On Narrative Scenes: Choosing Your Scenes

***This post is one of several in our prewriting series. To read the first post, click here.***

Today in our series on prewriting for JuNoWriMo, Aaron Pogue talks about writing a scene.

Remember, you’re free to write as much of your novel as you’d like beforehand, but you can only count the words you write in June toward your 50,000 goal.

Aaron Pogue

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This month we’re reviewing all the parts and processes that go into developing a story. Our goal is to put together a complete prewriting package to do some of the heavy lifting for you when it comes time to write a novel in June.

So far, if you’ve been following along, you have Characters, you have the elements of a Plot, presumably you know your Setting, but we still have to discuss how you actually write the story. What do you do to convert that story idea we have so well documented into an actual story?

Thinking in Scenes

The answer is writing scenes. Scenes are the building blocks of any story. Whether it’s a poem, a bit of interpretive dance, a Great American Novel, or a major motion picture, a story is told in scenes. A story told without clearly defined scenes is, essentially, a synopsis. This is how we separate storytelling from summary.

No matter what time frame you’ve chosen for your story, it probably contains the potential for an infinite number of scenes. You could use flashbacks and flashfowards to give the story context, you could have a play-within-a-play, or dreams or hallucinations – you could write a thousand scenes into a narrative that only actually takes place within a single room, over a span of a couple minutes. It would probably be dreadful, but it could be done.

The point is, the story idea that you have already developed contains within it a boundless sea of scenes. A few of them are gripping, immersive. Some of them leap out at you, defining moments in the path from the Big Event to the stunning Climax. Most of them are irrelevant.

Choosing the Scenes

Your job, as the storyteller, is to choose which scenes you are going to include in your story. That’s it. Once you have a character list and a premise, most of the scenes can be extrapolated from there, but it’s up to you to choose which scenes to present to your audience.

For an excellent example of that, just consider the Harry Potter books. He’s in school the entire time, right? For the first five books, at least, he’s spending most of his time in classes, presumably, but how many scenes can you remember where he was in a classroom? They are far fewer than the scenes in the dining hall or the common room, scenes on the Quidditch field or (most common) skulking down shadowy corridors.

Of course, there are scenes that take place in the classroom – often highly dramatic scenes that jump immediately to mind – and that’s precisely the point. She could have included thousands of classroom scenes, but instead she chose just the ones that served the story best, and implied all the hours spent bent over a textbook or scribbling down notes.

When it comes time for you to convert your story idea into a story, there is just one rule you must remember: every single scene must move your story forward.

Believe me, you will write scenes that you absolutely fall in love with but that don’t measure up to that one rule. And, painful as it will be, you’ll have to cut them out of the story. That is the price writers pay. Apart from the rejection letters, it’s really the only one — having to remove something so beautifully crafted from your masterpiece. It’s necessary, though.

Writing the Scene

Before you can start cutting anything, though, you’ve got to get it written. We’ll start on that with this week’s big writing assignment.

Come back tomorrow, and we’ll move you a big step closer to your JuNoWriMo novel with a little bit of practice writing.

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