And… Scene.

Today’s question: “For awhile now I’ve had so much problems in ending scenes. I’m stuck on one particular scene in one chapter for a week before I move on to another scene and the same thing happens over and over again. What I like to ask is how do you know when to end the scene? How do your own scenes work out?”

Working as both a creative writing teacher and an editor, I have seen my share of first novels. Having seen so many, I can safely say first novels run the gauntlet from awe-inspiring to a little cringe-worthy (like my first novel was…), but no matter the inherent skill level, scenes often cause authors problems. How to start one, how to end one, it can be a bit of a headache.

Because starting and ending suddenly can feel unnatural, many beginning writers start scenes with a character waking up and end with them falling asleep. Besides being an easy way for critics to point out “new” writers (or at least ones that haven’t mastered that aspect of writing yet), the problem with this method is that you either end up with a lot of “filler” (things that happen that aren’t important) or something like this:

“I never want to speak to you again!” John yelled slamming the door in Sam’s face.

Really upset, John stormed upstairs, sitting on his bed as he tried to forget everything that had happened. When that didn’t work, he finally took a shower. Coming out ten minutes later, he was finally calm enough to sleep. He crawled into bed and turned off the light, closing his eyes.

While not bad for something like NaNoWriMo where you’re trying to up your word count, paragraphs like that are not especially engaging to read, meaning it can slow the pacing of the story at best, and lose you readers/get you slammed in reviews at worse.

So, if starting and stopping at the natural points of waking up and falling asleep are out, how exactly do you structure a scene?

Remember one cardinal rule: Start when the action starts. End when the action ends.

As far as prose goes, novels are the longest common form. Where short stories tend to clock in under 10,000 words, novels are often ten times that (if not even longer, like some epics). That does not, however, mean that there should be filler. Every scene in a novel should serve a purpose, be it introducing an important concept, serving as character building, or advancing the plot. If there is any scene (or any part of a scene) that doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s something that should likely be cut on the editing floor.

This includes summaries of unimportant things that happen between the actual action of a scene and some arbitrary cut off (the character going to sleep, class ending, etc.) There is absolutely no reason in the above example that you can’t end with John slamming the door. If something important happens afterward, you certainly don’t have to, but in the above example, all John does is sit, shower, and then go to bed. Not exciting to read, not character building, and certainly not advancing the plot, there is no reason to have it there.

But what if there’s a large chunk of time that’s going to pass between action? How will the reader know that things aren’t happening right in a row if you don’t explain time is passing?

Simple, you throw in a single line that time has passed at the beginning of the next scene.

For example, in my new novella, The Copper Rebelliontwo days pass between the end of chapter six and the start of chapter seven. Chapter Six ends as soon as the action is done (in this case, the character figuring something out with the ending line, “And that wasn’t good”). Chapter Seven starts:

“Adela took a deep breath, steeling her resolve. She’d let it sit two more days. And that was two days too long” 

That’s it. No summary of what had happened the past two days. No filler. With the second and third sentence, the reader knows that it has been two days since the last scene and can assume that nothing important happened those days (at least not to the story). Especially in a novella there’s no reason to waste space with “She sat around one day. Went out riding. Had dinner, etc. etc.” either as filler scenes or as a paragraph telling the reader these things have happened before the start of the important information, but even in a novel, the same holds true.

Similarly, if your characters are driving somewhere because they start in A and the story is actually in B–and nothing interesting happens on the way/nothing that is important to the plot–it is perfectly okay to have something like:

“Let’s go!” Jane threw the car in gear, pulling out of the driveway.

***

The New York Skyline came into view, Jane nearly ready to cry with joy. A week in the car with John and Miranda would be enough to make the Dali Lama snap.

Again, a week has passed. The characters have made it from their house to New York. The reader can assume they haven’t missed anything important by not seeing miles of road tick by or having a summary about how nothing, in fact, has happened.

As with everything else in writing, figuring out the perfect place to start and end scenes is something that becomes simpler with practice. But by approaching each scene looking for what’s important–figuring out where the action is–it becomes much simpler.

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