Thinking about Scenes

file0001500173246When I first got started with this fiction writing thing, I was a little surprised to see discussions about “scenes.”

What’s this? We’re not writing screen or stage plays here.

Being a bit dense, it took me awhile to get with the program — or with the terminology — but yes, properly done, short stories and novels are comprised of scenes.

We view the characters’ actions and interactions through scenes much as we do on a screen or stage. This is part and parcel of the “show don’t tell” mantra we fiction writers constantly chant, and upon which I pontificated in a post two years ago. In a scene, we show the story as our characters act it out for the reader.

These scenes can be linked by short bits of narrative in which we move the camera to another character, or a character to another setting. Scenes are arranged in chapters for the convenience of the reader. Depending on the length of the scenes, you might have several within a chapter, or one scene might carry over to more than one chapter. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no rule about that.

Within a scene, you needn’t describe positively every action. Some things, like breathing, chewing, picking things up and putting them down, scratching an itch (unless these contribute to the story) don’t need to be mentioned. On the other hand, you want to add enough detail that the reader can visualize what’s happening. If two people are having a conversation, let us see a few of their actions as they speak. It makes the scene come alive.

As an example, here are two versions of a snippet of a scene from Words in the Wind. First, read it with the action removed. Next, I’ve reproduced it the way it appears in the book. As you can see, the dialogue is essentially the same in both versions, but the first one is rather dull and lifeless, whereas you can almost literally see and hear it play out for you in the second version:

Sample 1 (without the action)
Dr. Mattsson came in. “How’re you kids doing?”
     “Okay,” Adam said.
      Pik added, “They’re worried, of course.”
      “Well, naturally,” Mattsson said. “We all are.” He took a slurp of his breakfast. “I notice the good captain was careful to wait until the sunspots had settled down before he ventured forth.”
      The implication of his accusation was not lost on the children, who turned accusing eyes on Broward.
      The captain felt himself flush. “You’re right to be upset, Dr. Mattsson, and I—”
      “With due respect to both of you,” Pik interrupted, “we should not point fingers. The Yasha allowed Dassa’s shuttle to crash, and He permitted the captain’s to land safely. I must conclude that this is the way He intended it, for reasons we cannot fathom.”
      “Come now, Pik,” said Mattsson. “This is your wife we’re talking about. The mother of your children and the leader of these settlers. How can her loss be a good thing?”
      Pik said, “It doesn’t feel like a good thing, not by a long shot. But I entrusted my life to Captain Broward’s decisions daily for years, and I know he does not act rashly. And beyond that—”
      Mattsson interrupted, scowling. “That was then, this is now. Look at him, he’s an old man. His judgment is impaired.”

Sample 2 (as it appears in the book):
Dr. Mattsson sat at the table beside Adam and ruffled the boy’s dark curly hair. “How’re you kids doing?”
     Adam shrugged. “Okay.”
     Pik scraped his bowl. “They’re worried, of course.”
     Mattsson gave Broward a hard stare. “Well, naturally. We all are.” He picked up his bowl and took a noisy slurp before he spoke again, with the bowl still in front of his mouth. “I notice the good captain was careful to wait until the sunspots had settled down before he ventured forth.”
      The implication of his accusation was not lost on the children, who turned accusing eyes on Broward.
      The captain felt himself flush. “You’re right to be upset, Dr. Mattsson, and I—”
      “With due respect to both of you,” Pik interrupted, “we should not point fingers. The Yasha allowed Dassa’s shuttle to crash, and He permitted the captain’s to land safely. I must conclude that this is the way He intended it, for reasons we cannot fathom.”
     Mattsson put down his bowl. “Come now, Pik. This is your wife we’re talking about. The mother of your children and the leader of these settlers. How can her loss be a good thing?”
      Pik’s expressive Karkar ears tilted back sadly. “It doesn’t feel like a good thing, not by a long shot. But I entrusted my life to Captain Broward’s decisions daily for years, and I know he does not act rashly. And beyond that—” He stopped to catch Lileela’s bowl as it slipped out of her hands, dribbling porridge down her front.
      Mattsson’s white brows knotted in a scowl. “That was then, this is now.” Ignoring the struggle with the breakfast bowl, he waved his hand toward Broward across the table. “Look at him, he’s an old man. His judgment is impaired.”

You might notice a couple of things. First, please think nothing of these people slurping OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAporridge from their bowls; that’s proper table etiquette on Gannah. Instead, focus on the way the slurps and spills give the scene a realistic feel and make it easy to imagine it all playing out before you.

Also note that it’s easier and more efficient to simply write what they say instead of describing their actions. Showing the action requires more words, but it provides a more enjoyable read.

So here’s my dilemma as I draft Book 4 of this series (the above scene is from Book 2): I’ve finally grasped the concepts of show vs. tell and writing scenes instead of narrative; I’ve spent so much time on Gannah with these characters that I know them well and can visualize their actions and mannerisms. Now, I’m concerned I’m including too much detail, making the book too cumbersome. I’m preparing to start chapter 41, and there’s still a lot that has to happen before we get to the end.

So what do I do? Should I summarize more and concentrate less on visuals? Cut out a subplot? (There’s only one I could cut; everything else is essential to the story.) Change the end I have in mind so it can happen sooner? Or simply make this book longer than the first three in order to wrap up the series to my satisfaction?

For now, during the drafting process, I’m going with the last option. Once the first draft is finished, I’ll go back and look at the whole thing again, revisiting my other options.

While I’m doing that, please enjoy the first two books. Write glowing reviews on Amazon, Barnes  & Noble, Goodreads, Shelfari, and/or any other site you know of. Recommend the Gannah series to everyone in your tribe. In short, support your favorite space aliens so they can afford to survive for two more titles.

Thank you. And now, back to Gannah…

 

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