Refine Your Prose: Building your story scene by scene

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Welcome to my second writing advice blog. I thought I’d open with an inspirational message from the Avengers:

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Unless you’re currently the Hulk. In which case your Great American Novel would be written with somebody’s bloody leg stump on a chunk of concrete and would just say “Smash.”

2. Think in scenes

What’s a story? If you say a story is character, situation and plot, this is true. A story needs those three basic elements, but it is much more complex than that. That’s like saying a cake is butter, eggs and flour. Those materials go together in a certain way to create an effective cake, whose ultimate purpose is to be delicious. Character, situation and plot have to go together well to create a story, and a story gives your protagonists conflict that ultimately changes them. The act of change makes the story a story.

(We will leave discussions on whether people can truly change for a later blog. Debates on this have made me curse Twitter’s character limit well into the night.)

You need building blocks to create conflict and change in your story, and scenes are those blocks. At its most basic level, a scene is a unit of drama that happens in one location. But like a story, a scene is much more than this definition. Every good scene does at least one of two things.

A scene puts a character in a different emotional place than he was at the start. Say your protagonist, a devoted husband and father, sees an ex-girlfriend at his local coffee shop. He realizes he still has feelings for her. With one chance encounter, his current life doesn’t fulfill him like it used to. He hasn’t done anything, but the scene puts him in a different state emotionally.

A scene also gives characters a choice that they can’t undo. Later in the story, the protagonist sleeps with his ex. Now he has acted on his emotions, and he can’t ignore it or take it back. He must deal with the consequences of his decision whatever they may be.

If each scene in your story accomplishes one – or better, both – of the above goals, then each scene strengthens the impact of your narrative with added conflict and character depth. Building your story through scene after scene, driving your characters forward through the situations they’re in, will make sure your readers are still with your story when it reaches its destination.

2 thoughts on “Refine Your Prose: Building your story scene by scene

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