A fellow critique partner writing a novel asked, why do we have to write in scenes? After all, as long as the information is on the page, why does it matter whether it’s in a “scene”, with characters thinking, speaking, acting in a particular place and time, or in paragraphs of straight prose. Taken aback, I gave her a short and truthful, if silly answer: because it’s a convention of English language fiction.
A short and truthful answer, because writing in scenes has been a convention of English language fiction, actually, almost any long-form prose such as novels, memoirs and creative nonfiction, for at least the past couple of centuries. But a silly answer because it didn’t address why the convention arose in the first place. Or why it really matters, whether it results in publication or not.
A story written in scenes is the closest we can humanly get to being inside the mind of another person. And longing to know how others, other human beings, feel and think and why they do the things they do, goes to the core of being human. Living as a human being means living in a particular place, with particular people, particular actions, particular thoughts, in real time. We don’t live in, can’t live in, whether we’d like to or not, an exposition-only world.
Given the importance of scenes, I was surprised when I reviewed my bookshelves without finding any books dedicated to writing scenes. Fortunately, there is quite a lot of discussion about scenes deep inside books about writing the things scenes comprise – novels and screenplays.
“A good plot is about disturbance to characters’ inner and outer lives. Scenes are what we use to illustrate and dramatize those disturbances,” novelist/writing instructor James Scott Bell writes in his Plot & Fiction. “Scenes are the essential building blocks of plot.”
Like the plot that they’re a subunit of, scenes need at least one character, a setting (time and place), and a disturbance. To paraphrase Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, scenes as well as novels have a protagonist, an ordinary world, and an inciting incident. What they lack, at least until the novel nears its conclusion is, well, a conclusion. And very often, the disturbance or inciting incident of one scene will have occurred in the previous scene, so that scene after scene links together, each depending on, but deepening what has gone before.
I’ve found that I learn as much from reading books I love – and looking more closely at why I love them – than from reading about them. So I looked at an early scene from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, with neighborhood gossip Rachel Lynde at her window, spying reclusive neighbor Matthew Cuthbert, who had earlier expressed his intention of planning his turnip seed that afternoon, instead “placidly driving over the hollow and up the hill. . . . Now where was Matthew Cuthbert going and why was he going there?”
Mrs. Lynde devotes the remainder of the scene (indeed, the entire chapter) to solving the riddle of Matthew’s strange behavior, only to learn things that will astonish her still further, continuing until the book’s end.
That opening scene ends with Rachel Lynde, having teased out the reason for Matthew’s journey, to bring home an orphan to help with his farm work, and asserting “I wouldn’t be in that orphan’s shoes for anything.” And so the story goes.
For more suggestions about scenes and their structure, I like “How to Write a Scene” by John August, posted September 21, 2015, on The Writer’s Circle magazine’s Facebook page, and “Make Your Scenes Earn Their Way” by Brooke Warner on SheWrites. I’ve posted both of these on my own Facebook page as well as Writer’s Circle’s September 15, 2015, Facebook post entitled, “Chapter Breaks,” for suggestions on scene endings.