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Coming Late to the Party and Leaving Early: How to Structure a Scene

by David Henderson, book editor

The characters in your novel are busy, and it’s your fault. After all, it is you who have brought them into existence just to plunge them into some sort of all-encompassing conflict, and as they move about their imaginary lives in pursuit of their objective(s), contending with the various setbacks, obstacles, divergences, and challenges that give a novel its momentum, they have scant time to waste. This is likewise true for the reader, who, in the act of working through a novel, reasonably expects to read only what is necessary for the telling of the story, and no more.

To strengthen and streamline your fiction, one simple but effective technique is to start a scene earlier and end it sooner. Establish the scene’s setting and conflict (the emotional and dramatic heart of a scene), but don’t expend valuable words on unnecessary explication or narration of action that is not essential to the telling of the story. An obvious example, which we’ve all probably encountered in some form or another, is this: “Pasha was taking Sasha out for a big date tonight. He was ready to pop the question. He drove to her house at eight and found her waiting on the porch. They said hello and she got in his car. There was a lot of traffic. Then Pasha and Sasha drove to the fanciest, most romantic, most reasonably priced five-star taquería on Yelp. They got out the car, walked through the parking lot to the door, and entered the restaurant. The maître d’ escorted them to their table, on which sat a little folded card that said “Reserved” in elegant script. They took their seats and opened the menus. Pasha fingered the little box with the engagement ring in his pocket. He looked lovingly at Sasha, who cleared her throat and said, ‘Pasha, I think we should break up.’”

The conflict that drives the scene is evident (good luck with that, Pasha and Sasha), but driving to Sasha’s house, greeting each other, driving to the restaurant, etc. – that’s all filler, totally unessential, and, frankly, boring. (We must contend with so many banalities in real life; please spare us from such details in fiction.) Instead, start the action upon their arrival at the restaurant—or even better, midway through, after they’re already digging into their meals and the conversation is in full swing. Every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word should have a purpose within the whole work. Never forget that a novel (or a short story, or any text, really) is an amalgamation of parts, each of which has a purpose of its own but also plays a distinct part in the function of the whole. Generally, if it doesn’t contribute to plot or character development (or, perhaps, serves to create “mood” or “atmosphere”), cut it. If you write a scene that reads a little flat, try to find a way start the action later, lopping off the plodding preceding details. It will tighten up your prose, help distill it to its essence, and maintain the forward thrust of the narrative.

Similarly, don’t be afraid to conclude a scene earlier, without the little “wrap-up” or farewells that are often tacked on at the end. As in, “Sasha stood up, touched Pasha’s hand lightly, and whispered, ‘Goodbye, my love.’ Pasha looked forlornly at the little ring in its little box, its gold no longer as lustrous, its diamond tinier than the tears that rolled down his cheek as he cried into his pico de gallo. Pasha signaled for the waiter and asked for the check, please. ‘Cash or credit?’ asked the waiter. Pasha thought for a moment, considering how many rewards points he had earned on his card, and decided to use his credit card. He paid the bill and made his way to the exit, taking a couple complimentary mints to sweeten the sour sting of rejection. He got in his car, turned on the ignition, found the ticket stub to exit the parking lot, and put the stub in the machine so the parking barrier lifted. He put in the address on his GPS, for he was unfamiliar with this part of town and did not know the optimal route. Then he drove down the street, proceeded to the on ramp, and merged onto freeway, headed for his parents’ house. There was a lot of traffic.”

You see where this is going. In transporting a character from one location to another, writers often make the mistake of narrating the logistical steps involved in getting him there. Don’t. The reader understands that the usual laws of Newtonian mechanics apply in fiction as in real life and will not be perplexed if Pasha suddenly “jumps” from the restaurant to his mom and dad’s place, omitting everything in between. Unless you divulge some critical narrative information en route (Pasha ruminates poignantly on his relationship; Pasha tunes the radio to a song that jogs his memory in a way that makes him realize the signs of Sasha’s departure were there all the time; Pasha crashes into a traffic barrier, only to meet the real love of his life, the raven-haired EMT who pulls him from the fiery wreckage of his 2007 Prius, etc.), skip all that stuff. And at every moment, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this scene/character/idea/phrase? Does it contribute directly and essentially to plot and character development? Does it have a distinct role within the overall structure of the text? Trim the fat from your fiction. Pasha, Sasha, the raven-haired EMT, and all your readers will thank you.

David Henderson is a book editor who can help you craft scenes in your novel.

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