Simon Wroe is the author of two novels: Chop Chop (shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Prize) and Here Comes Trouble (shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize). He is a regular tutor on our six-month novel-writing course, and a client of C+W agent Susan Armstrong. Here he offers advice on how to make your scenes come alive.
I HAVE a confession: when I wrote my first novel, Chop Chop, based on my experiences as a chef, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was clueless about the rules of writing. But somehow the book came together. Characters and plot presented themselves naturally. The story knew what it was and where it was going. Only years later did I understand what I’d done unconsciously in that first book: I had concentrated on scenes.
We often talk about novel writing in terms of “story” or “character”, but it is in the real-time drama of scenes where these ideas are grounded and given form. I tell each of my students to see their novel as a series of scenes. On weekday evenings, the hallowed chambers of Curtis Brown echo with the impassioned cry of “Scenes, people! Scenes!”
Choose your scenes wisely.
Is it necessary to show this moment on the page? If so, how is the character dynamic or plot point you wish to show best depicted? Kurt Vonnegut advised that “every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.” We can think of every scene in the same way. Is it advancing the plot and/or revealing character?
Let instinct be your guide. If you don’t want to write a scene, but you feel you have to – don’t write that scene. Or at least not in that way. Find a way to excite or inspire yourself. If you are not interested, readers will pick up on it.
There’s an old adage in journalism: “Dog bites man isn’t a story. Man bites dog is a story.” Man bites dog is a little extreme for most fiction, but the fiction writer has a similar task: to prevent formula from becoming formulaic. There is no point writing a scene, however beautifully done, where the reader can foresee how things will turn out. For example: A woman discovers her husband is having an affair. She confronts him. He breaks down and confesses it’s true … As it stands, this is not a good scene. It has emotion and drama, but no element of surprise. As readers, we knew he was having the affair when the wife discovered it. We learn nothing new from the scene, and see only the standard responses we expect (her angry, him remorseful). It’s dead weight. Readers will switch off. To keep that feeling of momentum and suspense and curiosity, we have to be constantly learning things about the characters.
If we go into a scene knowing that something will be confronted or discovered or declared, we have to work up to it. If the wife storms into the house looking for her husband, we can’t describe him sitting on the sofa and the subsequent confrontation. The more we can set up the context and the subtext of the scene, the better this confrontation, when it finally comes, will be.
The Aristolean idea of structure – Thesis, antithesis, synthesis – that informs the novel as a whole can be applied at the level of scenes too. Your character walks in to do one thing, but the scene has other plans, and in the end we reach a conclusion we did not envisage.
Remember that everyone is operating on more than one level. There is the surface layer (how they respond to the exterior); the hidden layer (how they think about the exterior); and the alternate layer (what they think about and feel aside from what is happening).
Make sure that everyone, not just your protagonist, wants something out of the scene.
Shift the dynamics
The dynamic between characters and/or their situations should not leave the scene the same as it arrives. We must feel the values have shifted. Someone comes into the scene with the upper hand, they leave with the lower. Someone walks in knowing everything, they leave knowing nothing. It doesn’t have to be so binary: Someone arrives wanting one thing, leaves needing another. It could be a subtle shift in power, desire, affection.
Description is your friend. Use the place and its details to evoke the mood you want. This is not necessarily about giving us lots of gothic detail for your horror story – more about giving us enough solid fact so we are there, we can see it and smell it. And remember, sight is but one sense. Switch it up!
If you’re feeling inspired by Simon’s advice on writing scenes why not apply to study with him in London on our 6-month novel-writing course. (Deadline: Sunday 15th July at midnight)