Though clichéd, it’s true that the building blocks of a good novel are the scenes. I imagine if one looked hard enough it would be possible to find a novel with neither scene nor chapter breaks, but it would definitely be an oddity. Most readers like having a convenient place to pause, should nature call, for instance. But, if you approach your job as a novelist with the right frame of mind, you’ll be able to force that reader to haul your book along with them when they trot off to take care of business.
Therein lies the power of the scene, and the real reason for its primacy. Scenes offer a grand opportunity for storytellers to leave audiences hanging. In the oral tradition, because of time constraints and other issues not directly tied to the story, tales are typically single point-of-view affairs. They’re generally told in a linear fashion, too. Novelists, on the other hand, have an unlimited number of scenes at their disposal along with a potential horde of characters to supply a point of view. The opportunities for leaving a reader drooling to find out what happens next are endless. That’s power!
Does every scene need to be an old-time cliffhanger? No, of course not, but an occasional threat to life and limb rarely hurts. At least, not in the realms of fiction. At the most basic level, a scene should offer a bit of information that’s relevant to the plot or a sub-plot. Keeping that in mind will help a writer focus on moving the story forward. Scenes that don’t advance the plot, don’t belong. Go ahead and cut them now before you get too attached. This is more than just killing your darlings, which is pretty good advice. This is more like killing your darlings and their families.
I’ve written wonderful scenes which I felt sure would drive my story, only to realize they only added length, not depth. They contained nothing new, plot-wise, and the story worked just as well without them. But these were really, really good scenes! So, rather than consign them to the digital dustbin, I squirreled them away for later use. Two, in particular, drove short stories I wrote much later, adding the very depth they couldn’t provide when initially written. (Full disclosure: I had to change names and settings in both. In one case, I even changed the genre. Point is, they weren’t wasted.)
One particular element can make a scene truly worthwhile: suspense.
And how does one do that? Simply by asking a question that isn’t answered. Hopefully, you’ll be able to avoid the temptation to have the narrator (that’s you, Bubba, no matter what you choose to call yourself) ask the question in some blatantly meat-axed, melodramatic fashion: “Will the gigantic boulder break loose and crush the girl scouts camped below?”
Instead, you want the reader to pose the question. Your job is to set the scene: happy little campers frolic in the shadow of “Ol’ Man Mose,” an enormous boulder so named because of its peculiar head-like shape. The rain has stopped, and the kiddies are preparing to spend the night, unrolling their sleeping bags amidst giggles and laughter, blissfully unaware of the danger they’re in. Meanwhile, a steady drip of runoff from countless storms has eroded one too many pebbles from beneath the hoary, moon-sized rock they pressed into service for shelter. It shifts a fraction of an inch, a movement which goes completely unnoticed.
At this point, the smart writer will end the scene and move on to some other character or characters in some other situation. The reader, much like the boulder, is left hanging. Will it shift some more? Will the girls be crushed? Can’t they see the danger they’re in?
There’s only one way to find out, and thus the page-turner is born.
So, should you infer from this example that the primary story is about girl scouts and camping? Hell no! It’s about a park ranger, or the scout leader, or a politician in Washington, DC, some 2,000 miles away. Or, more likely, it’s about all three. Is the scene necessary? Yes, provided it gives the reader a tidbit of information which advances the story. Maybe the scout leader has always camped near Ol’ Mose, despite repeated warnings that the rock is unstable. Perhaps the ranger has a history of chasing campers away from that spot, or [cue evil laughter] luring them to it. Perhaps the politician has blocked the funding that would have allowed the DNR to secure the big, bad boulder. Any or all of these things could be in play. Maybe there’s something hidden under the rock. Maybe….
Knowing when to end a scene is critical. Fortunately, the more scenes you write, the easier finding that sweet spot becomes. Eventually, you’ll be able to feel it. For now, just work toward it, secure in the knowledge that all you need to do is paint enough of the picture to leave the reader wondering. And if possible, worried.
There’s obviously more to writing a novel than this, and we’ll examine another major aspect of the craft next time. So stay tuned!