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Write Scenes Rather Than Reports

March 25, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 25, 2011

The original of this article was written and posted to A Novel Edit in 2010. I’ve posted it here for easier access for readers of The Editor’s Blog. This is an expanded version of the original.

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Scenes. They’re the anchors for your characters, allowing them to experience adventures undreamed of. Scenes are the visual elements that, strung together, make navigating your story entertaining and logical.

Scenes are the pulse of your novel. With each successive beat, characters discover more, reveal more, live more. And readers feel that life. The pulse, the heartbeat of your story, resonates in them, and if the beat is strong enough, it will keep them connected, not wanting to leave. Not wanting to cut off that heartbeat that has become part of them.

We all know what it’s like to be interrupted when we’re at the good part. Make your story pulse with the good part from beginning to end. Give the reader not only a vivid character, but vivid scenes that will echo in his mind and heart. Scenes that will keep him attached to your tale.

Scenes. Not descriptions. Not a reporting of events. Scenes.

Write them. From page one, write them.

They’re what’s vibrant about your story. They are events happening in a specific place.

Don’t tell us Max did this and Sally did that and Mortimer did a little of both. Don’t give us diary entries or a school report. Don’t even give us a letter to a pen pal. Put your characters into a specific time, a specific locale, and give them a task.

(I’m not saying that you can’t include diary entries or letters; both are acceptable fiction devices. They are valid tools for presenting information in a story. But realize that they aren’t scenes. Because of their nature, they keep the reader at a distance, outside the action. Information presented via letter or diary can advance the plot, but it is telling. A narration. Use such devices to reveal information but understand their limitations.)

Don’t fill pages with delay, describing the route to an event and then the décor once we get there. Give us scene.

Get to the point.

Dump us into action. Event. Happening.

Paint us a picture of someone doing something somewhere.

Think of a series of events, as in a movie. Write those events. Connect them with exposition. And then write more events.

Yes, thinking can be an event. So can dialogue. But events also include someone robbing a house, a teen learning to drive, a woman kissing a man.

Give your readers events and action they can dive into. Give them places they can see, objects they can touch, sounds to hear and wonder over. Write for the senses and the emotions and the mind. And put your characters in a location.

Don’t forget that people move and touch and see while they’re interacting.

If you’re going to use a scene with a lot of thought and/or dialogue—either one person thinking without interacting with another character or multiple characters speaking back and forth—make sure the reader knows the where and when of the scene. Don’t write disembodied thoughts for a dozen pages. Put us in a place, show us why the character is having these thoughts, and then go at those thoughts.

You’ve read such sections in novels, I’m sure. Where a chapter opens with a character remembering something from her childhood. There’s no problem there. The problem comes when three pages pass and you realize you have no idea where the character is while she’s thinking about the past. You don’t know if she’s in her car, sitting in a coffee shop finishing her fifth cup of the day, or running around a track, desperately thinking of anything to take her mind off her screaming calves and the two and a half miles left in her run.

Often such non-scenes end and then the character goes somewhere—yet we never find out where the character was while she was spending all that time remembering the past.

Think place. Passage of time. Events happening while the character ruminates or reminisces or cogitates.

Don’t give us only talking heads, existing independently of all else. Tell us where the character is and what she’s doing when we read When Elsie was young, she always brushed her teeth five times a day. Not six. Not four. She did it for the first time each day after she jumped out of bed . . . )

If you choose to throw in back story, first show us where the character is and what brought about these deep thoughts of the past. Does the character walk around randomly thinking of past events? Or is there something in the story—related to plot, of course—that drives those reminiscences? Something that goads a character into thoughts of the past?

Unless your character is naturally crazy and thinks random thoughts, go for something that sets him off. And don’t forget to let the reader know what’s happening while the character is off remembering. Ground the character—and the reader—in a place and then do your thing with deep thoughts.

If an omniscient narrator is making an observation, that’s a different animal. A narrator may report from his position outside the story. Yet, he still shouldn’t be allowed to run on for pages. Keep your narrator on track—don’t let him take over the story.

Use description in scenes, but don’t only describe. Have your characters interact with their locale, other characters, physical objects, and their own demons. Add in the sense elements—a whiff of a newly peeled orange, an obnoxious gong, a car alarm, the annoyance of cold air brushing over a character’s legs each time a door opens.

