a sequence of continuous action in a play, movie, opera, or book.
One of the biggest mistakes I see in beginning writers’ work is the failure to dramatize. The dreaded telling, rather than showing. Writing in scenes helps you make sure that something is actually happening. What’s more, the well-written scene will:
- Move the plot forward
- Establish genre
- Highlight voice
- Describe setting
- Reveal character
- Set the tone
- Speak to theme
STRUCTURE YOUR SCENES
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end anymore. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
Steven Spielberg knows how to tell a story. His stories have beginnings, middles, and ends—and so do his scenes. Let’s take a look at three of his most (justifiably) famous opening scenes in three of his most (justifiably) famous films:
JAWS: Scene One
Beginning: A drunken teenage boy chases a girl named Chrissie along the beach. He’s trying to catch up with her as she strips and runs into the ocean.
Middle: Chrissie swims out towards the buoy, and is pulled down into the water. She’s screaming and thrashing and we can’t see what’s got her. Too drunk to stand, the boys falls down on the sand and passes out.
End: Chrissie manages to make it to the buoy, but she’s pulled down again and this time, there’s no escape from whatever has taken her. The boy dozes on the beach.
Raiders of the Lost Ark/Scene One
Beginning: Indiana Jones is trekking through the jungle with Satipo on the hunt for a golden idol. He consults the map and finds the cave.
Middle: Once inside, Indy foils the spiders and booby traps and discovers the idol. He swaps a bag of sand for the idol—but the theft triggers a new series of booby traps. Satipo betrays Indy, steals the idol, and leaves Indy for dead. Indy uses his bullwhip to escape, and goes after Satipo, who as it turns out has fallen victim to one of the booby traps. Indy grabs the idol. A huge stone ball threatens to steamroll him, and he races out of the cave.
End: Indy flees the cave, but lands at the feet of rival archaeologist Belloq. The Frenchman steals the idol, but Indy escapes the angry natives and makes it to his plane just in time.
Beginning: E.T. opens with a small alien wandering away from the area where his fellow aliens are collecting horticultural specimens from Earth to take back to their home planet.
Middle: When a group of scientists discover the spaceship, the aliens prepare to leave. One alien stands at the stairs leading into the craft, waiting for E.T. But the scientists close in, and the aliens close up their ship and take off into space, leaving E.T behind.
End: E.T. is left alone on Earth. He runs away from the scientists, toward the bright lights of suburbia.
All of these are strong scenes built on a strong structure. The beginning, middle, and ends of each scene are clear and solid. Think of your favorite scene in your favorite movie. Watch it again and note the scene’s beginning, middle, and end of that scene. Analyze how and why it works, and ask yourself what you learn from its structure, and how you can apply that to your own scenes. (For more on this, see The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell.)
You need to write your scenes to have a beginning, middle, and an end as well.
One of the first lessons I learned from an editor was to go big, bigger, biggest. I was writing the outline required to win a contract for a commissioned story. The editor made me revise that outline five times before I got a contract, telling me to make every plot point scene bigger. Milk the drama, she said.
Every story has big scenes, and often they correspond to the plot points of the story. (For more on plot, see Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene.) I think it was director David Lean who said that you need five great scenes to make a great movie. The same is true—at a minimum—for novels. You can start with those plot point scenes.
In Star Wars, the big scenes are:
Inciting incident: Princess Leia is captured; R2-D2 and C-3PO set off to find someone to rescue her.
Plot Point 1: Luke, who has refused Obi-Wan, changes his mind after his family is killed.
Mid-Point: Luke, Han, and their team attempt to rescue Princess Leia without getting caught—encountering storm troopers and getting stuck in a trash compactor with a deadly serpent along the way.
Plot Point 2: Obi-Wan faces off with Darth Vader to buy time for Luke et al to escape, sacrificing himself in the process.
Climax: Luke must learn to trust the Force and bring down the Death Star.
Denouement: The Death Star battle is won, but will the Empire strike back?
What are your big scenes? What are your plot points? Do they correspond to one another? How can you make them bigger, that is, more dramatic, more exciting, more emotional. You want to make your readers laugh and cry, cower and scream, shiver and dance. Keep them on the edge of their seat, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
THE OBLIGATORY SCENES
When thinking about your big scenes, remember that every genre has its obligatory scenes, that is, scenes that you’ll most likely need to write. For example, if you’re writing a romance, odds are you’ll need scenes like these: meet cute, first kiss, first fight, break-up, reconciliation, wedding, etc. If you’re writing a mystery, you might need: Murder #1, discovery of Body #1, introduction of sleuth, first clue, Murder #2, discovery of Body #2, sleuth interviews suspects, sleuth confronts murderer, etc.
Once you have these big scenes/plot points figured out, you can build in the smaller scenes that take you from Big Scene to Big Scene. That’s how you plot a story, showing not telling, scene to scene, from Page One to The End.
This post originally appeared at Career Authors.