The Fiction Writing Workshop: The Anatomy of a Scene

Kristin Bair O'Keeffe
By Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

What is a scene?

Pushed to put this seemingly abstract concept into words, scene can be hard to define. But, if we leave the written word for a moment and jump to the stage, the answer comes a little more easily.

So go ahead, leave the written word. Jump to the stage. And think again.

What is a scene? Ah, yes. A scene is a period of time during which characters are talking, something is happening, and both are unfolding in a place.

Take Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for instance, when Romeo climbs up onto Juliet’s balcony and she professes great love for him, and the two of them coo at each other until they must part. Right there you’ve got a spectacular (and rather famous) scene: action, dialogue, and definitely a place.

You use the same three elements to create scenes in novels and short stories.

But why are scenes important? A numbers of reasons.

First, scenes give your readers something to see, and readers love to have something to see. (Think about how many times while reading certain passages in your favorite novel, you say, “Oh, I can just see it!”)

Second, scenes perform the all-important task of moving your story forward.

Third, scenes allow your readers to get to know your characters (and once your readers know your characters, they will keep on reading).

Fourth, without scenes, your story will be just plain B-O-R-I-N-G.

Consider Sherman Alexie’s poignant, hilarious, and spot-on novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown and Company, 2007). In the third chapter entitled “Revenge Is My Middle Name,” the narrator (a Spokane Indian kid named Junior who lives on a reservation) goes to a powwow with his best friend Rowdy. Now Alexie could have described Rowdy’s angry, aggressive behaviors to readers in straight narrative, but instead he puts the two boys into a situation where they talk, go somewhere, and get involved with some seedy characters. We get it all: action, dialogue, and place, and by the end of the powwow scene, we GET Rowdy. We know his role in Junior’s life. We understand why Junior loves him so much. And we suspect that eventually, there may be a bit of friction in this friendship. Most importantly, we want to keep reading. (Let me point out that although this novel’s primary audience is young readers, this is some sophisticated scene construction. It’s worth reading for both story and writerly techniques.)

With all this churning about in your noggin, try your hand at a couple of scenes this month. Use characters from a piece you’ve been working on or create some new ones in a completely new setting.

In addition, reread one of your favorite stories. Pay close attention to the scenes in the story. Where does one scene begin and end? What does the scene accomplish? How does the scene move the story forward? The more aware you become of scene construction in what you read, the more easily and artfully you’ll use it in your own work.

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