Hi everybody! Welcome to the third and final part of our CBC mini-course, where we’re taking a closer look at different aspects of storytelling. We’ve looked at character (how important it is to know your characters in order to know your story) and openings (how to pull your reader in, how to ‘set up your stall’). If you haven’t read those lessons, I’d advise you to start there, as each topic builds on the last.
I will leave you with a lesson on scenes: how to write powerful dramatic scenes, and the importance of structuring our stories around these scenes. I think it will stand you in good stead to take your writing forward after this course ends. You will have a character or characters, you will have a beginning, and you will have the tools to create engaging moments of drama whenever required.
As with all the advice in this course, this lesson is intended for use any way you see fit, whether you are writing a short story, novel, or memoir, or you are simply experimenting with ideas and finding your way. There is no barrier to using these tips in non-fiction. The story of your life, or someone else’s life, is equally in need of structure when you put it on the page.
The lesson ends with an exercise to help unlock your writing further. Please remember it is entirely at your discretion if you want to tackle the exercise, and how long you spend on it. If you decide to have a go, I hope you find it enjoyable and useful, and that it becomes something you can return to again and again as you develop your writing projects after lockdown.
OK, let’s jump into it. Let’s think of our stories as a series of scenes. There are the broad, loose concepts of ‘story’ and ‘character’, but it is in the real-time drama of scenes where these are nailed down and given form…
Choose your scenes wisely
Is it entirely necessary to show this moment in your story? How is this dynamic or plot point best depicted? Kurt Vonnegut said, ‘Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.’ Is the scene advancing the plot and/or revealing character? If it isn’t, it should probably be cut. (In a novel, as opposed to a short story or a memoir, we might go further still and say that if the scene features more than one central character, it should be advancing the storylines for all. But in shorter pieces or non-fiction, which tend to be more focused on a single character, this is not necessary.)
Know what you want the scene to achieve
Remember those Victorian chapter rubrics which you see in Dickens and the like? ‘Chapter 11. A decidedly grim picnic – Mr Reynolds proposes – Mrs Scoggins receives a nasty surprise.’ It’s not a bad idea to mark your own scenes up with similar key moments, to see what must be achieved there, and to remind yourself to stick to it (it doesn’t have to make the final edit, of course). Again, this applies to fiction and non-fiction. If you write an opinion piece or a review for a newspaper, you might put a headline and a sub-header at the top of the article to keep yourself on track – try the same thing here.
I’m a great believer in instinct being your guide. If you’re thinking: ‘I don’t really want to write this scene, I’m not inspired or excited by it, but I have to’ – I would say don’t write that scene. Or at least not in that way. Find a way to excite or inspire yourself. Only ever write scenes where you feel that. If you are not interested, readers will pick up on it. They are telepathic like that!
In journalism there is an old saying: ‘Dog bites man isn’t a story. Man bites dog is a story.’ Man bites dog is a little extreme for most writing, but the writer should have a similar outlook: their task is to prevent formula from becoming formulaic. There is no point writing a scene, however beautifully done, where the reader can foresee exactly how things are going to turn out.
For example: A woman has discovered her husband is having an affair. In this hypothetical scene, she angrily confronts him, he breaks down and confesses it’s true …
As it stands, this is not a good scene. Yes, it has emotion and drama, but there is no element of surprise. As readers, we knew he was having the affair when the wife discovered evidence of it. We learn nothing new from this scene, and we 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 and at least slightly surprised as to how each scene turns out.
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 to find the husband, we can’t just describe him sitting on the sofa and the subsequent confrontation. Let’s make things difficult for our characters. Perhaps the cheating husband has friends over at this moment. Perhaps he is making dinner for the kids. The more we can set up the context and the subtext of the scene, the better this confrontation, when it finally comes, will be. Your character walks in to do one thing, the scene has other plans, and in the end we reach a conclusion we did not envisage. I believe this still holds true if you are writing a memoir. Think about how those key scenes in your life played out. I’ll bet they never unfolded as simply as one might imagine.
Remember that everyone is operating on more than one level. There is the surface layer – how they respond to the external world; there is the hidden layer – how they think about the external world; and there is the alternate layer – what they think about and feel aside from what is happening. Remember also what we talked about in lesson one: desire. Make sure that everyone wants something out of the scene.
