It’s this element of structure for the story. We all write them, but sometimes it seems like this overlooked aspect of our stories. I’m not sure why this is. It’s not as elemental as the word or punctuation. It’s not as long and sexy as a chapter. It’s not as easily diagramed as a sentence, right?
But it’s so important.
There’s an old book by Raymond Obstfeld called Crafting Scenes and in its first pages he has a chapter called “What a Scene Is and Isn’t.” In it, he quotes the actress Rosalind Russell who was asked what made a movie great.
She answered, “Moments.”
And Obstfeld compared that thought about movies to our thoughts about scenes.
“The more ‘moments’ a work has, the more powerful it is. Think of each memorable scene as an inner tube designed to keep the larger work afloat.”
And then there is the corollary,
“The fewer memorable scenes there are, the quicker that work sinks to the depths of mediocrity.”
So What’s A Scene and How Do You Make It Memorable?
That’s the obvious question, right? A scene is usually action that happens in one setting. But it’s not always. It’s about focus. It can be ten pages or one.
Obstfeld says that a scene does the following:
- Gives reader plot-forwarding information
- Reveals character conflict
- Highlights a character by showing action or a trait
- Creates suspense.
And a memorable scene? What is that?
What does a scene have to have?
A beginning, a middle, and an end.
And the beginning? It’s like a blind date, he says. You have to tell the reader what’s going on and not just expect her to know. It has to hook the reader in, pulling her into its clutches so she wants to keep reading.
Scenes are generally focused on plot, character, suspense, or theme.
They are a bit self-explanatory. But Obstfeld does a great job honing in on how to determine what your scene actually is.
If the scene is plot-focused, you can ask yourself, "The purpose of this scene is to..."
If the scene is character-focused, you can ask, "When the reader finishes this scene, he should feel..."
If the scene is suspense-focused, you can ask, "When the reader finishes this scene, he should wonder..."
If the scene is theme-focused, you can ask, "When the reader finishes this scene, he should think..."
A book or a story is something that's made up of little parts that combine to make something wow-worthy, something that resonates. Scenes are part of that bigger picture. They are a piece of the puzzle. They can wow you all on their own, but their real purpose is to be a part of the bigger story.