Don’t Paint the Whole Elephant
What’s the smallest unit of storytelling an author can work with?
It’s not a chapter. It’s a scene.
- A scene is the smallest building block that advances the story in a meaningful way.
- A chapter is a collection of scenes.
What is a scene?
- A distinct unit of storytelling.
- A combination of dialogue / action / description
A scene can contain all three or just one; it might be a moment of internal reflection in reaction to a previous scene or to a prompt such as a letter through the mail, a tree fallen in a storm or the morning alarm clock. Anything can be a scene as long as it precipitates action or reaction.
In editing Book One, I’ve cut a number of scenes that didn’t contain sufficient action or reaction to impact on the characters and advance the story. These are non-scenes, just things that happened or conversations that went nowhere. They’re cut.
Action and Reaction
Action is mandatory; the action of a scene must have an impact on the characters to advance the story.
Dialogue and description should also contain or catalyse some action or reaction. If not, they don’t advance the story.
This is why description without action cannot by itself be a scene. I can give an example.
I can describe a vase or table. It may be beautiful and well-crafted description. But unless it impacts on the reader or a character there is no story in that description. This flash fiction prompt isn’t about the vase, it’s about the relationship to the person who bought the vase. The narrator has a reaction to the object described.
Scenes have structure
It’s a given that stories have structure; beginning, middle and end.
So do scenes.
We’ve previously considered scenes as a short story in themselves – yes, within the context of the overall story.
Scenes should also have beginning, middle and end. This is what makes them a whole unit of story telling. There must be a resolution at the end of the scene that carries us forward to another part of the story.
So how to we do that? We return to focus, which is the next post on constructing effective scenes.