Don’t try to narrate scenes—she did this and that and then she cried. Make the story events real. Make the reader live those events, feel those emotions, quiver with pain and gasp with shock.

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Scenes are only one element of good fiction; we still need exposition. Stories made up of all scenes without a break would be tiresome and tedious. They’d be flat-out annoying.

Exposition can do in a few words what can take pages for a scene to accomplish.

My point is, however, when you do write scenes—and they should take up most of the page space in a novel—make sure you are actually writing scenes rather than reports.

I read many first manuscripts that have no scenes, especially at the story’s beginning. Think of ways to invite your reader into the story events. Show the reader those events as they unfold. Don’t recite the events—bring the reader in to experience them for herself.

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A few examples to show the difference between scene and report, to show different ways to present scene . . .

What I did on vacation—A school report

My family went to Majorca for two weeks. We built sand castles on the shore, and one beach was so awesome we went back four times. We ate new foods. My sister lost her sandals one day, but it turns out that this guy had a crush on her and had taken them to get her attention. My little brother wasn’t as obnoxious as he usually was. And I didn’t try to kill myself.

What I did on vacation—Fiction (exposition and scene)

Majorca used to be popular with American military families stationed in Germany, so Mom and Dad knew a lot about it. I didn’t want to go—my sister was fighting with her boyfriend and I knew she’d use me as a sounding board. I’d have to hear all the reasons he was a jerk and then the zillion and one reasons why she’d take him back

Once we got there, I found a cave at the beach, maybe a half mile from my parents. I sat inside, arms around my legs, and stared at the so-so waves crashing into the rocks below me. No sister. No little brother. No thoughts of suicide licking at my brain.

Instead, I heard only swoosh and whoosh and crash.

I closed my eyes, relieved.

I liked the sounds of swoosh and crash. I didn’t like the voices of death.

What I did on vacation—Fiction (exposition and scene, a variation)

I ran and ran and ran. Down the beach, up the dunes. I fell, cutting my wrist on a stupid pop can. I peed behind the Porta-Potty once I reached it because the smell inside made me gag.

And then I found the cave. Not Aladdin’s cave. Not Blackbeard’s either. It was all mine. Tessa’s cave. I imagined no one else had ever crawled inside, abrading knees and sinking fingers into cool sand. No other hands had feverishly fashioned a sand throne to elevate the occupant to the height of the cave’s ceiling.

No other had found comfort in the ocean’s hum as it echoed from the cave walls.

No one else had found sanctuary in a beach cave on the shore of some silly island I couldn’t find on a map. In a country halfway around the world from home. In a hot land so unlike suburban Bismarck that I didn’t recognize the smell of the air and the grit against my skin and the taste of food on my tongue.

And no one else had used the cave to fight demons that tore at the mind, weakening resolve. No other had used Tessa’s cave to block out voices that called for death. Death to the one who’d crawled inside. Death to the one who’d fashioned the sand throne. Death to the one who sought sanctuary in the cave on the shore of that silly island that I couldn’t find on a map, in a hot land halfway around the world from home.

What Tessa did on vacation—Fiction (less exposition, more scene)

Tessa couldn’t catch her breath, but she kept digging. Digging and clawing up sand, mounding it. She had to finish before her parents called her back for dinner. Had to finish her sand throne so she could survey her kingdom from on high.

She flexed her fingers a half dozen times to relieve the cramps, but didn’t even look at her nails. The sand was so thick under them that she longer felt the gritty irritation, just a comforting pressure. She stared instead at the uneven pile of sand that reached more than halfway to the cave’s ceiling.

“Tess? Tess, where are you?” her brother asked, calling from the beach.

Tessa looked over her shoulder, praying he wouldn’t find the cave’s hidden opening. She held still, unwilling to make the slightest sound. Her shallow breaths sounded frantic in the otherwise silent space.

“Tess? I’m gonna tell you were hiding.” Davey’s voice grew less strident as he moved away. “Te-saaa!”

Tessa turned back to her throne and then scrambled down to the bottom. She started cutting steps into the hardening sand, shaping them just like the porch steps at their house. This was her special place. She wouldn’t share it with Davey.

She dug her fingers into the sand.

She wouldn’t share with anyone.

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