1. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Style What is (a) Scene?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Andrae Smith, Mar 21, 2014.

    We hear it often enough, every story should be written in-scene. We talk about planning our scenes, building our stories in scenes, creating scene maps and so on, but It struck me that my idea of scene has changed a few times, and I'm left wondering what is a scene, literally.

    I've got a fair idea of what it means to write "in-scene," but for the sake of the thread and ll of us who could stand a better underststanding from those more learned than ourselves, what is writing in-scene?

    What is a scene as a parcel of the story? How long is it? How many scenes may you find in a chapter (I know this depends on the length of the chapter)?

    What progresses us from one scene to the next? Smaller "scenelets"? Exposition/narration?

    I've started this thread just to see how much information we can collect about what (a) scene is, how it works, how to move through scenes, and anything else about scenes that anyone would want to know. Any knowledge is appreciated, as are any additional questions.

    Thanks in advance! I know some writers here can provide excellent insight and/or point us to some valuable sources.
     
  2. JayG
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    JayG Banned Contributor

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    The view most popularly held is that a scene is a unit of tension. That's very different from a scene in film, which has to do with time and location.

    It's late and I'm tired, so instead of holding forth I'll suggest you look at this article. I talks about the basic structure of a novel, which is a series of concatenated and related scenes.

    But the short version is: the scene begins...things go wrong...they get worse...and worse. Then, before melodrama sets in we have a small "oh shit" moment when "run if you have any sense" (or its equivalent) ends the scene and gives reason to rethink, research, and restart.

    A scene can take a minute or a year, stay in a single room or travel parsecs. It can span multiple chapters or be part of one. What matters is the constantly growing tension we make the reader feel.
     
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  3. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Thanks @JayG. I never thought of a scene in terms of tension. In that light it's easy to see how a scene might end quickly or extend for longer "period" or beyond chapters.

    I have read the article you linked to, and I hope you would consider coming back some time when you have more energy (and time) to discuss that mechanics of a scene, at least briefly, as well as the motion between scenes. I've read an article you linked to before about scene and sequel, but I'm still not quite sure how to move between them.
     
  4. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I thoroughly recommend 'Scene and Structure' by Bickham. He goes into great lengths to explain the concept of the scene, how to tie scenes together into a coherent narrative and a lot more. Basically, the 'scene' is the unit of the story in which the protagonist (of that scene) has a goal, then he runs into a conflict of some sort, and experiences a setback (or disaster) at the end. It can also be a success, but a minor one, because we need to keep the ultimate goal out of their reach in order to have a story to tell in the first place. After the scene comes the sequel - the character has an emotional reaction to the setback, he thinks/contemplates it, makes a decision on what to do next and finally acts, which brings him back to goal, conflict and disaster etc.

    Every scene has to have a sequel related to it. It doesn't have to follow immediately, some scenes have to move onto other scenes because it isn't practical or plausible for a character to alway muse immediately after something happens, (for example, the scene ends with someone pulling a gun on the protag, he has to acquire a new goal immediately and act on it if he/she wants to stay alive) but you always need to follow it up at some point with the sequel, ie. emotional reaction, thought, decision and action or new goal. Some sequels can be as long as short stories, or as short as a sentence. But scenes and sequels string the narrative together. Scenes are more active, sequels are more internal monologue, they slow the pace down somewhat.

    One of the most effective ways to use the sequel is to pick up where that pov left off. So if you had a character in a scene, and then you wrote other pov's and scenes, and you want to pick up with this character where you left off, if you start that other chapter with a sequel to the last scene you had him in, the reader will immediately remember where it all left off. Readers subconsciously expect the stories to be told using scenes and sequels, it's a natural way to get the most out of your narrative, I think.
     
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  5. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    only sometimes, certainly not always...

    a scene can also be a romantic encounter...
    or
    a discovery by a character of something important, either to him/herself, while alone, or to/with others...
    or
    something odd that happens, perhaps as 'comic relief'..
    or
    a quiet moment of introspection for a character...
    or
    a party...
    or
    [fill in the blanks]
     
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  6. Siena
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    Siena Active Member

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    A unit of action.

    Around thereabouts.

    But what's interesting is the function and purpose of the scene. That's really where your answer lies.
     
  7. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I wish I knew. I like Bickham's Scene n' Structure but I feel like it's not enough or perhaps it's too much. Too organized, too cut and dried.

