Tips for Writing a Novel - How to Write Scenes
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I sometimes receive emails from beginning writers who complain that...
- their stories feel flat and lifeless.
- they have trouble "filling" a whole novel, or even a whole story. They feel as if they've used up everything they have to say in a page or two.
The cause of both problems is often that the writers are summarizing too much of their stories instead of using scenes.
If you summarize your whole story, it can end up feeling like a Wikipedia article, just a list of events. It doesn't pull the reader in.
So, what's the difference between a summary and a scene?
Here's an example of a summary:
Jill returned home from school and found her father waiting to tell her good-bye. He explained that her mother had asked him to move out of the house. Jill was confused and upset at the news, but she was helpless to stop him from leaving.
There's nothing wrong with using that kind of summary in a story. But you don't want to write your whole story that way!
Here's the same event written as a SCENE (taken from a novel by Linda Leopold Strauss)
Jill’s house and Mary Kate’s had a common driveway, so the two girls almost always rode the bus home together and then walked side by side to their houses at the bottom of the cul-de-sac. By the time the bus let them off that afternoon, the sun was fading, and the snow in the driveway, which had partly melted during the day, was freezing up again. Jill had to walk in the snow along the edge of the drive to keep from turning her ankle on the ice as they started down the hill. Multiple ruts showed there’d been a lot of activity in and out of the house, but Jill saw neither Mom’s green car nor Dad’s new Jeep in the turnaround. Usually at least one parent was home to meet Markie. Maybe one car was in the garage.
“Let’s talk after dinner,” said Mary Kate when they got to Jill’s front walk. “You call me or I’ll call you, okay?”
“Yeah, sure, see you later,” Jill said distractedly as Mary Kate continued down the drive to her own house. Jill picked her way across the icy path toward the kitchen door. Peeling off her mittens, she retrieved her key from the small red pouch in her backpack. When she opened the door, the house was dark.
“Dad? Mom? Markie?” she called, turning on a light in the kitchen.
“In here, Jilly,” called Dad. Jill followed his voice to the living room, where for some reason he was sitting in one of the tall velvet wing chairs usually reserved for company. He had on his leather bomber jacket and looked as if he were ready to go out. Then Jill noticed the two black suitcases on the rug next to his chair.
“Why are the lights off? What’re the suitcases for?” she asked, standing in the doorway. “Where’s Mom?”
“She went to pick Markie up at school. I was just waiting to tell you goodbye.”
Jill’s heart began pounding. “What do you mean ‘goodbye?’ Where are you going?”
“Well, your mom’s pretty upset and asked me to move out for a while.” Dad held up a gloved hand, as if fending off an argument. “I don’t blame her, Jilly, really I don’t. But I just want you to know I’m going to fight as hard as I can to get this thing straightened out. I swear to you I will. Because my goal—my absolute bottom line—is to be here for you and Markie. And I’ll do whatever I can to make that happen.”
“But where are you going?” Jill’s eyes widened. “You’re not going to jail, are you?”
“No, I’m going to find a rented room or some place to stay till I can get things squared away.” Dad shook his head. “You know, they really never should have charged me, Jilly, after all I did for the FBI. They actually had me wired with a microphone, and I had to get this guy to incriminate himself and record it on tape. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but it was pretty scary. I’m not anxious to do that again.”
Jill couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with Dad—her own father!—in her own living room. Dad was impeccably dressed and groomed as usual, looking as if he were heading out to a meeting or lunch with his friends, but the words coming from his mouth were bizarre television words, about the FBI and wires and people incriminating themselves. Did he have any idea how strange this was?
The trouble was, Dad kept starting in the middle, and Jill needed a beginning-middle-end story. She also needed to know why Mom would kick Dad out of the house so suddenly. Why couldn’t he stay here and “make things right,” as he said? Other people got into trouble and their families stuck with them. Dad had said over and over again that he was trying to straighten things out—couldn’t Mom give him a chance? Jill didn’t want him to leave! Her dad had always been the one who let them act goofy in this house, the parent she and Markie could go to, the one who stuck up for them when Mom tried to run their lives by some stupid rule book. And this was her and Markie’s house, too, wasn’t it? Shouldn’t they get to have some say in this?
“Dad,” she ventured, “what if we waited to see if Mom’ll change her mind? She was probably just super-mad for a while. You know how she is. But when she sees how much Markie and I—”
“I don’t think so, Jilly. And I really have to leave now—your mom wanted me to tell you goodbye in person, but I need to be out of here before Markie gets home. He’s going to be too upset when he finds out I’m leaving.”
Jill stared at him. “You’re not going to stay and tell Markie?”
“This isn’t so easy for me either, Jill. This is really killing me—I’m not used to being the bad guy around here. I’d do anything for you two kids, you know that.”
Well, then, stay! Jill wanted to shout at him. That’s what we want! But instead she stood stiffly and waited to see what her father would say next.
He rose and picked up his bags with his usual grace, then came over to kiss her gently on the forehead. Tears flooded her eyes. Dad’s eyes filled with tears, too. “I love you, Jilly,” he said softly. “Don’t ever forget that. And I’ll get this worked out for you. I swear I will.”
“But where are you going? What’ll I say to Markie?” she pleaded. “What if we need you for something? Where will we find you?”
“As soon as I have an address, I’ll let you know,” Dad said. “In the meantime, you have my cell phone.” He ruffled her hair. “You didn’t call me from school—what happened with the elections?”
Jill sniffed in hard. “I got nominated.”
“That’s my girl. Who’s the competition?”
“Amy Stout. You don’t know her.” Each word Jill spoke felt like a rock dropping into a void. Heavy. Dull. Meaningless.
“Well I know you, and you’ll do fine, Jilly,” Dad said. “I’m counting on you. You’ve always been a winner in my book, you know that.”
Jill wanted to fling her arms around him, to grab at his leather jacket, to block his body so he couldn’t leave. But he was already moving smoothly toward the kitchen, suitcases in hand.
“Love you, Jilly,” he said over his shoulder as she followed him.
“Love you, Dad.”
He kissed her again. Wrapping her arms around herself, she watched helplessly as he opened the kitchen door, letting in a blast of frigid air. Then he slung his hang-up bag over his shoulder, turned one last time to look at her, stepped out into the purple January twilight, and was gone.
(- from REALLY, TRULY, EVERYTHING'S FINE by Linda Leopold Strauss, Marshall Cavendish, 2004, reprinted with permission of the author.)
The scene creates the feeling that you're watching the event firsthand.
There are descriptive details to help you visualize what's going on. And one of the most important aspects of the scene is dialogue. You get to hear what the characters are saying in their exact words.
The scene feels like it's happening in "real time". The dialogue helps to create this "real time" effect.
In fact, if you have trouble writing in scenes instead of summary, one trick is to add some dialogue. The dialogue can help you to switch into scene-writing mode.
Click here to join our online course on writing dialogue.
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