Making A Scene

If you've been to a writer's conference or a creative writing class, or if you've read any books on fiction writing, you've already heard the major principle that older writers are always telling younger writers: SHOW, DON'T TELL. As I hope I've shown (and maybe told, a little: but this isn't fiction), it's an important concept that's very risky not to take very seriously indeed.

Showing, in fiction, means creating scenes. You have to be able to cast your ideas in terms of something happening, people talking and doing, an event going on while the reader reads. If you're not writing scenes, you may be writing fine essays, or speeches, or sermons—but you're not writing fiction.

A definition: A scene is one connected and sequential action, together with its embedded description and background material. It seems to happen just as if a reader were watching and listening to it happen. It's built on talk and action. It's dramatized, shown, rather than being summarized or talked about. In some ways, it's like a little independent story; some short stories, in fact, are all one single scene.

A scene isn't a random stretch of action. It arises for a reason, and it's going somewhere. It has meaning. It has a point: at least one thing that needs to be shown or established at that spot in a story. That can be something as basic as the fact that your main character wants, this once, to walk his dog in peace without being pestered by an amorous neighbor or something as subtle as your main character's realization that the tolerance she has prided herself on is reallyjust a mask for indifference. Attitudes turning into motives, meeting resistance, creating conflict, and leading to consequences—becoming plot.

A scene can convey many things: moods, attitudes, a sense of place and time, an anticipation of what's to come, a reflection of what's past. But first and foremost, a scene must advance the plot and demonstrate the characters. You may not fully know what a given scene's job is, whether simple or complex, until you've written it. You may need to go back then and cut away the things that would mislead a reader, and add things to support, lead into, and highlight that scene's special chores in the context of the whole story. But when the story is finished, no matter how many rewrites it takes, you ought to be able to name to yourself what each scene brought out, how it developed the characters, how it showed action or led toward consequences.

Scenes can be long or short—just a paragraph, or a dozen pages or more. Creating scenes means finding ways for your story to show itself, rather than ways for you to tell it.

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