So You Think You Can Write-Part 5: Scenes

If you want your outline to be as specific as possible, break every chapter down scene by scene. Anne Lammott, author of Bird by Bird, describes her writing as a series of “short assignments,” using a one-inch picture frame as an example. “All I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.” In another chapter, she compared writing the first draft to watching a Polaroid develop. I think both of these analogies work when applied to writing scenes.

A scene in a movie or TV series is usually pretty short or at least about as long as your average TED talk (15-20 minutes) at most. In a novel, scenes can be long or short, but they have to have a certain structure and purpose. I keep using movies as examples because movies have a solid structure.

One of my favorite books that helps me when I’m writing is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. It’s a book that is targeted to screenwriters, but it helps novelists as well. It integrates plot and character together, showing how all the elements in a good story (whether in a novel or a book) work together.

In this book, Truby describes how to structure a scene:

“The beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene should then funnel down to a single point, with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.”

Truby’s book illustrates this by using the picture of an inverted triangle.

The widest part of the triangle represents the beginning of the scene, which starts out very broad. You can imagine this being an establishing shot in a movie. The narrowest part of the triangle is the end of a scene, which puts a great emphasis on an important word or line.

How does this particular scene structure work? Check out this example from Lessons from the Screenplay’s analysis of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Keep in mind that Gillian Flynn wrote the original book and then the screenplay for the movie adaptation. Never let it be said that we can’t learn anything from the movies.

When you outline or write out your scene, just ask yourself: “What is this whole scene about?” This will be the beginning of the scene. You can also ask “Where is this scene going to lead? What is the character supposed to choose or learn from in this scene?” This all factors into the beginning.

Then write out the scene. Push your character into a corner, to the point where he or she has to make a choice. The consequences of this choice will lead into the next scene. Ultimately, scenes are a matter of choices and consequences, cause and effect. Once you keep that in mind, your scenes will start to be more cohesive, even if you’re just writing the first draft.

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