Creating: Every Scene Is A _____

By Randy Ingermanson

Sometimes I worry that my critique group hates me. Every month when we get together, each writer brings one scene to be critiqued.

Sometimes the writing is terrific. Sometimes it isn’t.

But whether the writing is good or bad, one of the most common problems I see every month is with the scene itself.

All too often, things just happen, but nothing really changes. So the scene may be well-written, but it isn’t important to the story.

That’s usually a showstopper. Even if the writing is terrific.

A scene is the fundamental unit of your novel. Each scene needs to advance the plot. Each scene needs to be essential to the novel.

The surest way to make that happen is to require that each scene must be a story, all on its own.

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Between the beginning and the end, something changes.

Therefore, a scene needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. Between the beginning and the end, something needs to change.

Every scene. Every time.

In my opinion, if it doesn’t have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if nothing really changes, then it isn’t a scene.

In that case, you either fix it or kill it.

Sometimes when I point this out in my critique group, I get back the answer, “This scene is just showing us who the characters are.”

In my opinion, that’s not good enough. Not nearly good enough. Not in modern fiction. Not in today’s market.

It’s not that I’m mean or narrow-minded. It’s that modern readers are impatient and want scenes to move the story forward. Therefore, editors want scenes to move the story forward. Therefore, I teach writers to move the story forward.

Every scene. Every time. Simple as that.

Yes, you can argue that there are plenty of exceptions in published novels. I’m sure you can find examples from Austen or Dickens or Tolstoy. I bet you can even find an occasional example in Tom Clancy or Danielle Steel or Stephen King.

So you may be wondering why I seem to be saying that you aren’t allowed to “think outside the box.”

I guess I’ll have to go Zen on you here: On the day you know that there is no box, that will be the day you will be ready to think outside the box.

Until then, write every scene so that it makes sense as a story. So that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So that something important changes. So that it contributes to the larger story. So that if you took the scene away, the novel would be broken.

Now of course you may be writing a heartbreaking work of staggering genius in which you transcend everything I’ve just said. That happens from time to time. Sometimes it works. The examples you want to show me from Clancy or Steel or King prove that it can work in the hands of a master.

In that case, when you bring your scene to my critique group, I’ll point out that you’re doing everything “wrong” but the story still works. And I’ll tell you it’s fine. Run with it.

If it works, then it works.

But if the scene doesn’t work, and if the reason is that the scene isn’t a story, then fix it.

There is much more to say on this. I’ve said a lot of it in a very widely read article on my web site. You can easily find it by Googling the phrase, “Writing the perfect scene.”

The first result Google returns is my article. Have fun!
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to
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