September 20 | Early Bird Session: Writing in Scenes
Award-winning author Nancy Kress started selling her fiction when she began writing it in scenes. She now plots each scene as a unit with its own beginning, middle, and end. In her Early Bird session at the ACFW conference, she noted there are three basic purposes for a scene, although a scene may include more than one:
- To advance the plot.
- To deepen characterizations.
- To fill in the backstory.
“Drama is what makes a scene go,” Kress said. Dramatization equals showing, not telling. A dramatized scene should have all the immediacy of a play, making the reader a fly on the wall. Your goal is to put the reader on stage.
Opening scenes are especially important, she said. They require characters onstage, interacting, and they should show conflict or at least rising tension. An ideal opening sentence will include the story’s theme and indicate tension to come or raise a question in the reader’s mind.
Ways to tell the story
Kress listed five narrative modes available as tools to the writer—dialogue, description, action, a character’s thoughts, and exposition—but the heart of most scenes should be dialogue, she said. This is especially important as a story opens.
- Dialogue deepens characterization by content (what the character says) and by diction (how he says it). Dialogue should be fairly short. It’s a back-and-forth exchange, more condensed than real speech.
- Specific, concrete details of description will orient the reader. Within the first few paragraphs, the reader should know where and when the action takes place, which characters are there, and a hint of the conflict. Paraphrasing Gustav Flaubert, Kress said three details are enough to create a strong picture in the reader’s mind—if they’re exactly the right details. But we must be deft with our descriptions. “Movies have spoiled us,” Kress said. To keep the reader’s attention, interweave brief descriptions with the dialogue.
- Action is description in motion. Types of action range from the quiet types such as gestures and tone of voice, all the way to the intensity of a fight scene.
- A character’s thoughts should characterize as much as dialogue. In first-person narration, there is no distance between the character and the reader; the reader seems to be in the character’s mind. Third-person narration creates more distance between reader and character.
- Exposition summarizes scenes that aren’t especially interesting, or gives the reader information or story events, not by dramatization but by telling. You can get away with this if you place it correctly and if you have earned the right to use exposition.
Kress calls this her swimming pool theory. Imagine a swimmer kicking off from the side of the pool. The harder he kicks, the longer he can glide. In fiction, the more dramatic your opening, the more you’ve earned your right to a glide (exposition). However, the prose of an expository scene must be eloquent and excellent, not merely serviceable. You’re taking the reader out of the story, so you must give her something worthwhile in return.
Scenes are substories
All five narrative modes are used in all kinds of scenes, including openings, flashbacks, climaxes, and denouements. No matter what type, every scene is its own substory. It should have a rise in tension near the end that draws the reader to the next scene. It can also raise a question in the reader’s mind, with the most basic question being “What happens next?”
Scene endings can also bring up new information, show an emotional reaction to the scene’s events, or create a reversal so the character has to rethink everything. Or, at the end of a quiet, understated scene, heightened language can make a reader stop and think. The Great Gatsby is a good example of using heightened language as a scene ends.