Now that we are in the midst of December, many people are reviewing what they wrote during NaNoWriMo and trying to put it in order. This is a good time to look at the function of the scene.
Novels consist of a string of moments united by a common theme. These scenes combine to form a story when you put them together in the right order and link them with a plot featuring a compelling protagonist who must overcome adversity.
I see the scene as a story within a larger story, a moment with an arc of its own.
Scenes are the building blocks of the story. Small arcs of action form chapters, which form the larger arc of plot. They combine to form a cathedral-like structure: the novel.
If you ask a reader what makes a memorable story, they will tell you that the emotions it evoked are what they remember, and why they loved that novel.
Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each moment of the story must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest. I work to make each scene as emotionally powerful as I can without going overboard.
A few things a scene can show:
- Turning Point
Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.
Let’s return to a watershed chapter I’ve discussed before. In the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series, the longest chapter in the book details the Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.
The characters attending the Council have arrived there on separate errands. Each has different hopes for what would ultimately come from the meeting.
Despite their various agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the One Ring. Each has their own idea of how to use it to protect the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, who is desperate to regain possession of it. This chapter is comprised of several scenes and serves more than one function.
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 required information.
Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have vital knowledge.
The fact that some characters are working with limited information creates high emotional tension.
At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the history of the One Ring is explained. This is not done in an info dump; instead, each character offers a new piece of the puzzle at the moment the reader needs to know it.
The reader and the characters receive the information simultaneously at this point in the novel.
Confrontation: A scene comprised only of action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.
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 set aside their prejudice and work together or not.
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. 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. He explains that Tom lives in his own reality and doesn’t see the conflict with 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 reason that is provided for why these characters are deemed less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys 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 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 regarding who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to one day.)
Within the story’s arc are smaller arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by 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.
The scene must reveal something new and push the story toward something unknown.
We are also pushing the character arc with each scene, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does.
The reader can then reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.
I will continue this discussion in my next post, which will focus on transitioning from scene to scene. Transitions are vital as they affect pacing and keep the story moving forward.
Credits and Attributions:
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:GANDALF.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:GANDALF.jpg&oldid=608049709 (accessed December 12, 2021).
The One Ring, Peter J. Yost, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:One Ring Blender Render.png,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:One_Ring_Blender_Render.png&oldid=575573354 (accessed December 12, 2021).