Writing a Novel in Scenes


I’m struggling with the question of what is a scene. Yes, I know the standard definitions: it’s a contained piece of action in a story. It has a structure with a beginning, middle and end. But today I’m working with scenes and here are some thoughts, especially about using scenes for pacing a novel.

Revise Scenes, not Chapters

Interrupted scenes. But I’m trying to work through some revisions and it’s thorny. I find that I’ve often interrupted a scene with another scene. This occurs at several times: when there’s a change of POV and I want to leave the reader hanging; when there are several subplots and to create a bit more tension and make the reader wait, I insert a tiny subplot scene; at the end of chapters or sections. After careful consideration of the scenes in today’s section, I thought each interruption worked well.

More difficult is the question of what to call it when – no wait, I don’t care what you call the sections of writing; what I care about is how to use the concept of scenes to revise better. So, what do I have when there’s one long continuous section of action at a back to school party that takes up three chapters. There definitely is a beginning, middle, end of this larger section, so it functions as a long scene; but within it are different conversations/encounters/conflicts going on and minor changes of setting, so at least some of those function as scenes, too.

In another area (for later in the week), there’s a long scene, but it’s more focused and doesn’t have as many interruptions. Should I take out some of the mini-scenes in today’s section? Do they muddy up the plot and emotion? Or do they create suspense, tension, interest?

Concept of “a scene” changes with medium. I’m wondering if the concept of scene also changes slightly from screenplays to theater plays to novels. Screenplays rely so heavily on the visual nature of things that the scenes need to move around a lot. My three chapters in one setting would need to be inter-cut with something else to make it more visual. In a novel, however, I can just send the characters along the aisle of booths with its different games and the setting changes enough for the novel to work. Of course, on stage, we would just suggest the carnival atmosphere of a school party and perhaps do dialogue exchanges at different points on the stage.

Implied v. executed beats. A beat is a small action within a scene. Writers are often advised to write out a beat sheet to evaluate a scene. Beat sheets are just simple statements summarizing the main actions of a story. Sounds simple. It means real verbs and real actions.

But I find that beats are summarized, skipped, or implied, but not really acted out. Sometimes, I make the beat explicit, but sometimes implying it through a summary is fine. My criteria for the choice of which to use is usually pacing. When the scene is too long, I try to move some action into an implied and/or understood action.

I’m sure there’s more to be said about scenes, as I work on this revision. For now, this is what I learned today.

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