A Scene Is Not:
- A character being introspective for paragraphs or pages at a time
- Summarizing action or things that have recently happened
- Describing a setting
A Scene Needs:
- A goal and/or purpose
- A forward motion
- Sensory details that orientate the reader to setting and time of day
- Necessary information revealed
A Goal or Purpose
In order to make a scene worth keeping out of the Damaged Goods bay during final redrafts, there must be something about it that, if removed, would alter or hinder the overall story. This scene has to mean something, either for the emotional/interpersonal state of your cast, or for the overall plot. What do Bob and Lucy really think of each other? Or what riddle must be solved for the characters to move on through their next challenge?
A Forward Motion
This sense of motion can be physical (such as characters moving through a jungle toward a destination—the old tomb, let’s say) or it can exist solely to provide new information (reveal what it is they will find inside the tomb, if they make it there.) Whatever the purpose or goal of your scene, it must never be stagnant. Reflective moments are good, calm moments of rest are good, but those can be kept brief and conveyed in summary because they are not action.
Details for Reader Orientation
If you’ve ever heard of Talking Head Syndrome, you’ll know what I mean when I say: orientation is very important. Talking Heads occurs when dialogue is being exchanged but the reader is left to guess where Bob is standing and whether or not Lucy is doing anything more than staring Bob down the whole time he’s telling her about the meeting that ran late.
“I’m sorry, honey,” Bob said. “I informed Tim it was our anniversary and I’d have to cut out of the meeting early, but then Douglas kept all of us behind. There was nothing I could do.”
“There’s always something to be done in a situation like that,” Lucy said.
“I know, darling. I’m sorry I’m late. I’ll never be late again; I’m quitting.”
Is Lucy exasperated or just disappointed? Does Bob mean it when he apologizes and vows to quit? How can your reader tell the emotional context unless you show them that Lucy prepared a whole meal and set out the good cloth napkins and the china, only to be let down again. Or how can they know Bob truly is repentant without him taking her into his arms, holding her, and swaying to mute music like they’re highschoolers again?
Dialogue tags like “she cried at him” aren’t going to cut it. Likewise, describing a generic setting like “they sat on the park bench on a nice day” isn’t going to make nearly as much of a connection as “That afternoon, they sat at the bench near the lion fountain, far away from the laughing children and the small white dog. It was sunny, but the air tasted like rain.”
Necessary Details Revealed
This really goes hand in hand with having a goal/purpose for your scenes, but I listed this one separately to emphasize that not all detail is good detail. In my example above with Bob and Lucy, do we assume Bob is wearing a suit or other business-appropriate clothes when he arrives home? Probably, because we know he was at work, and was stuck in a formal meeting (which suggests something to do with cubicles and offices rather than, say, freelance street photography,) but do we care what pattern of suit or tie Bob is wearing? Not really, unless he’s into quirky porcupine neckties. We would care if he took the time to buy Lucy flowers, and not just any flowers, but the velvety white roses she enjoys so much. And the revelation that Bob is willing to quit his job right here and now because he sees it is causing his wife pain tells us about his character. Specificity is good for imagery and context. Useless information and laundry-list descriptions are bad.