Building a Story #3
Beginning Construction, Scene by Scene
by Deb Brammer
You’ve thought out your story and you know where you’re going with it. Now you’re ready to write. Where do you begin?
A story is a collection of scenes. A very short story may only have two or three scenes, or possibly only one. A longer short story will likely have more. In a novel most chapters have at least two or three scenes. Except for very short transitions, everything that happens, everything that you want to communicate, needs to fit into a scene.
Train yourself to think of your story as a series of scenes. Every scene needs to be a careful mix of what your characters say, do, and think. Description needs to be worked, little by little into that.
You could just start writing your story at the beginning and keep writing until you get to the end. If you do that, however, you’ll probably end up deleting many carefully worded sentences that don’t end up being necessary.
This is one good way to build a scene from scratch.
Start with dialog. Dialog is usually what moves your scene forward. Exceptions to this are scenes that are heavy with action, like a chase scene, or reflective scenes that are mainly thought. But dialog is the backbone of most fiction scenes.
Choose two or more characters and show conflict by dialog. Make your dialog sound natural, the way you would talk. Keep the conversation moving back and forth. Break long sections up with comments from other characters where possible. Don’t worry about detail and description at this point. Just indicate who is speaking. Use dialog to move the plot forward and show what the characters are like.
When you come to the occasional scene that has long sections of thought, use dialog to break up the thought. If the character is alone, have him talk to a dog or the mirror or a teddy bear.
Even most action scenes can be improved by including some dialog.
Action also allows you to show what your characters are like without telling your reader. After you have written the dialog for a scene, add action. Show how your characters look and who they are by what they do.
You can also describe your location through a character’s action. Work brief, significant bits of description into your character’s dialog by showing what he does. Your characters can pick up, sit on, hit, break, eat, smell, or hear different things in his environment.
Avoid meaningless action which tells the reader nothing new. Action should move the plot forward or tell you something about the characters.
Show your character’s feelings, hopes, fears, goals, and doubts, through what he thinks. Go back into your dialog and action and add occasional sentences that show what he thinks or feels. You can do this directly or indirectly.
Indirect: She made him feel like the luckiest man in the world.
Direct: She is so good to me. I’m the luckiest man in the world!
Indirect: Could he read the terror on her face?
Direct: Can he see how frightened I am?
For a full discussion of different ways to handle a character’s thoughts see chapter 6 of Lee Wyndam’s book Writing for Children and Teenagers.
Almost every scene should be a mixture of what the characters say, do, and think. If a scene is mainly dialog, weave bits of actions into the scene to show character. Add a sentence or two of thought so the reader can see what the viewpoint character is thinking.
If the scene is mainly action, weave bits of dialog and thought into the action to show how the character is affected by the action.
Break up prolonged sections of action and suspense with brief quiet scenes when the protagonlist, and the reader, can think long enough to gain his bearings and mull over the significance of what is going on.
Including “think, talk, act” in every scene is Robert Newton Peck’s antidote for “Narrative Drag” or scene boredom. (See chapter 5 of Fiction is Folks.)
Scenes and Transitions
· Major scenes are the backbone of the book. They must always be re-created so that the reader can see the character talking and acting and thinking. They move the story forward.
· Smaller scenes can give the reader information, which is necessary but not worth wasting a whole scene over. Smaller scenes may not have all the elements of major scenes, but they may help the story work.
· Transitions link the scenes together to make the story flow easily. They need to be kept as short as possible and move the reader quickly from one scene to the next. Give transition words first (like “the next day”). Then summarize quickly with little detail and get on with the story.
Example of a transition from Moose:
This time we made our own trail. At first we dodged tree branches. Pine and fir needles carpeted the path. Soon, however, we were forced to climb around rocks and work our way through dense undergrowth.
Before long we found rock seats in a thick group of pine trees….
This is one way to build a scene, starting with dialog, then adding the rest and linking your scenes together with transitions. Some find it easier just to write everything out and get on paper. If you do that, when you are done go back and look for the various elements mentioned in this article. Make sure you have good strong scenes that link together to make the best possible story.
When you’ve done this take a break. You’re not done yet, but you have your basic story on paper. When you’re ready to go on see my next article on polishing and revising.