Thursday, July 30, 2009

About Scenes

Stories are made up of scenes. Every story has at least one scene and most have many. With novels, we often think in terms of chapters, but a chapter is just an arbitrary means of dividing the text into chunks that can be read conveniently in one setting. The scene is a basic unit of a story. A chapter may contain several, but it is conceivable that a scene will cross the boundaries of chapters, though this rarely happens.

A scene has a setting. A scene that takes place at night in a trailer is very different from a scene that takes place during the day that the White House. When a story changes setting, we change to a different scene.

A scene has a cast. Suppose we place our protagonist in a trailer at night. He does something and then leaves. That is a scene. Now, if our antagonist shows up at the same trailer and has no interaction with our protagonist, does something and leaves, that is a completely different scene.

A scene shows change. If we enter a scene one way, we should leave it another. If our cast enters the scene with hope, they should leave with despair. It they enter the scene in despair, they should leave with hope. But they should never leave unchanged. Imagine our protagonist sleeping on the couch in the trailer. If we leave the scene and he is still sleeping on the couch, then we don’t have much of a scene. Instead, we could enter the scene with him sleeping peacefully, only to be awakened by a noise, which he goes off to investigate. Or we could have him out looking for something, after he finds it, he comes back to the trailer and collapses on the couch, falling asleep.  What we wouldn’t want is for the character to be sleeping, wake at a noise, investigate and then fall back asleep in one scene. Essentially, nothing has changed in this scene and it can be cut.


Lady Glamis said...

Great thoughts here! I talked to a writing friend a little while ago who said she once dealt with a writer who didn't know what scenes were. And even though I've written three novels, I sometimes have a hard time discerning when one scene ends and another begins. Sometimes the lines are really blurred, but perhaps that's where I should look at revising to make it more clear.

Timothy Fish said...

Yeah, they tend to be much more blurry in a novel than they are in a screenplay. The very real physical limitations of movie making prevent one scene from moving seamlessly into the next. In a novel, there is nothing to prevent us from having a character discuss something with a family member at home, get in a car, drive across town and then discuss something with a friend, taking the reader along for the ride. With a movie, we would have a very definate scene break to allow the crew to set up at the new location. If we use it well, I think this can be one of the advantages of the novel format. We also have a blurry scene division when the setting stays the same and cast of one scene overlaps with the cast of another. As writers, we will benefit from knowing when our scenes change, but the reader doesn't have to know. A smooth transition can help keep the reader's nose glued in the book.