Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bigger 8 - The Essence of the Scene

All the riveting, memorable, captivating, and emotionally involving bits of fiction happen as scenes play out. While it is possible to have an image that, in isolation, hits you in the gut (think of the eye being cut in The Andalusian Dog), scenes are what really stick.

The best scenes are stories in and of themselves, with beginnings, middles, and ends. We are likely to replay them for ourselves and can take them out of the whole and tell them to our friends. In fact, if someone were to ask you what you liked best about a book, a movie, or a play, chances are good that you would relate a complete scene to them.

Writers depend on scenes to deliver plot turns and emotional payoffs. Big stories -- the ones that become popular -- have scenes that people love to tell their friends about. Look up your favorite movies on YouTube, and you will probably find your favorite scenes, carefully selected from the whole.

I got thinking about scenes and how to make them bigger when I read a wonderful blog post, "Making Every Scene Special," by Hal Croasmun. His main point is that every special scene has an essence. The example he offers is from Notting Hill, and it has as its essence humiliation. Croasmun rightly rejects a weaker description of the scene, "discovering she has a boyfriend." To get to the essence requires a single, emotionally charged word. Which of us cannot taste a past humiliation, based just on hearing that one word?

Other words have this same power: Triumph, sacrifice, revelation, and all seven of the deadly sins (lust, pride, greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, and envy). 

You can play the game with memorable scenes, and develop a sense for essence. 
  • "Luke, I am your father." (revelation, betrayal)
  • "Are you looking at me?" (wrath, madness)
  • "Frankly, I don't give a damn. (rejection)
  • "As you wish." (revelation, true love)
Then you can look at your own scenes -- especially those that are pivotal to the story you are telling. Is it easy to determine the essence? Can you carve away everything that is not contributing and enrich the scene with more that reflects the essence?

If you get the essence right in all you major scenes, people will be dying to share those scenes with others. And, chances are, your story will connect with a larger audience. 

What are your favorite scenes and how to they express essence, and how do they impact the work as a whole? 



  1. Thanks, Peter. I've been using some of your techniques and getting good results.

    I have an idea for a post. Could you write about Scene and Sequel? A long time ago, a writing teacher told me that she loved my writing but if I didn't learn Scene & Sequel, I'd never be published in fiction. I did learn it, after two courses and reading both the Swain and Bickham books, and am now receiving a more friendly type of rejection. :)

    I suppose you could write a two-part post about it, Scene, then Sequel with links back between the two articles.

    Anyway, IMO, S&S is a weak link for a lot of people. Just an idea for when you're scraping for a blog post idea. :)

    Thanks for all the great tips.

  2. Hi, Rhonda
    I love the Bickham book. From your note, it sounds like you are integrating scene and sequel into your process, and it may just be a matter of practice.
    One thing I would suggest is that you go to the books most like what you want to write and actually mark the sequels. Not only will this be a great review, but it will also reveal the relative lengths of the sequels. I have found that romances include longer and more detailed sequels than the action books Bickham (mostly) wrote. He emphasizes brevity, even elimination of sequels, and I think romance readers want sequels they can snuggle into.
    I'm not sure I have enough to say on either writing sequels more productively or making them bigger, but I'll let that idea rattle around in my brain. We'll see if anything comes out.
    Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi, Peter - We're thinking on the same wavelength in a lot of respects. :) I've begun to notice the subtle differences in genres in their individual approaches to storytelling. I think mystery has shorter sequels than romance except when the sleuth, pro or amateur, has a big decision to make - go after the killers, do an end run around the cops or the brass, break the law to save a life, etc.

    Also, I've been doing the Margie Lawson EDITS system on my trade paperback copy of Craig Johnson's THE DARK HORSE. I'm looking for when and how clues are planted, plot points and how the Sequel is blended into the action. It's been a fantastic experience.

    Actually, even though S&S is one of those basic techniques that you really can't study enough, I asked you about doing a post on Scene & Sequel because I wanted to link to it both to explain AND to drive more traffic to this blog and your eventual How to Write Fast book. (Could that sentence have been any longer??) I had figured your S&S post could be one of those "evergeen" posts that people find through search engines and then they find YOU. :) #blogasbait