Last week we talked about the structure on which to build your fiction. Today we start looking more closely at the material you put on the framework to make the story happen. Scenes are the bricks that go into the story building.

When you think in terms of scenes, you focus on the core of the emotional drama that is pulling your plot from the beginning to the end. Scene translates the emotional life of your characters into visually powerful, engaging, dramatic material. These portions work in your book the same as they do in a movie. They make an emotional impact and make the audience want to stick around to see what happens next.

A scene occurs at a set time and place. Whenever you change time or place, you create another scene.

When constructing a scene, it is helpful to ask yourself:

  1. When and where does this scene occur? In a nutshell, what is it about?
  2. Does this scene advance the plot? That is, does the scene move the lead ultimately toward his/her long-term goal?
  3. What opposition/obstacle is encountered that the lead must resolve to move forward?
  4. Does the scene move the reader closer to learning something important about my main character?

If the character leaves the scene essentially as s/he entered it, your reader may become emotionally disengaged. However, if the scene shows great character development but doesn't move the plot along, then it's only done half a job. Good scenes should do both.

According to Rubie and Provost (How to Tell a Story, Writer's Digest Books, 1998) these are the four main elements of a good scene:

  1. Cause and effect relationship exists all the way along. Each scene causes a subsequent scene to occur.
  2. The scene has a goal. It is driven by the characters needs and wants.
  3. Each main character in a scene has a strategy, which is what the character says or does to get what s/he wants. A character may actually try a number of strategies within the same scene before s/he is successful or retreats to develop a new plan.
  4. The ending of the scene moves us forward in some way.

None of these items can be left to chance. Be sure that your scenes contain all four elements.

If you like to gather relevant information before writing, or if you are having difficulty with a scene, you may find it helpful to use a checklist like this one:

Time:

Place:

Here's the character:

This is what s/he wants:

This is the obstacle:

This is the outcome:

It leads to:

Lastly be sure to link scenes in some way. You may have noticed that each scene is in itself a mini-story. Several mini-stories that are not tied together are several mini-stories, not a book. It's like using mortar to hold the bricks together on a building. Linking can be done in a variety of ways, and is often done through sequels, which we'll cover next week.

Since most big scenes rely heavily (but not entirely!) on dialog, you want to be able to handle dialog well. When characters speak, readers listen. Dialog is also faster to read and usually more entertaining.

Real conversation is not dialog in the sense that you want to use it for your fiction. Sometimes the purpose of conversation can simply to be to fill in awkward silences. Not so with dialog. Dialog is never haphazard, but is well constructed to serve a purpose.

These are some ways authors use dialog as a tool.

  1. To develop character. The words s/he speaks can reveal aspects of the character's background and personality.
  2. To reveal background. Dialog properly done can replace lengthy flashbacks or long narratives to relay background information necessary to understand the plot and/or motivation of the characters.
  3. To foreshadow. A character's dialog can hint at the future without giving it away. The character speaking may not even be aware that this is what you as the author are making him do. If fear on the part of your lead plays a big part in the culmination of the story, he can hint at that fearful side of him early in the story where it appears "insignificant" but is in fact setting your reader up for what is to come.
  4. To convey setting. Characters can talk about where they are and what they see, and eliminate the need for long passages of description. Also if a story is set in a foreign location, a sprinkling of the native language can help establish locale. The same holds true for regional dialects even within English. However, too much of this will slow the reader down, so it should be used just enough to convey a realistic idea of the setting.
  5. To describe characters. For example, conversation between two teenage girls about their hair/height/weight/eyes/clothes, etc. can replace lengthy character description through narration.
  6. To relay information that develops the plot. Sometimes it is better to have a character say what it happening than to actually describe the event. Here's an example (from Indio, by Sherry Garland):
  7. "What is wrong?" Ipa asked as she rubbed her eyes.

    "The council has made the decision. The women and children will go to the mountains to hide from the strangers."

    Ipa sat up and watched her aunt flutter about the room gathering her best pots and deerskins. She placed them in the middle of the floor.

    "Auntie, what are you doing?" Ipa asked as an uneasy feeling crept over her.

    "The council decided that we must offer gifts tot he strangers sot they will leave us in peace. A messenger from the lower village arrived last night. He told us that the strangers will take what they want anyway, so it is better to appease them early. Fetch those fancy baskets that I have been saving for your wedding day and put them in a pile."

    The dialog reveals that the "strangers" are almost at the village, the women and children will flee that there is the strong possibility the strangers will pillage, and that the villagers are peaceful people and would like to avoid a fight. The meeting of the council is not described, because it is only the decision made that moves the plot forward, and the decision is conveyed through this natural dialog between aunt and niece.

  8. To make transitions. The purpose of transition is to move a reader from scene to scene as smoothly as possible. Sometimes dialog can do this for you. For example, say you have a teen who in the last scene was looking for a gift for his new stepmother.

If you open a new scene with his father beginning,

"Where have you been all day? Didn't I ask you to mow the yard? You better get with it, the sun is going down."

"I know, Dad and I'm sorry, but wait till you see what I found for Cheryl."

Here the reader is transported to the end of the day and knows, without hearing all the little details that the teen spent most of the day searching for a perfect present and was successful in the end.

 

While you don't want "real" conversation for dialog, you do want to make your dialog realistic. Perhaps one of the most frequent mistakes for beginners is to use dialog for "information dumping." When an author does this they wind up with dialog such as this:

"Hi Mary, this is Fred. Fred moved here from California six years ago when his vineyard was burned by his jealous brother who thought he should inherit the estate, when it was really Fred who did all the work behind the scenes, and his parents realized it and were right to leave the vineyard to Fred, who knew just what to do to coax excellent grapes from the vines."

This is not natural sounding conversation. Such background would be better revealed in a different manner.

Some more tips for good dialog:

  1. Patience and practice and reading. Recognize good dialog, then examine how it works. Then write and rewrite dialog yourself until it achieves what you want it to.
  2. Read your dialog out loud or have someone read it to you. This is one of the best ways to recognize dialog that sound melodramatic or otherwise "off."
  3. Be sure the reader knows who is speaking, and try to achieve this as often as possible without using tags. The best way you can do this is by giving each character a distinctive voice. Diction (word choice) can reveal things like region, class, education, and style of thinking (impulsive, logical, and vengeful, for examples.) One of your characters may tend to speak in short clipped sentences or sentence fragments. One may tend to use professional jargon. Girls speak differently than boys, and children speak differently than adults. Practice listening, and give attention to speech patterns and word choice when you're developing your characters.
  4. Avoid excessive slang. In a few years it may mean something totally different, or the meaning may be obscure.
  5. Don't ramble, even though real conversation does. Dialog must serve a purpose and move the story forward. No character should speak if they don't have an important point to convey.
  6. Don't interject too much description or narrative within a portion of dialog. Doing so may cause the reader to lose the flow of the dialog, and will destroy its impact.
  7. Cut out the undesirable aspects of an actual conversation, such as interrupting, changing topics mid-sentence, uhs, ahs, hmmms, etc.
  8. Use speaking verbs in tags.

Remember that when you're doing first draft, it is not the time to worry about rules. Just write. The danger with all of this information is becoming paralyzed by the thought of having to do it "right" and then not doing anything at all. The first rule is write--write anything, often, and focus on getting a first draft in your hand. Then go back and ask yourself what you can do to make your scenes work better, and your dialog more potent.