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On Narrative Scenes: Writing a Scene

This week we’re talking about narrative scenes — the storytelling elements that clarify your characters and progress your plot.

How Scenes Work

As I said yesterday, every scene in your story must move your story forward. That can consistent of character-building, occasionally, and really only in the first act, but in most genres you want to move the plot forward in virtually every scene.

The easiest way to guarantee that happens is to really understand your story’s Conflict Resolution Cycle — specifically the Obstacles along your character’s path — and make sure that every scene either introduces a new Obstacle or involves your protagonist overcoming a previous Obstacle (or both).

Working with Obstacles

Now, to live up to that, you may have to break your Obstacles down into smaller pieces than you’d originally thought. Instead of

The protagonist learns the identity of his nemesis

it becomes

  1. The protagonist realizes he has a nemesis working against him.
  2. The protagonist discovers a clue as to his nemesis’s identity.
  3. The protagonist finds an expert in ancient hieroglyphics allowing him to interpret the clue.
  4. The protagonist solves the ancient riddle, recognizing it as a present-day English pun.
  5. The protagonist wins a fist-fight against a well-meaning but blindingly closed-minded cop.
  6. The protagonist accesses the police database and learns the identity of his nemesis.

There’s a story. Not a terribly clever one, but it would do for Dan Brown.

Anyway, I present this long list because you can clearly see how each of those items could make a scene or two. In the first scene, perhaps the protagonist is idly poling his gondola along the river-streets of Venice when someone throws a hatchet at him. He gives chase, but is unable to catch or even clearly see his attacker.

We’ve set up an Obstacle, now. In scene two, at some particular intersection, our protagonist discovers some discarded bit of paper that the attacker clearly dropped while fleeing. That overcomes the “no idea who the attacker is” Obstacle, but introduces a “how can he figure out what the clue means” Obstacle.

Before we started on characters or Conflict Resolution Cycles or any of this, I had you start out with a mock Table of Contents. This would be a great time to review the work you did on that project, and see how the chapter titles you guessed at fit with what you now know about your story now.

You can make changes, if any jump right out at you, but the important thing is to see the difference between your Conflict Resolution Cycle — your story idea — and the individual scenes that you will use to tell that story.

Write a Scene (Creative Writing Exercise)

The lovely Kelley, writing at a coffee shopLet’s go ahead and get some practice on that storytelling. If you’re a strict interpretationist, you know better than to write any words on your actual NaNo novel, but you can still write a scene related to the novel. Maybe one that came before or after, maybe one featuring tertiary characters who would never actually get their own dedicated screen time in the real narrative.

Whatever your justification, I want you to write something that’s kind of like getting started on your book. And I want you to do it now. You won’t have a lot of leisure time come November, so let’s get in that habit.

Write 1,000-5,000 words presenting a complete scene associated with your story idea.

The word count requirement provides you a big window – approximately 3 pages to 15 pages. 15 pages makes a respectable Short Story, according to most definitions. It makes a good chapter, too. You don’t particularly need to aim for that, though. Your assignment is to write one complete scene. That means, within whatever story it’s a part of, it should move the story forward.

You may choose to write a scene right out of your story. It could be the first scene, the last scene, the climax, or just some scene that is already strong in your mind, and you want to get it down on paper. This can be a great chance to see what happens to your story idea when you commit it to story form.

You don’t have to start on your story yet, though. If you’d feel more comfortable saving that for later, you may choose to write a scene otherwise associated with your story. It could be the exciting (but irrelevant) story of how two key characters first met, or something fascinating that happens to one of the minor characters, that won’t make it into your finished story. You could even write an alternate ending, or describe how the story might have gone if your protagonist were a low-down dirty cheat.

In the end, this assignment serves several purposes. It’s practice, for your daily writing. It’s the first time you’ll get your feet wet with actual prose composition (everything else has been pre-writing so far). With any luck, it will give you an opportunity to apply the ideas discussed in this chapter, and focus on how the part of the story you’re telling actually moves the overall story forward.

Be sure to clearly establish the setting, provide enough characterization to carry the scene, and incorporate some element of the Conflict Resolution Cycle, showing the protagonist either encountering or overcoming an Obstacle (or both).

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