Crafting the scene

I often sit and stare out the window at some point or another during the day–a habit perhaps from the old days of being an ADD kid imprisoned in the basement classrooms of the old Michael T. Simmons Elementary school in 1965. Although that building has been long ago torn down and a new one now serves the community, I still remember sitting in Mrs. White’s overcrowded classroom, staring up at the small window, unable to concentrate on anything but the blue sky outside.  She was my favorite teacher, because she knew I needed extra help with math, and in a class with 42 children, she found the time to give it to me.

Amaranthus and Savvy at the needles by haystack rock cannon beach 2012I still stare out my windows when I am rolling a plot point over in my mind, and I sometimes notice what is happening in the neighborhood.  The window is closed, so I can’t hear their words, but I often see the children.

At first it looks as if they are all happily playing.  Then two of them stand up and from their posture you can see a quarrel is brewing. Suddenly one of them  clouts the other on the head with a toy sword, and another child intervenes. The angry child leaves, and the others are left to console the sobbing child with the bump on his head.

We know that what we have witnessed is not the whole story–there is a whole novel surrounding that interaction. If what I witnessed from my window was a book, this event would read this way:

1. Deciding to meet and spending the day playing in the neighbor’s yard is a chapter in the much larger story of how a group of children in one neighborhood spent their summer

2. The quarrel and resulting bump on the head with the final moments of consolation are one complete scene within that chapter, setting the stage for the next scene–tattling on and achieving penalties for the aggressor, who then apologizes and seeks acceptance back into the group. These two separate scenes comprise the whole chapter, Playing at So-and-So’s Yard.

The Arc of the StoryMost authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc,  which  consists of :

  • a. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  • b. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  • c. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  • d. Falling Action, the regrouping and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  • e. Resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

However, within the larger story there are many smaller stories, all scenes created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

The main difference in the arc of the scene vs the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. 

This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s Narrative Arc than the previous scene did, pushing the narrative toward the climax.

876MilanoDuomoWhen you are structuring your novel, think of the way Gothic Cathedrals are constructed–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries.

Like a Gothic cathedral, each small arc of the scene  builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel. By creating small arcs in each scene, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.

Better You Go Home, Scott DriscollAt the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference this last weekend, I went to a presentation by University of Washington Professor Scott Driscoll, who is a highly acclaimed author of literary fiction. His book, Better You Go Home is a gripping tale of a man in search of his roots and something more. Scott spoke at length on the importance of creating an arc within each scene, small arcs that propel the plot forward and hook the interest of the reader. In Scott’s work, each scene sets that hook just a little bit deeper.

Some authors make each individual scene a chapter, and some group several scenes with a common theme together to create a chapter. It’s your book–do it however suits you best.

The important thing to remember is that each scene that comprises the framework of the overall narrative arc must have its own arc–the Arc of the Scene.




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4 responses to “Crafting the scene

  1. I love the comparison of the scene to the cathedral! Now I need to tack up a photo of one of those babies to my wall as I write for inspiration.


  2. Perhaps if one does this thing often enough it all becomes innate. I seldom think about arcs or climaxes or where stuff goes but it [usually] comes out that way, anyway. There have been plenty of studies on narrative (narratology, in academic parlance) demonstrating a native thought pattern which incorporates this kind of structure. That is likely why books written outside that basic format do not succeed; they go against our inborn sense of narrative cohesion.

    Yes, I went there. Sorry.