Making a Scene – When and How

The ability to summarize comes in handy when a writer needs to move quickly over an unimportant expanse of time. But summary can’t do justice to the crucial hotspots, those epicenters of tension when an old pattern is disturbed, a conflict surfaces, and/or something changes.

“She moved to Houston, and I didn’t see her or hear a word from her for ten years.” That’s summary. But when the narrator does meet up with “her” again after that long disappearance, the reader will expect more than, “I felt chilly toward her at first, but after a while I decided to let bygones be bygones.” This event cries out for a fully developed scene, from first glimpse, through awkward conversation with hostile undertones, to blurted accusations, to tears or laughter. Notice that with summary, years are made to pass for the reader in less than a second, whereas scenes often take as much time to read as they might to unfold in real life. That’s because when we write a scene, we come down and ground ourselves in the world we’re creating. We live it minute by minute with our five senses.

To begin making a scene, imagine yourself with a video camera and pan your remembered or imagined location—the layout and décor of a room, the buildings on a street, the weather. Record the concrete details. Place your characters on your “set” and get them speaking and reacting to each other’s words. This process involves venturing guesses as to what they might say and building on them. It’s a little like brainstorming— you accept uncritically whatever comes. You write much more than you will finally use as you prod each character to reveal what s/he wants and how s/he’s going to get it.

Try writing in the present tense. It may make it easier for you to stay inside the world you are creating. It may help you let go of outcomes and be receptive to all the surprises in store.

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