Last month, we established that we’d be looking at the components of writing scenes. This month, we’ll be looking at the first priority: knowing the purpose of the scene.
Remember the quote I shared in the last article from behind the scenes of Spiderman 2: “You have to really know what you want beforehand or you’ll just throw together a lot of really mediocre stuff.” This is never more true than in the basics: what is the purpose of the scene?
Disclaimer of sorts: For examples this month, I grabbed my copy of Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code from the shelf. It’s a book that’s been widely read - that’s the only real reason I grabbed it. (I did enjoy it and I do think that Brown has a great way with short chapters and great chapter hooks.)
The purpose of the scene is not the same as the scene question. Remember, we have a story question - in the DaVinci Code the story question would be: Will Langdon solve the mystery of the murder of Sauniere? Along the way, each scene has it’s own scene question. For example, Will Langdon find the bug in the soap, or will Silas kill Langdon?
But these are internal story questions. What we want to focus on this month is the external purpose of every scene, the author’s objective in every scene.
In every scene, there should be a change, even if it’s nearly imperceptible. The characters or the situation they face should be different when they exit a scene than when they entered. It’s pretty simple, pretty straightforward. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Every scene in the book should be either an action scene or a reaction scene. In action scenes, your character is pursuing a small goal, meeting conflict along the way and getting an answer to that goal. Hardly ever is the answer “yes.” Then, there’s no heightening of the tension, is there. Usually, the character comes out of the scene with, at best, a “yes, but.” More often, he’ll come away with a “no” or a “not no, but hell no.” Still, though, those would be the character’s purpose in the scene, not the author’s.
In a reaction scene, the characters stop for a moment to consider what has just happened, to the setback that has just occurred. Or, the world reacts to something your character has just done. Experts say there should be far more action scenes than reaction scenes.
We must not confuse this theory of action/reaction with the natural reactions of our characters within each scene. Jack Bickham in Scene & Structure talks about the natural progression of stimulus - internalization - and response. I’ve also heard this series referred to with action - feeling - thought - action. This internal scene sequence, though is a topic for another column.
The purpose of each scene is what links the scene to the spine of the novel. Each scene must either move the plot forward or show character. Ideally, each scene will do both.
While I won’t speak for Dan Brown, here are some examples from DVC (picked randomly.)
Prologue: Introduce Sauniere and the murder - hint at the enormity of the mystery.
Chapter 1, scene 1: Introduce Robert Langdon.
Chapter 1, scene 2: Introduce Langdon to the murder scene.
Chapter 55, scene 1: Introduce Teabing’s theory of what the Grail is - Sophie’s POV.
Chapter 56, scene 1: Continue previous scene from Langdon's POV.
Chapter 56, scene 2: (3 lines) Remy sees Langdon on the news.
Chapter 57, scene 1: Give Collet Langdon’s location. Scene 2, Silas closing in.
In Brown’s book especially, there is a vast amount of information that must be transferred to the reader. Often, this is the sole purpose for a scene. The author, then, must find dramatic ways to convey that information.
Often, I find myself writing a scene just because it comes next. I’m not clear going in on the purpose of that scene. I think that keeps things from truly being in focus for the reader. As storytellers, we need to paint only one picture at a time for our reader, paint it in clear detail so our reader sees what we see, hears what we hear. If that takes one sentence, so be it.
But, if we don’t know the purpose going in, we’ll throw in all that mediocre stuff. The result will be mediocre scenes that lack the punch they could have if we focused.
In my military romances, I have prologues which serve the purpose of showing the hero of that book in his work environment and, ideally, show foreshadow the torture I will be putting him through. I want the reader to know him in his “home” environment, which, in this case, is within the Air Force para-rescue setting.
Paul Lucey in Story Sense says this: “Do not write the scene until you are satisfied with the plot and the story point that must be made in the beat.”
It seems like some of the best scenes I write are those which are out of order. A scene will build up in my head (more often my heart) until I just have to write it, even though it’s not the next scene in the book. These scenes tend to have the clear focus that some of my other scenes lack. These scenes tend to wring every emotion from inside me, emotions that end up on the page where they belong. Often, they aren’t long. That may be because they are gathered and strengthened and aimed before they’re allowed to be shot.
No mixed metaphors here.
Again, Lucey, “When the point of a scene is unclear, the thread of the story will be frayed or broken, causing confusion.”
Colorado author Stephanie Kane, in her workshop on designing scenes, teaches that we should be playing to the jury (our readers). In order to do that, we must, going in, know what response we want from the reader. Then, we can craft each scene with that purpose in mind. Do we want the reader on the edge of their seat here? In tears? Laughing? Or, maybe just resting so we can deliver an unforeseen right hook on the next page.
For now, if we can, at the very least, think about each scene in light of it’s purpose, we’ll be on the road to better scenes. And better scenes make better stories. (Thank you, Captain Obvious.)
Until next month, when we take a look at set dressing, BIC-HOK (Butt in Chair - Hands on Keyboard).
(This series first ran in the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter in 2005.)
About the Author: Jax Hunter is a published romance writer and freelance copywriter. She wears many hats including EMT, CPR instructor, and Grammy. She is currently working on a contemporary romance series set in ranching country Colorado and a historical romance set in 1775 Massachusetts. She lives in Colorado Springs, belongs to PPW, RMFW and is a member of the Professional Writer's Alliance.