a deal killer, a pace-sucker, and that less really is more.  Give the reader credit for the ablity to make leaps, explain only what requires explaining.

End your scenes with a cut-and-thrust moment that propels the reader forward into the following scene. 

And, to go back to Writing 101… show, don’t tell.  When you can.  This is a flexible rule that needs to be applied artfully.  But don’t show everything… because everything doesn”t need to be told.


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12 Responses to NaNoWriMo #27: How to Optimize Your Scenes

  1. Pingback: NaNoWriMo #27: How to Optimize Your Scenes – endtimesprophecyblogs

  2. Please tell me you are planning to put all these NaNoWriMo posts into an ebook we can buy next year. I’ll probably have an ereader by then. 😀

  3. Lorien

    Less than 5 hours before I read this I put a sticky note on my desktop that says SHOW DON’T TELL!

  4. This is amazing. Thank you so much. New follower – can’t wait to see what else is in store.

  5. Excellent post. Scene optimization is vital in any genre, but most especially in historical fiction, when people want to be transported to another time and place. The accuracy is the most important aspect of historical fiction.

  6. @terri patrick I’m with you! It would be great to have these all in an eBook in time for NaNo next year. Thanks Larry for all the awesome posts/info.

  7. The reference to PowerPoint slides is excellent. We business-background folk have (hopefully) long known that PPT works best when it’s lean and mean — no 25 bullet points at 8 pt. Comic Sans, please.

    Less is more when it comes to scenes.

  8. Thanks for this post. I think it’ll help keep me focused on making my scenes the best they can be in a few days when Nanowrimo begins. Also, I agree with terri. A book with all of these Nano tips would be awesome!

  9. Pingback: NaNo LotD 27: How To Optimize Your Scenes | barb rude's blog

  10. Love the idea of using PowerPoint slides. Also wonder if the Dems and Repubs (and all voters) understand the differences in their paradigms?

    Great stuff as always, thanks Larry.

  11. Pingback: Brian Wethington » Archive » NaNoWriMo Guide

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