Monday, May 27, 2013

Make a Scene!

by Saralee Rosenberg

I have the great fortune of being both a writer and a writing teacher at Hofstra University's School of Continuing Education. Pictured above are some of my master class students at a recent appearance where THEY got to share scenes from their works-in-progress. It was a joy and an honor to be in the audience.

What was so rewarding for me was to witness how the lessons they learned over the years of listening to me babble actually came to fruition in their fabulous scenes.

For emerging writers, and maybe even experienced ones, here is my number one lesson on deconstructing a scene. May it help you further your own fiction projects!

There is no winning formula for writing a powerful scene. No industry standard word count or page count. No set ratio of dialog to action. What is vital is making sure that each scene, or parts of each scene, give readers new meaning and insight. You always want to move the story forward.

But how to know whether a scene is accomplishing this?

Deconstruct it so that you can look at it objectively rather than viewing it through an emotional lens. And by emotional lens I mean that you, the writer, get so caught up in the beauty of your prose or the honesty and drama of the dialogue that you can’t imagine cutting it. 

Remember: Words don’t have feelings. They can be cut. No one will die.

The key to deconstructing a scene is looking for a balance of three elements:
1.     Action
2.     Information
3.     Emotion

This doesn’t mean that each and every scene is a recipe that gets cut into equal thirds. Instead aim for a logical flow and synergy without over emphasizing one particular element.

In other words, if in re-reading a scene you notice that there is a very long span of dialogue, it may serve you well in terms of building tension, revealing new facts and moving the story along. But if there is little soul searching from the main character, then it raises the question. Could this exchange be more impactful if there was a better balance between the emotion and the information?

That doesn’t mean you should interrupt the flow and say INSERT EMOTION HERE. The inner-reflecting should be shared in a logical, organic way so that rather than seeming like an afterthought by the writer, or an oops I forgot to stir up the emotion, it is threaded through the narrative.

Or, let’s say that your scene is filled with soul searching- really digs deep into the psyche of the main character and reveals a fear or conflict. Might it not be even more compelling if this ah ha moment occurred during an action scene?

Remember: Creating this balance of action and emotion helps you nail the pacing. 

We have all read scenes that felt like a Saturday Night Live skit. We got the point right away but the skit went on and on and we lost interest. Or we’ve walked out of a movie thinking it would have been so much better if they cut the last twenty minutes.

Same with writing a scene. The key is to get in and get out before it feels bloated and/or slowed down by extraneous information/details/action/emotion that are either repetitive, boring, or not vital to the story telling.

But how can you tell the differences between action, information and emotion? 
To help you better understand their distinctions and the roles they play, here are the definitions:

Action: Either through narrative or dialogue, the story is unfolding with new information, conflicts, ideas and questions. There is no backstory or long, flowing descriptions of the setting. Simply a story that is moving forward and compelling the reader to stay tuned because the action is just heating up.

Now obviously a chase scene is the most literal form of action. But it can also be a love scene, a fight scene, a scene that introduces a new character, a scene that brings two known characters together for the first time, a scene that puts the character in a set of new circumstances, etc. The emphasis is on new tension/challenges and along with new, possible outcomes.

Even better is when an action scene emerges in your head unexpectedly and you ditch your outline. This is a sign that your characters are three-dimensional and are having a say in their own outcomes.

Remember: If there are no surprises for the writer, there are none for the reader!

Information:  Any facts, details, backstory, descriptions of characters and/or setting fall into the information category. These are vital to explaining the story so the reader is not lost, but they should not be at the expense of creating an information dump. This is where you literally stop the story to fill in the reader.
Some writers think they are disguising the info dump in dialogue but take my word- it’s very transparent. The key to sharing information is to get in/get out.  

This is where the adage about showing not telling applies. The more information you tell rather than show, the more you risk boring the reader.

Remember: If you must stop the story then pull over. Just don’t get stuck in a ditch.

Emotion: Sharing a main character’s emotions can certainly come through dialogue, but the more impactful way is to inform us through their inner thoughts. What are they thinking, feeling and worrying about? What are they hoping for? What are they wondering and wishing? What is making them feel doubtful and insecure? What would they love to say aloud but know they can’t? The trick is not to express the emotion in the form of clich├ęs and physical manifestations. She thought she would die if he didn’t call… His stomach was tied in knots...
Emotion is honest, pure and intimate. It should get readers to nod with compassion and understanding. But if the emotions seem inauthentic and/or disconnected from what we already know about the character, readers will resent the fakery.  

Emotion, or inner monologue, is the best tool in the shed to keep readers connected to your story and to make them feel invested in the main character’s outcome. The more we understand where their head is at, the more we will gladly follow their journey.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to separate paragraphs by action/information/emotion. These elements are not like dance steps or painting by number. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 etc. The idea is to weave them all together like a concerto. Loud, soft, fast, slow, dramatic, lighthearted, etc. Or to mix it up like a starting pitcher- fast ball, curve ball, slider, etc.

The more you mix it up, the more you keep the reader guessing… all the way to the last page!

Saralee Rosenberg is the author of four novels from Avon/HarperCollins, including her latest, DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD. Visit her website


  1. I'm late... I'm late! Great piece, Saralee! Applicable information for all writers and so well said!