Director’s Corner: Creating Strong Scenes

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

Creating Strong Scenes

In one of our recent podcasts, Nancy Kress discussed the importance of writing in scenes. She explained how breaking your story into scenes, and breaking those scenes into their various components, can help you make the most of every moment in your story. I’d like to build on that topic by discussing another important aspect of writing in scenes.

Something that I’ve found very useful when constructing a scene or editing a scene is to consider what changes in the scene. Ideally, in every scene, something of significance should change for the main character of that scene. Some significant value should change for the main character between the beginning of the scene and the end. Some reversal should take place. For example, a character might go from freedom to captivity, or from love to hate, or from distrust to trust. Robert McKee discusses this concept in his excellent book Story.

Many developing writers create scenes in which nothing much changes–a character sits and thinks about his life, or walks around and thinks about his life, or two characters exchange information, but nothing of significance changes. Often the author is preoccupied with establishing certain background information, setting up character relationships, or describing the world. While those are important tasks to accomplish, they should be accomplished while the plot is simultaneously moving ahead, not while the plot is stuck at a standstill. A scene in which nothing of significance changes is a scene that is not moving the story ahead. If at all possible, it should be cut or revised so that it does create such a change.

A story in which every scene creates a change or reversal is more likely to be dynamic, dramatic, and exciting. Give it a try.

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