Many amateur fiction writers, don’t write in scenes but just write whatever comes to mind. Writing in scenes with a clearly articulated setting, main character(s), character goal, stakes, conflict and outcome which shifts the story towards the next scene can make a huge difference in a writer’s manuscript. For similar sentiments from novelist Ian Irvine, you can read his article What I’ve Learned on the Orbit website. The article How a Little Planning Can Help Focus Your Novel Manuscript deals with the story as a whole but scenes are the building blocks of larger stories.
The following is an annotated version of chapter one of The Survivor by bestselling novelist Gregg Hurwitz to shed some light on how a scene can be approached.
[The main character is situated in the story world]
From this height the cars looked like dominoes, the pedestrians like roving dots. The breeze blew crisp and constant, cooling Nate’s lungs on the inhale – none of that touted LA smog this close to the ocean. To the west, blocks of afternoon gridlock ended at the Santa Monica cliffs, a sheer drop to white sand and the eternal slate of the sea. The view would have been lovely.
- In this passage the main character is physically situated – not philosophically or sociologically situated (which is not the same thing).
- Details have been introduced about the character’s immediate physical environment, the time of day, the weather, etc, without drifting away from the immediate experience of the main character at the moment depicted.
[The stakes and the character’s goal are revealed]
Except he was here to kill himself.
- This sentence establishes both the character’s goal in the scene (to kill himself) and the stakes (life and death). If he achieves his goal, he dies. If he doesn’t achieve his goal, he lives – which, for someone preparing to die, which is likely to give rise to major internal conflict for the character.
[The stakes are elaborated on and aspects of the character’s personality are revealed while the character is engaged in action toward his goal in the scene]
The eleventh story ledge gave him two spare inches past the tips of his sneakers. Balance was a challenge, but getting out here had been the hardest part. He’d shoehorned himself through the ancient bathroom window at First Union Bank of Southern California, wobbling for a solid minute on the ledge before daring to rise.
On the street below, people scurried about their business, no one squinting up into the late-morning glare to spot him. As he flattened against the wall, his sense lurched into overdrive – the smacking of his heart against his ribs, the sweat-damp shirt clinging to his shoulders, the salt tinge burning his nostrils. It felt a lot like panic, but somehow calmer, as if his brain was resigned to the circumstances but his body wasn’t getting the signals.
Because he was unwilling to risk landing on someone – with his luck he’d pile-drive a pension-check-cashing granny through the pavement – he continued slide-stepping to the end of the ledge. The corner of the building gave him less trouble than he’d anticipated as he elbow-clamped his way around, and then he was staring down at the empty alley and the target of the dumpster below. It was, if nothing else, a considerate plan. If he hit the bin squarely, the steel walls would contain the spatter, leaving him neatly packaged for delivery to the crematorium. He was sick of people cleaning up after him.
It had been less than ten minute since he’d laid open the dumpster lid, but it seemed like days. The chilly elevator ride up, the nod to the wizened black security guard, that final moment collecting his nerves by the row of urinals before muscling open the sash window – each had stretched out into a lifetime.
First Union of SoCal was one of the few West Coast banks located up off the ground floor – cheaper real estate, more space, better security. But only one high-rise perk held Nate’s interest currently. Gauging his position, he slid another half step to the right, stopping shy of a casement window that had been cranked several turns outward. From the gap issued a current of warm, coffee-scented air and the busy hum of tellers and customers. Business as usual.
He considered his own dwindling checking account within. His next step – literally – would void the million-dollar life-insurance policy to which he dutifully wrote a check every January, but even that wouldn’t matter. There was no one who wanted anything of him and nothing ahead but increments of misery.
He took a deep breath -his last? – and closed his eyes. Spreading his arms, he let the October wind rise through the thin cotton of his T-shirt and chill the sweat on his ribs. He waited for his life to flash before his eyes, the ethereal song and dance, but there was nothing. No wedding-day close-up of Janie’s lips parting to meet his, no image of Cielle dressed as a pumpkin for Halloween with her chocolate smudged hands and dimpled thighs, just the teeth of the wind and a thousand needle points of fear, skewering him like a pincushion. The longest journey, according to Taoism and Hallmark, begins with a single step.
And so does the shortest.
He took one foot and moved it out into the weightless open.
- The writing stays close to the character’s actions and includes enough detail for a reader to attribute likely motivations for the character’s actions and to begin forming ideas about the character’s personality.
- Meanwhile, the character’s actions are taking him closer to his goal.
[A twist provides the basis for a new goal for the character in the next scene]
That was when he heard the gunshots.
- This sentence introduces a new complication and a major shift in the character’s goal (as a reader would find out at the beginning of the next chapter), while encouraging a reader to ask questions which remain unanswered unless they read on to the next chapter.
You can follow the writing journeys of a range of Australian first-time novelists at Writing Novels in Australia and gain some insight into how they each approach such issues in their novel manuscript.
The Australian Literature Review