Scene Check: Part Where

To borrow the real estate mantra: “Location, location, location!”

Where will your scene take place? We have two ways to consider this:
1) where in the plot will this scene be placed?
2) what is the scene’s actual setting?

A scene’s placement in the plotline depends partly on chronology–as in, this happened first, then this, then this, then this, etc.

However, it should depend more on cause-and-effect progression. This happened. As a result of that, something else happened. And as a result of that, something else occurred.

When you write according to cause-and-effect logic, your story holds together more plausibly. It simply makes more sense. It also creates the illusion that your characters are driving the story action.

Another consideration for a scene’s placement in the plot has to do with dramatic strategy. When you’ve completed your rough draft, distance yourself from your story as much as you can so that you can view it objectively–as an editor would. Ask yourself, If I moved Scene 14 to an earlier point in the story, would it be less predictable and more exciting to read about?

I usually recommend that rough drafts be written in exact cause-and-effect chronology. But then in revision, start moving scenes around to create better plot twists, or to spice up a slow section.

Of course, you don’t want to shuffle your scenes indiscriminately! You only want to move a few, for dramatically valid reasons. Be aware that when you move a scene, you have to rewrite the transitions, reweave the story fabric where it’s been ripped away, and revise the sequel that should accompany the scene.

Now, as far as the scene’s setting goes–have you thought about it? Where will your characters be located when they have this confrontation?

Are you thinking, Oh, what difference does it make? Any room will do–living room or kitchen maybe.

Details matter. Setting matters. Not as much as the actual conflict, perhaps. But setting grounds the reader and provides a sense of place that helps with plausibility.

Take this a step farther. If you changed the setting of the scene, changed its location, how might that aggravate or compound the conflict between protagonist and antagonist?

For example, say that a married couple’s teenage daughter has just been killed in a texting-while-driving car wreck. Caught up in grief, the parents are in the anger stage and want to blame someone for this tragedy–even if it’s each other.

Consider if you have them argue at breakfast over who’s the most responsible for spoiling Brittany. Is the wife busy at the stove, stirring the pancake batter too long, letting the bacon burn? Is the husband standing by the counter, holding a glass of orange juice he doesn’t want? Domestic, yes, but does the setting add anything to the conflict?

Let’s consider the same scene, but now it’s taking place in the daughter’s bedroom. The mother is making the bed and picking up the scattered clothing. The father is standing in the doorway, watching. But now, in addition to blaming one or the other for letting Brittany go out that evening or borrow the car, perhaps the mother comes across the empty box for Brittany’s new Smartphone.

Think about the emotions that will trigger. Imagine how the mother’s numbed self-control might shatter.

Was it the father who caved in to Brittany’s entreaties to buy her the phone? Was it the mother who warned Brittany not to run up a huge bill, texting? Does the mother now find the box and turn on the father, accusing him of killing their daughter?

How will he respond to such an attack? The scene is going to come to life, isn’t it? Yes, the dialogue will change from the first version in the kitchen. Other issues in this couple’s marriage–if the writer doesn’t foolishly suppress them–may come boiling to the surface. The characters may reveal their true nature while in the grip of such raw emotion. Even if they say hurtful things that they don’t truly mean, the story has made progress. The plot has advanced.

Maybe they’ll calm down, feel relief at having vented their feelings, and find a way to reconnect.

Or maybe they’ll continue to let the anger escalate and drive them farther apart.

The right setting, right mood, right props, and right atmosphere can all contribute to a scene and bring it to a different level than it would otherwise achieve.

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