Monday, October 19, 2009

What is a 'Scene'?

Technically speaking, a scene is a moment - that's all: a moment of action, exchange (interaction), or definition. According to Raymond Obstfeld's phenomenal book, Novelists Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, a scene focuses on a particular purpose:
  • Furthering the plot
  • Introducing or defining conflict
  • Developing a character by highlighting a specific trait or action
  • Creating suspense
A scene can be of any length and the best ones perform several of the above at once. When you're first starting, try to focus on only one aspect per scene. You can liken it to learning compound sentences: two, short sentences are better (and easier) than a run-on sentence. Once you have the short, single-focus scene down pat, you will likely find your scenes are already focusing on more than one aspect - almost by accident!

Obstfeld notes that the word, "scene," comes from theater. In theater, a scene technically takes place in one setting. However, this need not be the case; a scene may span several sets, or take place in a single location across several sets (such as in a car).

If you pick up one of Stephen King's earlier works (from the 1970s - 80s) and turn to one of the "victim chapters," that is a scene. I choose this as an example because I am familiar with King's early works (he was my favorite author, growing-up) and because his victim scenes succinctly illustrate this structure.

In one of his many "victim chapters," King introduces the Gentle Reader to a peripheral character whom you already know is about to die. King almost always switches to the character's POV, then continues to develop him - providing his routine(s) and idiosyncracies, his history and relationships with others - then promptly knocks him off.

These scenes, which King usually fashions into whole chapters, perform almost everything in the list above simultaneously - and seemingly effortlessly (but no one can teach you that; King is just a solid writer): develops a character, creates suspense, develops conflict, and furthers the plot. The entire list in one, fell swoop!

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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