September 24, 2019
by guest blogger Tim Storm
Turning points are crucial to scenes. In fact, it’s more than that. Turning points are why scenes exist. So it’s essential to understand how and why they work within your story.
What are scenes?
They're everywhere. No matter what kind of story you are writing, you will have scenes. I mean, you could have just one scene if your story is very short, but the vast majority of short stories are made of multiple scenes and every novel and memoir is made of many scenes. (A novel can have anywhere from 50 to 150 scenes; it varies a lot.)
In plays, scenes have a clear delineation. But in prose, scenes are sometimes marked by scene breaks (a blank line, some sort of squiggly shape, and/or a bold, enlarged letter at the start of a subsequent scene), but mostly, their borders are invisible.
Defining the scene
Jack Bickham defines a scene as “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented on stage in the story ‘now.’”
Jordan Rosenfeld defines scenes as “capsules in which compelling characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way that allows the events to feel as though they are happening in real time.”
Sometimes, novice writers write in narrative summary rather than allowing events to be shown (instead of told). So both Bickham and Rosenfeld are careful to emphasize that scenes play out in “real time” or in the story “now.”
And of course, both also mention that scenes are units of story action. Things happen in scenes.
But we need to take that a little further if we’re interested in effective scenes.
Conflict at the center
My favorite definition of a scene comes from Dwight Swain: “a scene is a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader.”
Whenever I talk about scenes in a workshop or a class, everyone’s pretty clear on what scenes are. I sometimes throw in James Scott Bell’s alliterative observation that scenes are made up of “objective, obstacle, and outcome” to make sure that everyone can identify not only that things are happening in “real time,” but that there’s a clear desire and conflict at the heart of the unit of action.
T.D. Storm writes short stories and essays. His work has appeared in various journals and anthologies, including Black Warrior Review, Copper Nickel, and Literary Hub. He he has been a finalist in a number of contests, including the International Literary Competition at Salem College, which he won in 2013. He has an MFA in Writing from Pacific University.
Tim lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he works as a writing coach and editor. You can learn more about his teaching and editing at stormwritingschool.com. Prior to his current work, he taught high school English for 15 years and briefly pursued an Olympic rowing berth.
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