We’ve learned about scene functions. Now let’s discuss the structure of the scene. Just like the short story or novel, a scene must also have structure: it begins (Rising Action), has a middle (Complication, Climax), and then ends (Resolution). But: How should it begin? What should the middle contain? How should it end? Let’s begin with the Beginnings!
Rosenfeld, in Make a Scene, calls the scene beginning a “launch”. You want the scene to begin in such a way as to continue to “hook” your reader. First, ask yourself: Where are my characters in the plot? Where did I leave them? What are they doing now? And what is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?1
When you know the answers to these questions then you can decide what kind of launch will work best for each scene: character; action; narrative summary; setting.2
- Character Launch: Since the majority of your scenes should involve your main character, you will want to get him or her on the scene as soon as possible, unless, for the sake of the plot, the MC needs to be left out of a particular scene. For each scene first establish a purpose, goal, or intention for the character who stars in it. Knowing the character’s intention for the scene helps launch it appropriately. Also, your readers will connect to the story through your MC—motivations, desires, reactions. All of this controls where your plot is going. Ask yourself:
- What’s the most immediate desire of the MC; what’s at stake?
- Will MC obtain that desired goal/object/knowledge or encounter opposition?
- Does this intention make sense in the plot?
- Will another character help MC achieve the goal or oppose?
- Action Launch: action carries momentum, so the sooner you start the action the better. Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. Don’t demonstrate the action, i.e., explain it to the reader. Jump in without explanation. Catch the reader’s attention and keep it! An action launch will set up questions that the rest of the scene will have to answer. To create an action launch.
- Get straight to the action: don’t drag your feet. Rosenfeld gives the following example- “Jimmy jumped off the cliff.” NOT “Jimmy stared at the water, imagining how cold it would feel when he jumped.”3
- Hook the reader with big or surprising actions: A car crash, an outburst, violent heart attack, etc.
- Be sure that action is true to your character: a shy character can’t suddenly become uninhibited without reason. Save this for a middle.
- Act first, think later: MC acts then regrets, or is surprised, or???
- Narrative Launch: Remember that although a narrative launch is sometimes desirable, it should be used sparingly. A too-long summary is a distraction, an interruption. Don’t keep the reader away from the action too long. A narrative summary should be used:
- To save time/quicken the pace—a scene beginning needs to move fairly quickly and thereare times when a narrative summary just gets the reader there faster.
- To give information before an action in order to set the action in motion later in the scene, for example: “The war had begun.” or “The storm left half the city under water.”
- When MC’s thoughts or intentions can’t be revealed in action—MC is in a coma? MC is a child?
- Setting Launch: Although effective, this type should also be used with discretion. Use when the details of setting are “so important to the plot or character development that visual setting must be included at the beginning of the scene.”4 An effective scenic launch should:
- Use specific visual details—deserted island; blizzard; truck stop at 2:00 a.m.
- Allow scenery to set the tone of the scene—the description of a jungle conveys darkness, fear and mystery.
- Use scenery to reflect a character’s feelings—but no clichés, please. Not all “dark and stormy nights” are filled with doom and gloom! Some can be quite romantic!
- Show the impact of the setting on the MC. How the MC views the setting is important—his cell, his hospital bed, the forest, etc.
Exercise 1: Using the same novel you re-read for last month’s exercises, choose several scenes throughout and analyze their beginnings. What types of “launches” do these scenes have? How long is the launch? Is the length appropriate to the launch style? Or, does the launch begin “telling” the scene action before the action starts?
Exercise 2: Do the same analysis from Parts I & II on one of your own stories. Keep track of the functions of the scenes you use and the length of each. Next, concentrate on your launches. How appropriate are the launch-types you chose? A hint: if you use the same launch style in all your scenes, your readers will notice. It’s like using the same sentence structure all the time—boring.
Next month: Scenes Are Your Stepping Stones – Part III: Middles.
1 Rosenfeld, Jordan E. Make a Scene. Writer’s Digest Books: Cincinnati, OH, 2008, pg. 13.
ISBN-10: 976-1-58297-479-8 ISBN-13: 1-58297-479-9
2 Ibid., Chapter 2, pages 13-20.
3 Ibid., pg. 16.