    I was reading this thriller the other day - a real page turner by Gloria Murphy - but it got to the point that everything became a problem. When people were disappearing and two girls needed to leave a note describing their whereabouts ( because they were going to the murderer's house ) I was like watch the secretary screw this up - because everything had gone wrong in the book ( hence the suspense. ) Sure enough the secretary goes to the washroom and doesn't get around to telling to boss about the note till much later. It works in a thriller but are scenes in drama's, things like Alice in Wonderland, great literature are they always so goal, hitch, disaster - should they be?

    I'm one to talk - often my scenes need tightening, but should they be tightened in such a deliberate way?
     
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  8. Ben414
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    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Exactly. That's why a story should use both of actual disaster and hinting at a mere chance of disaster. Everything doesn't need to go wrong, but you need the reader to think it could. Even if the character has a perfect life at the moment, the reader needs to feel that something could go wrong. Then, the character takes action to try to retain his perfect life, which creates the same tension one would expect out of actual disaster.
     
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  9. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @peachalulu : I always saw 'disaster' as simply either not achieving a goal, having a setback of some kind or even a small success but not enough to resolve the story question. And 'goal' can be anything, whether it's related to the story question or not. But in order to move the story forward, goals have to remain unfulfilled, or replaced by new goals. But I'm not a fan of everything going wrong in a story, it feels like lazy plotting to be honest, regardless of the genre.

    Also, I don't obsess about scene and sequel, but every time I find myself in a pickle, not knowing how to sort continuity out, or something seems 'off' and I don't know what, I resort to those simple techniques that give me the framework to string it all together more successfully.
     
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  10. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @jazzabel Even though I haven't read the book, what you've said matches what I've read online. I guess his book is worth reading for the mechanics of that sort of scene.

    I just can't help but shake the feeling, though that this consideration of a scene is somewhat one-note or formulaic. Surely not every scene is about something going wrong, or some problem being solved. I feel like repeating this over and over would get the story moving like a locomotive loaded with "and then ... and then ... and then ...."

    While I think your consideration of scene is completely valid and an important one to consider for building a narrative, I feel like it's just too tight and linear. @mammamaia offers alternative types of scenes, which I can't exactly see fitting that mold. (BTW, thanks maia!) scene and sequel style gives you a straightforward progression through events, but what about other types of scenes?

    Further, what happens at the end of a scene? Say you write a complete scene, and then you write the scene that you want to come after it. What goes in between them? A line break? A page break? A chapter break? Exposition? More action? I feel like using breaks to jump is sort of cinematic in style. But then I'm not sure what exactly goes between scenes.

    That question spawned the other questions about what a scene is. If one can recognize the opening and closing of a scene, one could identify techniques of fluidly advancing the story. Even with scene and sequel, you have to get from the action scene to the sequel scene. :p

    @peachalulu I think you're right about that. Goal-problem-disaster can't be the formula for every successful scene. Which brings me back around to the idea of tension that Jay mentioned earlier. There are different kinds of tension and I think they can be played up without the need for disaster or direct relation to the overall plot. It might relate to a subplot, or reveal character--though I do not advise writing an out-of-sequence scene for the sake of showing character. It should somehow be related to some goal or motivation.
     
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  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    any in your list that feels/reads right... it's a matter of writing style, not a rule of any kind...
     
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  12. vera2014
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    vera2014 Contributing Member

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    Short chapters appeal to me to most. I like structure a lot. I don't mind if chapters have one scene or several as long as they're roughly the same length as all the other chapters. It makes a story look like more of a balanced whole than the novel that has random chapters that vary from super long to short. These are just my tastes though. Mary Higgins Clarke broke up The Lost Years into a big number of small chapters; she also handled a large cast of characters with flair. Then again, I've seen books that have chapters that are only one paragraph and this worked with the story and enhanced it.
     
  13. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Andrae Smith : It might sound like it but when you read the book, you realise a lot of it can be taken metaphorically. Of course mechanical moving of the narrative is bad, and the book doesn't advocate that at all, but it takes moving through the chapters all the way to the end to fully comprehend how fundamental various points he makes are to storytelling.

