Scenes are the Legos, the building blocks of the story. We all loved building things with our Legos, but readers are impatient. For that reason, no scene can be wasted, written just to entertain us, the writer. All of those scenes are background and world building, and should be saved in a separate file.
We want to ensure that each scene has a function. When I am writing the first or even the second draft, I can find myself at a loss as to what needs to happen next to advance the story.
I keep a list of plot points that could be explored and try to nudge my plot forward by exploring one of these actions:
- Turning Point
- Deep emotions
Exploring each of these plot points alters the characters’ view of their world. Every change in a character’s awareness directly impacts the direction of the story and doles out information the reader and/or the characters require to advance.
I like to use a watershed scene from the book, the Fellowship of the Ring, as an example of this. If you have only seen the movie, the version you know is quite different. You haven’t seen the real story as J.R.R. himself told it.
So, toward the end of book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series, we come to The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.
Each character attending the Council has arrived there on a separate errand. Each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their various agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the ring of power. Each wants to protect their people from Sauron’s depredations if he were to regain possession of it.
This scene serves several functions:
Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond conveys information to both the protagonists and the reader.
It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy necessary information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have critical knowledge.
The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.
Inter-racial bigotry and confrontation: A well-placed verbal confrontation gives the reader the context they need to understand why the action occurs.
At the Council of Elrond, long-simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.
Thus, we have action/confrontation in this vignette, followed by conversation, followed by the characters’ reactions.
The conversation and reaction give the scene context, which is critical. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context.
Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.
Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated.
First, Tom Bombadil is mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see Sauron as a problem.
Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another.
Each justification Gandalf and Elrond offer for why these characters are wrong for the job deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.
Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This moment is the turning point of the story.
(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision about who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to one day.)
The arc of the story is supported by smaller arcs. These arcs of conflict and reflection are scenes.
The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started, leading to the brief transition scene.
Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. This rhythm of action – reaction – action – reaction is how we adjust the pacing. Pacing is how we affect the reader’s emotions.
With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist is shaped by experiencing events and receiving needed information through action and conversation.
All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel.
By creating small arcs, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel at the same time as the protagonist does. This is how we give the reader a sense of immediacy.