In Story Structure – Writing In Scenes, Part 1 we looked at the elements that a scene must have–goal, conflict, and a resulting intensified problem.
Not only do scenes have these specific components, they show the story, verbally unfolding it before readers so that they visualize what’s taking place, as if on the stage of their minds.
How does a writer achieve this level of showing?
As in plays, novels or short stories should paint the scene and highlight the characters, but if that’s all we see on stage, there is no story, only models and artistic backdrops. The key to a good scene, then, is the action of the characters governed by their attempts to achieve their scene goal.
Writers must not neglect the staging, however. Readers need to be able to imagine the scene, and this requires a certain amount of detail. The descriptive elements, when appropriate, should involve all five senses.
Writers should not force sounds or scents into a scene, however. I’ve seen this from time to time in contest entries I’ve judged. For no particular reason other than the writer knows someone is judging to see if description involves all five senses, the sound of someone’s shoes on the floor makes an appearance. Or the smell of the garbage in the bin outside or the taste of the salt on her lips. These details may contribute to the story, but if they don’t they need to be cut.
A scene should feel full and real, but it should not be stuffed with window dressing. The scenery specifics, and the character descriptions, must enhance the action, not overpower it.
Here’s a scene from one of my own contest entries several years ago. Tell me what you think. Is there a character goal? Conflict? Heightened problem? Is the scene painted using the five senses? What would make it better?
The innkeeper shook her crooked finger in Abihail’s face. “The whole town suffers because of the likes of you.”
Abi squared her shoulders, ignoring the accusation, as well as the hunger pangs prodded to life by the yeasty aroma from the oven. The town suffered all right, as did all the towns bordering the valley, but certainly not because of the dissenters. “I only want a bit of bread, Mistress Trent, and I’ll happily work for it.”
The gaunt matron scowled. “You’d bring death on me and my family, would you?”
“No one need know I’m working for you. I can come at night—sweep out the common room and the kitchen, wash up your crockery, whatever you have need of.”
Mistress Trent seized her broom and flicked the coarse bristles toward Abi. “I need you to leave my property.”
Abi stepped nearer the door. Cold air seeped from underneath and crawled up her bare legs. She reached for the latch but stopped. Was she really wrong about Mistress Trent? She’d sneaked to the back entrance of The Pilgrims’ Lodge with such high hopes. Something about this tough-acting matron belied her imposing demeanor, but right now she showed no sign of softening.
How could Abi leave empty handed? How could she listen to Bijamin’s whimpering one more night? Her young brother was brave and rarely complained—a credit to all the dissenters—which fueled her determination to complete her task, both parts of it.
“Mistress, I know stitching, of all kinds. I can make you a shawl … or a dress. Whatever you want. No one would even see me.”
The innkeeper shook her head, swatted the air with her broom, and yelled. “Git!”
“Please, Mistress. I can’t let my brother starve.”
The care-worn woman shifted her gaze to the sideboard. “You heard me. Get off my property!” She reached for a pinkish-yellow pomegranate in the fruit bowl and hurled it at Abi.
Abi caught the hard-shelled fruit in one hand. Was this an attack … or a gift? She cocked her head, questioning.
“I don’t want you comin’ back here, is that clear?” Mistress Trent flung another piece of fruit to her.
Abi caught that one as well and tucked both in the pouch at the front of her tunic. “Yes, Mistress.”
“If I so much as see your shadow on the threshold, I’ll send for the constable.”
Abi mouthed a thank you.
Mistress Trent stepped toward her and swung the broom. “Out, or I’ll put you out! Leave my kitchen now!”
With a grin, Abi held up a hand. “I’m going, I’m going.”