You know that feeling… You’re staring at a bloated, overlong, rambling scene that has no structure and seems to spool out into infinity. People talk and talk, blah, blah, blah…. yet nothing happens. You grab your red pencil or place your fingers on the keys, determined to trim the scene down, find its purpose.
You are stumped.
This week Donna reflects all our scene writing pain when she asks, “I tend to have long scenes. Is there a process that touches on where and when and how often to switch scenes? I’m learning, but am always open to new lessons.”
The question of switching scenes is really about learning to get to the heart of the scene and out of it as quickly as possible. Your various scene lengths will be dictated by the story you’re writing. Whether you’re working on a novel, memoir, or screenplay, you’re going to want to create rhythm and pacing in your story, and this will be dictated by the length and content and varying textures of your scenes.
Unfortunately, there’s no “set” answer to Donna’s question, but here are some things to think about as you edit your scenes…
1) How does this scene move the story forward? What is the piece of action that will create cause and effect and lead the hero to the next scene? What is the character trying to DO? Who’s trying to stop them? Does the hero get what he or she wants? If not, what do they decide to do next, to achieve their goal? Make sure you know the narrative “point” of your scene. To create variety, make some scene “objectives” more difficult than others. This will give you diversity in your scene lengths and pacing.
2) In late, out early. This should be your mantra for writing scenes. Come in as late as possible to the scene (right before the thing that moves the story forward), then once you’ve done this moment, get the hell out. “In late, out early” creates crisp pacing and keeps your story moving forward. It also tells you when to enter and when to exit your scenes.
3) Cut the chit chat. You’d be surprised how many “Hello how are yous and “Thank you very muches” and “Nice to meet yous” creep into scenes. Although people do talk like this in real life, they can’t in your story. Chit chat slows down the pace. Cut out the niceties as much as possible.
4) Write visually. If you’ve got a lumbering scene that’s dragging on and on, is there a way to write it visually, through action, with no dialogue? Some scenes can be made more impactful (and shorter) this way.
5) Don’t be afraid to let some scenes breathe. And what I mean by this is, go ahead and open up some scenes, let them be longer. For example, if you have a bunch of explosive or fast paced action beats in your story, the reader/audience will need some time to chillax and process what they’ve seen. These breather scenes also allow you to develop your characters more fully and set up and develop your themes.
6) Make sure you have variety in your scene lengths. Your climax better be a big scene. But the race leading up to it, can happen in shorter snippets. You need both short and longer scenes. To see if your pacing is working, read through and trust your gut. If you feel like a scene is too long. It is. If it feels like a scene is too short, it probably is. Part of the process of writing is just getting the scenes down, then going through, as you revise, and trusting your instincts as a reader/viewer to create the pace.
I’ve read books, especially screenwriting books, that tell the writer how many scenes should be in ACT I, II etc. This is crazy! Yes, screenplays must be a certain length, and yes, the act breaks generally land around the same page numbers, but how a writer gets to these turning points via scenes can be wildly divergent. The same holds true for novels and memoirs. I’m currently reading the novel “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. Doerr flips through multiple characters in many staccato short scenes/chapters. This unique form perfectly fits the complicated and expansive story he’s trying to tell.
Take Action! If you have a scenes that are overlong, think about why they might be lumbering. Do they beat around the bush forever before moving the story forward? Have you cut out all the chit chat? Have you come into the scene late and gotten out early? Is there a way to make the scene completely visual? Does the scene NEED to be long, to develop character or let the reader breathe?
Finally, read through your draft, trusting your gut as a reader or audience member to see if the pacing works.
Happy Scene Writing!
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