When to Write in Scene

Reading a manuscript yesterday, I was reminded that, while most writing teachers (myself included) insist advocate that students write in scene, there are also instances when you should not write in scene.

Sometimes writers dramatize events that don't warrant a full scene.  And then the writing just seems flabby.  Not much is happening, but there's a full-blown scene written.  I believe this is a subtle reason that many manuscripts fail.

But how are you supposed to know when to write a scene, then, for God's sake?

I have a couple of answers that should be helpful.

The first is a tidbit from an author and writing teacher whose name I've forgotten. Here it is:

Fast is slow and slow is fast.

What does this mean?  It means that if you would experience the event slowly in real time, write about it fast (i.e., in narrative, which can be used to compress time).  So, for instance, if your character spends a lazy Sunday morning reading the New York Times, dispatch that in a sentence or so.  It it not an event that warrants a scene.  On the other hand, maybe that character steps outside and notices her husband trapped under a car when the jack collapsed.  In a split second, she races to the vehicle and lifts it from him in a rush of adrenaline.  This is an event that you want to slow down and linger over, writing every sensory detail in a full blown scene.

Make sense?

The other helpful tidbit is actually several tidbits, or, a list of guidelines as to when to use scenes.  This has been bouncing around in my mind for years, after reading it somewhere and putting it into use, but I also saw it recently in a discusssion of Sandra Scofield's book on writing scenes, called The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer.

Here are three reasons a scene should exist:

1.  To advance the plot

2.  To reveal character

3.  To set up something that will re-occur later

Of the three, I think the first two are the strongest, though certainly the last has its merits as well.  What do you think?  How do you choose which events to put in scene and which to write in narrative?  Any tips for how to write in scene?

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Mike CairnsCharlotte DixonJ.D. Recent comment authors
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As for tidbit #1, I heard a similar comment from Lee Child. He said, “Write the slow parts fast and the fast parts slow.” I took from that or he said: you can’t give the same weight to the detective driving across town and his walk through the murder scene. Certainly one way we give weight is the number of words we devote to an event. Sometimes the details of a drive, the streets, the buildings, the landmarks of the city can be interesting, but not when the hero is on his way to pull someone from a burning building.… Read more »

Charlotte Dixon

Your writing is anything but boring, J.D.  And this comment added so much to what I originally wrote.  I especially liked your point that when you devote a lot of words to something, the reader is going to think its important.  Reading a manuscript recently, the writer lavished a description on a bit-part character.  The description was fabulous and I could totally see the character, which was fantastic.  But unfortunately, we were never going to see that character again and with so many words devoted to her, the reader would be expecting to.  Thanks for a great comment, J.D.

Mike Cairns

Hi Charlotte
This is the first time I’ve read your blog, and I’ve found it really useful, so thanks very much!
The fast/slow tip is a great thing to have in my mind when I’m writing.
At the moment I tend to have flabby bits within my scenes that will be greatly improved by repeating this to myself at regular intervals!
Thanks again, looking forward to the next one.

Charlotte Dixon

Hey Mike, Well I'm glad you discovered the blog and thank you so much for stopping by and taking time to comment!  I do find the "fast is slow and slow is fast" thing very helpful.  Just read an article in Poets and Writers about writing memoir that said essentially the same thing in a bit different way.  The author said when things are "hot" (her examples were a shooting and a drowning) you need to write cold–in an objective way without throwing emotion at the reader.  I thought that was helpful, also.  So happy to meet you!  Charlotte