    I just wrote a massive comment with examples but really, I think it's not worth the forum space. The best thing is to just read the book, it's literally riddled with writing wisdom. I believe every writer needs to listen to their heart. In the ocean of how-to books on writing, we all end up reading just a few. I think we get instinctively drawn and also repelled, and maybe it is because we have some intuition about the kind of advice we need to hear. I recommend this book to everyone because it was perfect for me. But if you don't 'feel'' it, by all means, follow that feeling. I don't think any advice is really essential to mastering the craft of writing, we all get there in our own way :)
     
  14. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    Well that makes sense. I suppose I need to start reading more closely. I'm having trouble identifying the fading in and out of scenes (which is a good hing for the writer). That would help me see how professional writers use it. I'm sure it comes somewhat naturally from our time reading and writing, but being able to see it might help me improve.

    @jazzabel I would have loved to read your comment. Ah well. I'll be getting the book soon anyway. Thanks for your advice. It may seem like I was rejecting it, but it was really helpful.
     
  15. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    I didn't think you were rejecting it at all, I just don't like to push books on people. Goodness knows the list of books 'I absolutely must read if I want to be a writer' is about hundred times longer than the list of books I actually read :D
     
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  16. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm very much in a big "?" about the whole scenes&sequels/conflict-disaster thing... I mean, it's a structural concept which could be used as a helpful tool in analysis, and I'm sure it can help a writer with certain problems, but I somehow always get that feeling of "something's missing" when I try to apply it on an existing text. As the complexity of the text grows - so does the artificiality of applying it, to the point where one has to force the concept onto an existing textual structure. It just seems too prescriptive in some areas, too broad and generalized in others... Again, I know Bickham's book is an absolute favorite, and it's an okey read, well worth the time. I guess I just want an universally applicable solution for all the humanity's problems :D

    For example: I struggle to define any frame-narrative in terms of "goals", "disasters" etc. Say, Heart of Darkness: what's the goal there? Why are we interested to hear Marlow's story? Where is the disaster that leads into the next "scene"? And textually speaking, what are we to do with the first six paragraphs - the introduction into the narrative situation - but where is the conflict there? Is it bad writing if we can't "instantly recognize who the character is, what is his goal and what he has to do to achieve it"? Because Conrad fails to give any of these...

    Or, what to do with parts of the text which are extra-narrative: chapter titles, quotes, etc? They are still part of the text, and the author can "manipulate" the reader and build tension and interest through carefully using them. Say, an epistolar narrative where the gap in story time is indicated by dating the letters? (not to mention huge chunks of text that may be part of the letter-form and are as such, again, outside the "scene" structure?)
     
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  17. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Too narrow, I would say. A popular idea of a scene (as depicted by Bickham and JayG above) is a kind of set piece designed to leave the reader on tenterhooks:

    Salty Sam is chasing Sweet Sue. He traps her in the old sawmill and says, "If you don't give me the deed to your ranch, I'll saw you all in half!"

    And then? . . . And then? . . .

    And then the scene ends. You must know what happens next, so you lick your finger and turn the page to the next chapter. Oh noooo! There's no Sweet Sue. No Salty Sam. It's a brand new scene. But you must read on, because you just know that Salty Sam and Sweet Sue will be back, and you'll find out what happened.

    Well, OK. That's a scene, all right, but it hardly suffices as the definition of a scene. Turn to Jane Austen. Pull out her finest novel, Emma. Thumb over to Chapter 5. That entire chapter is one scene. No Salty Sam. No Sweet Sue. No buzz saw. It's a conversation between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston (Emma's former governess, now married). They are disagreeing about a new friend Emma has made. Knightley says it's a bad match that will come to no good. Mrs. Weston disagrees. And so they discuss.

    If a scene is supposed to leave you on tenterhooks, then why did Jane Austen -- who has endured as one of the greatest authors in English literature -- write such a hookless scene as this?

    Take that chapter as a little study project. What makes it a scene? What unifies it? It begins in one place and ends in another, and you may be sure that Jane chose those places with care. This scene certainly doesn't leave you on tenterhooks. And yet it is an important scene. Jane Austen didn't write unimportant scenes. If she did, they never made it into print.

    So try just these two questions: 1) What makes this a scene? 2) What makes it important to the story?
     
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  18. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @Burlbird, @David K. Thomasson
    Good considerations. You're right, Conrad doesn't use goal-conflict-disaster to build his scenes, but he does move in and out of scenes. But he, like any good writer can do it seamlessly. You hardly notice you've moved into a new scene until you're in it. That's one thing I want to know how to do.

