Building Scenes…

March 31, 2005 | Articles

A couple of days ago I mentioned Alicia Rasley’s excellent RWR article on constructing scenes. Well, today during a lovely drive through some truly scary parts of downtown Chicago, I got the chance to re-read the article and make notes. As much for my benefit as yours, I thought I would recap here. (I’m a write-it-down-to-remember-it kind’a gal.)

Alicia says each scene should be built considering selection, structure and sequence. Of these I think sequence is the easiest. I think selection is a big ole problem for a lot of us. It is so easy to write a really fabulous scene with lots of great character-revealing dialogue that goes absolutely no where. Ever read a scene like that? Ever written one?

One scene or big piece of a scene that I originally wrote for Love is All Around leaps to mind. It was a great scene (to me). It was basically straight out of my childhood. The father was giving the mother a hard time about the “country” foods she used to eat – like squirrel brains. Yes, squirrel brains. My mother used to crack open their little skulls like a walnut and eat the brains. Now she won’t eat squid. I mean what is not to love about a scene like that? How about it was just me reliving my past? Uh, yeah. I cut it.

Okay, maybe you don’t have an obvious squirrel-brain scene to cut. How then do you know whether to cut or not? Here’s what I think from Alicia’s article was the best of many pearls. At the end of the scene is there some change that affects the overall plot? So, if the change is that the protagonist got her hair cut – does that change the plot? Is that why the hero mistakes her for the ex-con he’s been searching for? Or is it just a new look, that really changes nothing? Read your scene and ask yourself, “What is different?” Then follow that up with, “If that hadn’t changed, would it affect the book?” If the answer is no, you don’t need the scene.

Another real gem is the whole give your protagonist a goal thing. I have seen this smacked around on writer’s loops over and over. We just don’t seem to get this. Alicia makes it simple. The protagonist should have a goal – for the period of time that is the scene. This is not the overall goal she has for the entire book. She is going to get a hair cut. Her goal is to look twenty years younger, instead she looks like her mother.

This last bit brings me to the other key element I see. Building to a climatic event through the use of barriers. She wants to look younger, but the hair cut makes her look like her mother. So, she goes for a massage, but it hurts so bad she hobbles out like a woman of ninety. Everything keeps building until Wham she’s got the most to lose. (point of greatest risk.) And then you have your climatic event – the highest risk event that produces the ending emotion. (hopefully, different than the emotion your protag. started the scene with.)

Anyway, if you get RWR, read the article. If you don’t, I hope this helped you a little and check out Alicia’s site for some other great articles. :)