I’m sifting through the book Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks and giving you the best stuff. He offers six core competencies of a great story. I’ve already covered 1-4 (check past posts to catch up). The fifth core competency is scene execution. Brooks uses the analogy of building a house: the writer is the architect, and core competencies 1-4 are the blueprints. Competency 6 (writer voice) is like the paint color. But number five is the primary tool in your toolbox for building all that you’ve blueprinted. Scenes are what hammers your story home.
“A long-form story… is a sequence of separate, discreet, yet dramatically connected scenes,” Brooks says. They are the building blocks of your story. Without scenes, you have no story. This may clue you in to the importance of scenes.
Scenes can come in tons of different shapes, sizes, and colors, but they all have a few things in common. First, each scene has a beginning, middle, and end. Something is at stake within each scene, and that must be dramatically portrayed for the reader. If you have stakes but no drama, you have bored readers. If you have drama but no stakes, you have a meaningless scene. That’s not to say there can’t be exposition and narration within a scene, and if you include these things, that doesn’t necessary mean your scene is boring. If the stakes are high enough and the reveal information juicy enough, even exposition can be exciting.
Scenes can be any length, from one page to several chapters. Chapter breaks, by the way, don’t necessarily fall where scene breaks do. In fact, most chapter breaks happen at the most exciting part of the scene to guarantee the reader doesn’t stick a bookmark in and turn on the TV (but that’s a discussion for another time).
Scenes have a simple function: deliver a piece of story information. “Every scene has a mission to accomplish,” Brooks says. It is “to move the story forward… optimally, each scene should contain only one such piece of exposition. The mission of each scene is to deliver a single, salient, important piece of the story to the reader.” I’ll admit, I sometimes use my scenes for double-duty, which can be a good thing, if done correctly. If my scene can move the story forward, reveal more characterization, and possibly foreshadow coming events, I feel like I’ve created a fantastic scene.
If you struggle with knowing whether you’ve created a successful scene or not, chapter 44 of the book has a checklist for you to go through. It’s a list of questions that, if you can answer them all based only on the information contained in your scene, you’re successful. If you stumble on some of the questions, you’ve got more work to do. I won’t list those questions here because it’s entire too long, and if you need it that much, you should buy the book.
That’s enough about scene for now. Questions? Comments? Hints you’d like to share?