    In my fiction workshop, we learned to build stories with scenes, though, we never talked about scene and sequel or how to go from one scene to the next without using scene breaks. I feel like there are tricks to help you fade in and fad out, but I feel like it get's harder to end a scene smoothly the higher the tension gets.

    You both raise the good point about the increasing complexity of the text. Novels with more than action as their focus need to have different kinds of scenes. While the end goal is still suspended from them, the end goal doesn't need to be present in every scene. Different types of tension create different types of scenes. There is often internal conflict that can be highlighted over external conflict.

    These are important to ask when planning your scene and even when writing it. I guess what I'm interested in is how to create a seamlessness between scenes, but to do so, I must be able to recognize when we've moved into a scene and when we're moving out. I suppose that would be when the action stops or changes.

    I suppose I might break scenes into major scenes and minor scenes, and those minor scenes could count as sequels, leading into other major scenes. However, I wouldn't limit them to goal-conflict-disaster.

    Thanks for being so considerate ha ha. You wouldn't happen to have a copy of Bickham's book that you'd like to donate to my cause? lol
     
  19. David K. Thomasson
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    David K. Thomasson Contributing Member

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    Amazon lists used copies for under $4. With shipping, you get it for under $8.
     
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  20. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    That's a pretty nice deal. I just gotta save that $8.00 for other uses. :/ I've NO luck in my job search and currently have no income.

    You never know when $8.00 might be all you need for something. lol
     
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  21. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    This is a link that I think provides a decent explanation and application of scene and sequel for a simpler plot line.
    http://www.sfwa.org/members/bell/writingtips/summer11.html

    EDIT:
    I think what really resonates with me are the author's last 3 paragraphs:
     
  22. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Andrae Smith : Aww, sorry, my hard copy is in storage together with most of my books (until I buy another house because the one I'm renting now is too small for my library) but I did buy the Kindle edition as well, I think it costs only $5 on amazon.com.

    I'll make a terrible confession. I actually summarised Bickham (nerd, I know). I don't know if that's any good (it's just an aide memoir to me and not as good as the book itself) but I can try to dig it up and send you that?

    @Burlbird : I never take any writing advice literally. They are all tools to be understood and used when necessary. I agree that trying to squeeze the story into confines of any formula is not the way to do it. I use it if and when I get stuck, or when what I've written somehow doesn't work, often I'll find that I'm missing a sequel, or that I can improve the transition by going back to the basics.
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2014
  23. plothog
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    Things would be so much easier for people to get their heads around if Swain had come up with a different word for his scenes. After all sometimes it seems legitimate to talk about our stories in terms of the other definition of scene. "Scenes normally end in disaster" can be such a misleading statement. People can be forgiven for responding, "that can't be right. Most of the books I read simply aren't that disaster ridden".
    But once you realise that both "scene" and "disaster" have been redefined, the statement isn't quite so ridiculous.
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2014
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  24. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    @jazzabel
    This, for me, is probably the one single best (writing) advice out there :)
    @plothog
    The term comes from drama, so I think that may be (one of) the main reason for misunderstanding it. In drama, scene is a technical term, not a structural unit. In a way, what I notice in most of the creative writing discourse, the "scene" is somehow (mis)present as an atomic unit, as in: "a story consists of scenes", or "a sequence of scenes constitute a story". "Sequel", to me, seems to be an umbrella term to cover most (but not all) of the text that simply cannot fit into "scene" - it includes reactions, emotions, thoughts, character building, it can be summarized, or not, it should be short, but it can be long, etc. It's just too broad to be effectively used in analysis. (Again, as a reminder, a guideline for a possible structure solution, it can be very effective!)
     
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  25. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Andrae - Go to Openlibrary.com - https://openlibrary.org/search?q=bickham&author_key=OL537452A - set yourself up an account and borrow the book for free.

    I haven't really checked out Lolita to see how Nab does it ( I love him so I always like to see how he does stuff ) but for me his scenes seemed only to have an overall tension of when will Hum make his move and the occasional inner tension of a scene will he bump off Charlotte at the lake? How far will he take the incident on the couch. And when he finally gets Lo, when are they going to get caught or when will this all fall apart. Maybe the scene doesn't need to be so insular maybe as long as the tension speak to a bigger source it can be carried. As long as there is a new question to be answered.
     
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