Some people say your protagonist should emotionally develop in every scene. I disagree! I think it is important over the course of a book, and there should be scenes where emotional development is specifically what happens, but I don’t think our protagonists need to be ‘learning’ and ‘going on journeys’ in every single scene (and not necessarily ever in short stories). One of the truths of life, for better or for worse, is that people take a very long time to learn anything or to change their ways at all.
Consider the numbers
Too many active characters in a scene can bog things down and pull focus away from your protagonist and they key thing you want to achieve. But equally, sometimes adding a character can change the dynamics in interesting ways. Adding a third party to a two-hander scene can shift the context, or provide a different perspective for us to view the scene. Another person present may also ask interesting questions about loyalty, behaviour in front of others, secrecy, and generally complicate matters for our characters.
Come in late, get out early
Don’t drop us in a scene too early, or show us all the nuts and bolts of getting to the house, knocking on the door etc., and don’t overstay your welcome in a scene.
Give us an action or an event
This doesn’t have to be big, blockbuster, life-and-death stuff. Action of any sort (a dinner party, a card game, doing the dishes) gives scenes form. Writing two people sitting in a room doing nothing but have a chat is hard to do, and almost never true to life.
Description is your friend (within reason). Use the setting and its details to evoke the mood you want. This is not necessarily about giving us lots of gothic detail for your horror story and so on, more about giving us enough solid fact so we are there, we can see it and smell it.
Following on from this last point, this week’s writing exercise is something I have adapted from the Schwartz Technique – a method used by the radio documentary maker Stephen Schwartz. He gets his interviewees to shut their eyes and go through every detail of the story they are telling. He believes this approach brings new details and thoughts to the fore, even in stories we have thought about or told so many times that the details and way of telling have become set.
If you’re working on a story already, choose a scene that features two characters, and then think about the scene in relation to the following questions. I’d start by just jotting some notes down.
Write out the following visual snapshots:
- Still life: the room, the props, the setting.
- Portrait of character 1.
- Portrait of character 2.
- Double portrait. The two characters frozen in a moment. Describe this.
This is in effect what you see. Now add to the general scene a few of the following:
- What can be heard in the scene?
- What can be smelled?
- What can be tasted?
- What can be felt? (Touch, pleasant or unpleasant)
Choose the three most interesting sense details (not all from one category).
With these in mind, ask yourself:
- What conclusion does each detail lead the reader towards? This conclusion could be right or wrong.
- What question does each detail lead us towards? For each one, identify an important question it might raise.
- What emotions do these details trigger? This can just be a word answer for each: joy, dread, disgust etc.
Now, if you’d like to, take your notes and use them to write a short scene, or rewrite one you’ve been working on. Aim for about 600–800 words in total. Don’t forget to decide before you begin what the key thing you want to achieve in the scene is!
If you’d like to start something fresh and are looking for some inspiration, choose one of these scenarios as a prompt, then go through the questions above and see where they take you – enjoy!
- A couple are saying goodbye at the airport…
- One character has to break bad news to the other…
- Two characters are sitting at the end of a pier one night…
- A person opens the door to an unexpected visitor…
- A witness is explaining what they saw to a police officer…
- One character asks another for a big favour…
Goodbye... For now
That’s all from me. I hope you’ve enjoyed this mini-course and that it has inspired, motivated, and focused your writing. If you want to learn more about me or my writing, or see some of the books I love, you can visit my bookshop.org page here, or you can find me on Twitter @simon_wroe.
If you’d like to take your learning further, to get more practical advice on how to write generally and your own writing specifically, CBC has courses for all disciplines and budgets. To put it simply: if you like what you see here, there’s plenty more where it came from!
I am also a regular tutors on CBC’s Writing Your Novel courses, I hope that some of you working on novels will apply.
All the best of luck with your writing,
Return to the other lessons in this course
Lesson 1 – Character
Learn how to come up with characters, how to make them believable and how to make them compelling for readers.
Lesson 2 – Openings
This lesson is all about nailing the opening of your story from the set up to the inciting incident.