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Creating Effective Scenes Article About Writing Better

William H. Coles

In writing scenes, three primary elements of great fiction writing and storytelling are functioning pervasively: setting, characterization, plot movement.  One will predominate, but the three are always integrated, all contribute to the effect of a good scene, and every element is specifically acting in the story being created and developed; no extraneous or unrelated ideas or images are used.        

Setting 

Readers need orientation to time and place.  Once time and place are established in a story, readers need to be updated in any scene where place of story action has changed, or where significant change in time has occurred.  And in a scene, attention to concrete clues that aid in reader visualizing scene are important.  These aids in visualization can be in dialogue, in dialogue attribution, or in narrative, and need to be carefully chosen to not call attention to their contribution but to provide useful subtle reminders that help visualize and orient the scene. 

For example of developing concrete imagery:

“Don’t do that!” he said while eating.

Better.

“Don’t do that!” he said taking a bite of his cheeseburger.

Better (if pace and context are appropriate).

“Don’t do that,” he said.  With a serrated cutting knife, he sliced his cheeseburger and thrust half of it at her. 

Concrete modifiers can help establish setting and stimulate images too. 

The car went around the corner and made her sick.

Here is a revision to meet the opportunity to develop scene and action.

The Porsche convertible cornered on the two-lane country road and the twisted seat belt cut into her bare shoulder, her hand covering her mouth as she retched.

Characterization

Fiction writing develops characters.  Narrative telling should not dominate, He was really tired and felt like taking a nap type of writing.  Instead, develop a character’s immediate state of general constitution for the reader through action.  He stumbled over a fist-size rock, his fatigued muscles unable to keep him balanced, and he fell forward, his hands outstretched to protect him, but his weary arms collapsed and his face hit the gravel

Internalization can be used for characterization in a scene too.  She detested superbly fit people.  She thought of all it took to maintain good health as narcissism close to sin.

And dialogue should be a source of characterization by what is said, how it is said, and the credibility of syntax and word choice being credible for the character speaking.  (Dialects can be used, but are usually effective only when used sparingly without calling attention to the writing.)  Samples of different characters speaking of the same thing:

“I do not care for apricots.”

“Apricots taste funny sometimes.”

“Apricots have a sweet yet tangy taste.  Not my favorite.”

“Them orange things taste like shit.”

“Apricots suck.”

“Growing apricots is a waste of time.”

“I wouldn’t pay one cent for an apricot.”

“You can use an apricot instead of lime for a tempting twist to key lime pie.”

“Apricots make me sick.”

“I saw the new crop of apricots at the store today.  They brought back sweet memories.”

“I can’t forget the texture of apricot.  Disgusting really.”

Each of the above might fit a variety of characters, but even more significant, many would not be consistent with most characters.  Authors need to be able to create dialogue from within the worldview, intellect, experiences, and memories of the character they are creating dialogue for.  For characterization in great fictional storytelling, it is imperative to write outside the authorial self when creating effective dialogue credible for character.

Plot Movement

All stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the scenes that are the steppingstones of a reader’s journey through a fictional story also have their beginnings and ends.  Everything in storytelling is pushing to the end, and specific a end for each story, each scene, and scenes and stories depend on plot progression.  The writing creates happenings that advance the plot (and grow the characterization).  So in scenes, no matter what the predominate purpose (setting, characterization, plot movement), the action starts, advances, and stops.

Consider this scene whose primary purpose is setting, yet is developed with plot momentum (and a touch of characterization) from beginning to end.  First, the less effective, then the revision.

The locomotive with colorful cars behind followed the track that snaked though the valley.

Any movement perceived is really implied. Now with action:

The steam of the locomotive reddened the face of the engineer as he leaned out the window. The track curved many times ahead. He wondered, as the clouds gathered, if the printed banners with the czar’s name flapping above the red, green and white decorations so carefully applied on the cars behind by the birthday celebrants, would be dampened, maybe even destroyed, by rain. He gripped the waist-high metal lever jutting up through a slit in the floor and shoved it forward. The locomotive strained ahead tilting to the left when it reached the first turn.

Good writing is essential to convey momentum in scene.  Compare:

There was a bird on a limb. Static.

The flying bird settled on the limb. Improved with some action.

The olive branch quivered when the claws of the sparrow grasped the sturdy twig. A lot of action.            

As an author creates scenes, a sense of momentum also needs to be at every level of the writing—even paragraphs, sentences, and words.  Success depends mainly on vocabulary.

For example:

1) Verbs

Look for different degrees of action in the following: (Note how action is related to specificity.)

ate–swallowed

moved–walked

understood—discovered

told–described

told—elaborated        

went—drove

lay—reclined

cooked—fried

cooked—poached

killed—bludgeoned to death

began—ignited

NOTE: Use of certain verbs may convey a degree of action or a type of action that does not suit the scene or the narration. (Example: “His humor ignited her admiration” should not, in most circumstances, replace, “She smiled at his joke.”) Authors need tasteful and accurate verb choices to develop pleasing writing styles with momentum.

2) Nouns.

It is particularly useful in description of settings, or any narrative in a story, to choose nouns that have energy. Here are nouns that have different energies.

rock–hawk

telephone pole–computer

road–river

shadow–glitter

3) Adjectives.

Adjectives restrict a noun, or a verb form.  Compare adjectival forms and their effectiveness for lively writing.

motionless steamroller

waiting steamroller

tilted steamroller

rusted steamroller

 

dead acrobat

breathless acrobat

plunging acrobat

immortalized acrobat

revered acrobat

decaying acrobat

perspiring acrobat.

Note: Adjectives are not equal in effect in a specific context, each has a different energy relationship to a unique noun.

4) Adverbs.

Examples: Talk (verb)–-incessantly, often, irritatingly, lovingly, uncontrollably, loudly, softly.

NOTE: that every one of these adverbs could be replaced by a construction that showed rather than told. Example: For ”loudly,” an author might use, “When he shouted, little Jennie winced and covered her ears.”  Probably too many words for too little effect. In this instance, maybe the adverb is better: “Jake spoke loudly to her.”

Final thought.

Here is the message.  For every effective story in fiction, a writer needs to create scenes with effective elements: setting, characterization, and plot movement.  For further reading click here.

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