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Taking it Scene by Scene: The “Middle Level” of Writing

[1]Three wishes. Three bears, pigs, musketeers, and billy goats gruff. And yes, three levels of writing: the macro, mezzo, and micro.

The macro level is the overarching dramatic structure—the goal, conflict, premise, along with structural components like inciting incident, dark moment, emotional turning point, climax, and resolution. The micro level is the writing itself—the rhythm and precision of the prose, the way the authors crafts her sentences, what’s often called the “voice” of the novel.

Then there’s the mezzo or middle level—the scene.

Jennie Nash defines a scene as “the smallest unit of story”—an event that takes place at a single time and place. In Writing Deep Scenes, Alderson and Rosenfeld describe a scene as “a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience.”

Every scene has a purpose—to drive the story forward, raise a new question, and /or deepen character—and ends in such a way that things are different than they were at the beginning, creating consequences that must be faced in the next scene. Without this particular scene, right now, the story can’t move forward.

As Sandra Scofield tells us in The Scene Book, each scene must have four elements: an event with an accompanying emotion (that is, characters act and react), a function within the larger story, a structure, and a pulse. By “pulse” Scofield means a “vibrancy” that makes the scene “live on the page” and “matter to the reader.”

Scenes are where the reader experiences the story, lives it along with the characters. Readers don’t experience sentences, just as they don’t experience outlines or premises. It’s like entering a house where a party is taking place: you don’t experience the room’s beams and girders, nor the specific ingredients in the hors d’oeuvres. You experience the party, the event.

So far, so good. In theory.

In practice, the question is: how can I know if my scenes are effective?

I’ve found that I need to take each scene in my book and put it to the test by facing the questions below. If I can’t answer one of the questions, I need to stop and figure out what’s muddy or missing—or if the scene is really needed.

Here’s how I do it, in seven steps.

1. Scenario

First, I like to write what Scofield calls a scenario, a summary in two or three concise sentences of what happens.

Alert:  If you can’t do that in three sentences, the scene may be too complex.

Suggestion: Try breaking it into two or three distinct scenes.

2. Purpose

Why is the scene needed?  How does it contribute to the story movement? What does it reveal about the underlying conflict, misbelief, wound, pain?

Alert:  If your answer to this question is the same for several scenes, one of the scenes may be redundant.

Suggestion: What would happen if you deleted it? If that seems too drastic—because it contains unique information, or because the very repetition is essential for building tension and suspense—what if you reduced it to a sentence or two, even a paragraph, at the end of the prior scene or the beginning of the next one?

3. Opening

How does the reader enter the scene, orient to time and place? What is the first thing that happens?  What is the world like, as the scene begins?

There are different ways to open a scene. Among them:

Alert: Extract the first sentence of every scene in your book and identify it as one of the five openings above (or another opening, if there’s one I’ve missed). Do you tend to open a lot of scenes in the same way? Are there several consecutive scenes that open with, say, a line of dialogue?

Suggestion: Pick a few consecutive scenes and delete the first sentence of each. Is the opening stronger without it?  If you truly feel that the reader will be disoriented without that particular sentence, try replacing it with one of the other techniques above, just to see what happens. If you’re really brave, try deleting the first paragraph.

4. Middle

This is where the “what happens” takes place.  Somewhere in the middle of the scene there’s a moment of peak intensity—a moment of discovery, insight, revelation, admission, decisive action, or change. What is the one sentence, without which the scene would lose its power and purpose?

Note: Although this peak moment can reflect a new realization, it’s better to avoid words like “realized” and “understood,” since they shift the focus to the mind. In general, the reader’s experience of peak intensity is strengthened by the use of concrete details, rather than by words that name generic emotions.

Alert: If you can’t find a peak moment, it may mean that nothing really happens in the scene.

Suggestion: Try deleting different sentences and see how it affects the scene. If you can’t find a peak sentence, add it. If that seems artificial because the purpose of the scene is to provide a transition between two scenes in which important things do happen, think about whether a scene break is really needed.  And if there seem to be several peak moments, you may have over-written the scene. Try picking just one.

5. Ending 

If each scene begins with a plus (things are going well for the protagonist) or a minus (things are going badly), by the end of the scene, that will have changed—reversed, escalated, or diminished. The protagonist will be closer or farther from her goal than she was when the scene opened; something has been gained, lost, or threatened; a treasured belief has been shaken, upheld, or restored.

Mark your scenes with plusses and minuses at beginning and end. What do you notice?

Alert:  If there’s an obvious pattern, like a predictable alteration of plusses and minuses, or a series of uninterrupted minuses, think about creating more variety. And if you can’t seem to apply any plusses and minuses, it may be that nothing actually happens in the scene. (Sneaking in backstory via dialogue or memory isn’t enough to justify an entire scene. Sorry, it really isn’t.)

Suggestion: Take a plus ending and make it an even bigger minus instead, or try delaying the plus until a later scene. How does that affect the tension? Play around.

6. Resonance and coherence

How does the ending relate or refer back to the beginning of the scene, so there’s a sense of resonance or wholeness?

Alert: Isolate the first and last paragraphs of a scene. Is it clear that they belong together, like bookends?  If the answer is no, what can I do to create the missing resonance?

Suggestion: Here are a few ways to do that:

7. Coda or transition:

What sentence lets the reader know that the story isn’t over? It doesn’t have to be as obvious as a cliffhanger. It can be a commentary, reflection, premonition, or decision—as long as something makes us want to keep reading.

Yes, every scene needs to indicate how the world of the protagonist is different from the way it was at the beginning. But it also needs to unsettle us again, provoke a new question, suggest further complexity, signal that there’s more to come. A coda that says: Or maybe not. 

Alert: Look at the last sentence or two of the scene. What part of that sentence or paragraph makes us want to turn the page? If everything is neatly wrapped up, we won’t.

Suggestion: Mess it up a little. Add a doubt, a noise, a mistake. It could be something the reader knows but the protagonist doesn’t, a reminder of a clue that was left earlier in the book—something to make the reader uneasy.

Other tips:

What’s your experience? Does “taking it scene by scene” offer a fresh (and helpful) way to look at your story?

About Barbara Linn Probst [2]

Barbara Linn Probst is a writer, blogger, former teacher and therapist, and “serious amateur” pianist living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS launched in April 2020 from She Writes Press--the story of a woman’s search for wholeness framed around the art and life of Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS has garnered stellar advance praise and will be the May 2020 selection for the Pulpwood Queens, a network of nearly 800 book clubs across the U.S. It was also named one of the most anticipated books of 2020 by Working Mother [3]. Her second novel is slated for publication in April 2021. Before switching to fiction, Barbara published two nonfiction books and more scholarly articles than she cares to remember. She’s proudest of WHEN THE LABELS DON’T FIT (Random House, 2008), a book to help parents raise, understand, and nurture out-of-the-box children. An out-of-the-box child herself, Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and worked for many years counseling, teaching, doing qualitative research, and advocating for people with mental and emotional challenges.