Mastering the Art of the Scene

POSTED ON Sep 21, 2016

Jennie Nash

Written by Jennie Nash

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Not too long ago, I was working on a client’s novel-in-progress and noticed a recurring pattern: at the end of every chapter, the story stopped abruptly, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation. One character would ask a question and the other would simply not reply. I kept turning the pages thinking that the author must have inadvertently added extra line spaces, but no – that was where the chapter ended.

I asked the writer what was going on, and she explained: “I did that to create tension, so the reader would want to know what was going to happen next.”

While that impulse is excellent, the execution was not. It’s not random curiosity that you want to engender in the reader. It’s story-specific curiosity.

You want a chapter to bring the main character to a decision or a crossroad or some moment where something specific is at stake, so that the reader wonders what that character will do. The decision or action has to have meaning to the character and their internal reality – the truth of what they want and what is holding them back from getting it. It can’t, in other words, be simply external or plot-driven.

The Scene

The tool we use to set up this external and internal story logic is the scene.

Think of a scene is the smallest unit of story. Characters come onto the “stage” in one time and place, and one action occurs, which leads inevitably to the next action.

This is what my friend and colleague Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and Story Genius, calls a “cause and effect trajectory.” One thing causes another thing to happen which causes the next thing to happen which causes the final moment when the main character has no choice but to face the thing we have come to watch her struggle with. Each of those “things that happen” is a scene.

There is a fabulous explanation of the process of building this story logic from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the writers of South Park. They talk about it as a test: if you can say, “and then” to link together the elements of your story –- Jack walked up the hill and then Jill decided to walk up the hill and then it started to rain… — you have not written a story.

“And then” means you have a collection of things that happen—probably random, probably only external, probably not leading to anything meaningful, probably not capable of capturing a reader’s attention. What you want instead is to link things with “because of that…”

One thing happens and because of that another thing happens and because of that the next thing happens. Cause and effect. It means that everything is linked. It means that everything has to be there in order for the whole to make sense.

You can watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone talking about their “because of this” theory HERE.

It’s the fundamental lesson of story, and one that you can stop and measure at the end of every scene while you are writing.

Ask yourself:

  • What happens in this scene?
  • What does that cause the protagonist to do/decide/realize/believe?
  • What is the next thing that happens because of that?

Linking Scenes

Linking scenes together in this way is how you build a story. Sometimes a single scene can make up a chapter, and at other times, a chapter is comprised of related scenes that are all working together to make a similar point, or set up a pivotal moment.

How you move through scenes and chapters is part of the art of writing. It dictates the flow, or pace, of your work. A novel with short scenes and short chapters is going to have a much different feel to it than one with long ones. Sometimes writers vary the length of scenes and chapters to emphasize an action –- a short scene after a long one, for example, can pack a strong punch.

Example of Scenes and Chapters

There is no right or wrong way to approach this, but to give you get a feel for how this works, I went through one client’s submission that was just one giant chunk of writing with no breaks, and helped her break it up into scenes and chapters.

Shelley is writing a young adult novel about a girl who is learning about her family’s troubling past from her grandfather. In the attached sample, she presents a series of important scenes. Some of the writing, as you will see, is very good, but it all was sort of glommed together, which made it very hard to follow.

Download the 25 pages. You can see my comments set off in brackets. The comments highlighted in YELLOW are the ones pertaining to scenes and chapter. I explain why I suggested a scene or a chapter break.

Please remember that this is a work in progress, and this is the first crack at this task of dividing up this chunk of text. It will no doubt change and grow – but this is what it looks like to do this work.

Note: “TK,” which you will see me use throughout the sample, means “to come.” It’s a proofreader’s mark for anything that needs to be added.

Have you mastered the art of the scene? Tell us in the comments.


Jennie Nash

Written by
Jennie Nash

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