How to write a book

Masterclass snapshots: why it helps to construct your novel in scenes

guardian classWriting in scenes - Nail Your NovelHere’s another great discussion from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass.

What is a scene? And why does it matter to know that?

Those in the know will probably all have their own slightly different way to define a scene, but this is mine. I think of a scene as the smallest unit of a story’s events.

Like a scene in a movie, a scene in a novel will be confined within a location, or a set of characters. But not necessarily. A scene might cover a number of locations, characters and times if it’s a linking sequence, such as a journey or a flashback or a chunk of back story. So I find the most helpful, graspable definition is to think of it as a step in the storyline, or the reader’s understanding.

Why does it help to think about this?

It helps the writer break the book into manageable chunks – if you construct your novel from scenes you can think more easily about finding the optimum order for the emphasis you want. If you use a revision tool like my beat sheet (in Nail Your Novel),  you can easily control the plot.

Writing in scenes helps the reader too. If you indicate the change to a new scene by a line break ,the reader will subconsciously think ‘I’ll just read to the end of this…’ which is your opportunity to build to a nice interesting change so they have to gobble up another. So scenes offer the reader a break… and then reel them right back in. Which is nifty.

Look for change So this leads us to another vital quality of scenes. Each one should move the story on in some way. It might be big or small, but by the end of the scene, something will have changed. Indeed a scene usually has a beginning, a middle and end – like a microcosm of a balanced story. Indeed, change is one of the four Cs of a great plot – curiosity, change, crescendo and coherence (more on that here).

So you should think of your novel as a movie, right?  

Not necessarily. If you’re writing a genre piece, it will usually be like a movie in book form – a sequence of discrete scenes. But this might not suit you if your style is more internal, more of a continuous experience in the mind of a character. After all, real life doesn’t occur in packages; it’s a stream. Even so, for the purposes of using your material effectively and controlling the pace, it helps to build in scenes, even if you have to create artificial breaks in the prose. You can segue them together later on, in the editing stage.

But this is obvious. Why even mention it?

Ho ho. The scenes question is like most fundamentals of writing. Some writers grasp it instinctively and never give it a thought. Others don’t – and find it helpful to have it explained. Which are you? And has it helped to think about what a scene does?

Thanks for the pic seda yildirim


18 thoughts on “Masterclass snapshots: why it helps to construct your novel in scenes

  1. I need reminders. I get lost in writing a stream of words and wander sometimes. The shortest definition of a scene is a memo I need to have on a card tacked to my computer screen. Scenes are our building blocks. Writers of novels can be like bricklayers; sometimes we forget to examine the individual bricks before setting them in concrete.

  2. I was mostly a linear writer when I used Word, and my stories tended to ramble all over the place [did I mention I’m also a pantster nybrid?]

    That all changed when I started using StoryBox [dedicated novel writing software similar to Scrivener]. StoryBox is as much database and project manager as wordprocessor, so all of your actual writing occurs in scenes which are grouped together in chapters which make up the body of the ‘project’. Thus, instead of writing reams of ‘connecting’ tissue to get from one point in the story to another, I now just write the scene that is crystal clear in my head and worry about connecting it to the rest of the story later. Better still, that restructuring is dead easy, making it much less likely that I’ll throw my hands up in the air and think ‘gah, too much effort, good enough as is’.

    I think far too many writers forget that structure is the real backbone of a story. Without it, even the loveliest prose will flounder.

    1. Nybrid or not (and I’m sure I’ve typed nybrid from time to time), I like your example here, Andrea! I haven’t seen an example of how StoryBox works, though I’d heard of it. Thanks for the demo.

  3. I can’t imagine writing any other way. To me, scenes are the building blocks of the story and they are essential to story structure. Every scene has structure and purpose. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Every ending does something to encourage the reader to keep going.

    I try to make my scenes perform multiple functions relating to character development and plot movement. In Scrivener, I have a scene template for the document notes section that prompts me to think about these aspects before I start writing the scene. I don’t always fill in every section, but here are the prompts:

    * Characters (a list of who is in the scene)
    * Description (a high-level description of what happens in the scene)
    * Rationale (why this scene exists in the story)
    * Conflict (the primary conflict of the scene)
    * Revealed (plot or character revelations)
    * Behind the Scene (notes on character motivations and/or connections to earlier/later scenes)
    * Preparation (research or anything else I need to do before writing the scene)
    * Revision Notes (things I think I should tweak during revision)

    I use Scrivener’s metadata to track a few other details that show up in the scene list (which functions as my beat sheet):

    * Scene Title
    * Synopsis (the scene’s “log line”)
    * POV Character Name
    * Location
    * Time Line (the date when the scene takes place)

    As for definitions, I think of a scene as being a significant story event that occurs during a continuous time span involving a single POV character. (I never switch POV within a scene.) A scene usually takes place at a single location as well, although that’s not always true if the characters are traveling.

    1. Daniel, you’ve managed another mini-post here! Thanks for your clear and exhaustive workings. The labels are useful – and indeed remind me of comments that programmers use. (Do they still use them? They did when friends were studying computing.)

    2. It depends on the programmer, but in a general sense, I’d say most of them comment their code in one way or another. As with most things, there are different theories and philosophies on the subject.

  4. If you’re aiming for stream of consciousness, which arguably is the highest form of internalized depiction in literature, then you’re going to want a blurring of edges between scenes. An event stirs a memory which in turn evokes a flashback which may lead to abstract reminiscences before returning to concrete reality, perhaps not to the original scene at all. An example would be Benjy’s narrative in The Sound & the Fury. (For those who don’t read, you can see a similarly scene-breaking style on show in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

    But… before Picasso could sell us cubism or the blue period, he had to learn how to draw. So I thoroughly agree that aspiring writers need to learn how to handle scenes and (even harder) the transition between them. Study Jane Austen before you try to emulate somebody like Faulkner.

  5. The value of building a novel by scenes is one reason why writing apps such as Scriverner beat the socks off Microsoft Word. With Scrivener you can write in short, scene-length segments and place those inside chapters. If you decide a particular scence needs moving, it’s a simple drag and drop not messy cutting and pasting.

    You can also tag scenes with keywords. If you want to see all the scenes where John is with Bill to see if their relationship flows, that’s quite easily done.

    There are versions for Macs and Windows with one for iPad and iPhone coming out this summer.

    1. Hi Michael! I didn’t know you could tag Scrivener scenes and search in that way. I do a similar thing on paper with my scenes, and find it no trouble to locate threads using Word’s Find feature. But I know Scrivener fans are very devoted to it. The key point is to be aware that it’s useful to think in that way, however you execute it. And I’m sure Scrivenerers will appreciate your tip.

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