Today’s guest post is by Marsh Cassady. Marsh has Ph.D in theatre and is a former actor, director, and university professor. He is the author of fifty-seven published books and hundreds of shorter pieces. His plays have been performed in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., including Off-Broadway.
“Get the hell away from me.”
“I just want to help, damn it.”
“Help? How can you possibly help me? For God’s sake, man, you know even less about constructing a good scene than I do.”
“Oh, yeah? If that’s what you think, why don’t you let me prove you wrong?”
“Yeah, sure, you’re going to prove me wrong. I can’t believe this.”
“Just listen, for heaven’s sake.”
“I guess that’s the only way to end this stupid argument.”
“So it’s agreed?”
“You wear me down, man. So just go ahead and say what you want.”
“All right then.” He begins to explain…
We often think of scenes as plot segments, or to use a theatrical term, motivational units. Yet consider two things. First, a scene can rarely stand alone and make sense by itself. But some jokes and some short stories, particularly flash fiction, are exceptions. For instance:
The Forecast Is Rain
“For crying out loud! We gotta run...or are you gonna lie in bed all day? I’ll get the car, while you phone and tell them we may be a little late.”
Sally knew how important it was to get the new apartment. The rent was cheap, but all we could afford.
“When you're ready—and it better be quick—come out to the car.”
It was a sad situation. I’d lost my job. No prospects. Sally never would work; too lazy, I suppose. Can’t see any other reason. And if we didn’t get the new apartment, the manager here would kick us out on the street.
Dammit, where was she? The forecast was for rain, and the old car leaked around both doors and the windshield. I wanted to get to the new place before we got soaked. Make a good impression.
“Sally, where the hell are you?” I screamed.
The front door opened; Sally stood there in pajamas and a robe.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“Mom sent me money,” she said. “You can go; I’m staying here.”
What! After all this time, nearly four years, together. And to think I’d always treated her so well.
Second, not all scenes directly contribute to the plot. What was that? Okay, I said “directly contribute.” Yet each scene has to contribute in some way to the overall story. Sometimes scenes are largely narrative or descriptive and involve little conflict. At the same time, they have to be interesting; they have to, in some way, contribute to the advancement of the plot—even though indirectly—and they have to hold a reader’s attention.
This all means that a scene needs to have a purpose, and everything within it has to relate that purpose. It’s up to you to figure out the purpose of each of your scenes and not deviate from it. There can be many reasons for including a scene. Maybe it’s to establish the world or universe in which the action exists. Maybe it’s to reveal character. There are many types of scenes, a few of which we’ll get to later. But let’s take the type that directly advances the plot.
First, maybe we need to define plot? What exactly is it? The answer is that it’s the portrayal of conflict between a protagonist—the guy with the white hat—and the antagonist—the guy with the black hat. Both have a particular goal they want to reach within the context of the story. When plotted fiction is at its highest point, one of the two beings or forces is victorious in defeating the other, thus reaching its goal. “Beings or forces” instead of men or women? Yes, since first of all there are different sorts antagonists. In other words, the protagonist may struggle against: 1) another person; 2) against self; 3) against society; 4) against nature. To further confuse things, a protagonist or antagonist may be a group of people, rather than an individual. The second sort of conflict may be as simple as a person fighting against an addiction, the third fighting against corruption, the fourth against a severe storm. An example of a group antagonist would be an evil government. And characters in fiction certainly don’t have to be human beings; they can be animals, extraterrestrials, or even imaginary creatures like Hobbits.
A plot generally has four (or sometimes five) parts. It begins when things are at an even keel and something destroys this balance. This may occur near the beginning of the novel but often occurs before the action begins. This “upset” is the inciting incident, which initiates the struggle between the protagonist and antagonist. The parts are the:
1. Inciting incident—Which leads to the conflict.
2. Rising action—Where the tension and conflict build.
3. Turning point—Where the end of the conflict is determined.
4. Climax—Where the protagonist or antagonist is defeated.
5. Falling action or denouement—Where everything is tied up.
The following illustrates a very simple plot, and serves as a diagram for a scene, as well. But if it is one scene of many, of course, there is no turning point. Rather the action falls off a little before it continues to build. In other words, there are minor climaxes.
Look back at the opening of this post, which, in effect, has all the necessary ingredients of a scene—two people arguing over whether one of them actually knows how to construct a scene. The beginning of the argument is the inciting incident, the argument itself the rising action, the one person’s decision to give up is the climax, and the rest of the blog is the denouement—though most denouements are short. (An exception is some mystery novels in which a lot of loose ends need to be tied up.)
Each scene in which there is conflict has to contain these elements. Most stories and certainly virtually all novels have more than one scene, each building to a climax and then falling off a little before the next scene begins, like this:
Sometimes, the turning point and the climax are the same, sometimes not. The turning point is where the action can go no further without something irrevocable happening. The climax is where the irrevocable actually occurs. Think of a close basketball game. The teams struggle to score baskets. One scores first and temporarily gains the upper hand. Then the other goes ahead. The struggle continues till the final seconds of the game. The score is tied. One team gets the ball and scores just as time runs out. This is both the turning point and the climax.
But suppose two people are enemies, and each wants to defeat the other. They have a sword fight. One knocks the sword out of the opponent’s hand. This is the turning point. The climax comes a few seconds later when the one still holding the sword stabs the other…or decides to spare his life. The turning point is when the one with the sword in hand carries out the decision, which brings about the defeat of the other.
Fiction often contains scenes in which there appears to be no direct conflict. Yet if the piece is well‑written, the conflict is inherent; it relates to what already has been shown. For example, one character may be describing what is bothering her, what has caused the central problem and conflict. In so doing, she may begin to glimpse a possible solution, foreshadowing more direct conflict while building tension and anticipation about whether she will succeed. But remember that everything that occurs in fiction with a plot has to be relevant to the advancement of the plot. Everything must be relevant to the protagonist’s attempt to reach his or her goal.
Most scenes contain conversations. Writing dialogue involves many considerations. First, does it sound natural? I say “sound natural” because dialogue is rarely an exact replication of everyday speech. It’s more direct, more honed. It doesn’t change direction as often as regular conversation. Each line has to contribute in some way to the advancement of the scene. It cannot be extraneous, except if going off on tangents is an important part of the character’s personality.
Other things to consider are if the dialogue fits the “universe” or the “given circumstances” of the story. Dialogue from Elizabethan times would be vastly different from that of today. And a Bostonian would speak much differently than a Canadian. You need to consider if the dialogue in any scene fits the characters. Are they highly educated or do they have little formal education? What are their economic backgrounds? You need to figure out any part of a character’s background, experience, and personality to have them speak “naturally.” What is natural for one character could be vastly different from what is natural for another.
Further, the mood of the scene helps determine the type of dialogue. A scene in which a mother is trying to save a child from an attack by a rabid dog would certainly be different from that mother talking to her neighbor about an upcoming vacation.
More than all this, you need to keep in mind everything you already known about the character and build on that. You also need to be sure that during any scene, particularly one of intense conflict, you need to reveal more and more about what the characters are like. This is true for the protagonist and the antagonist, but usually not so important for other characters, many of whom are there simply as “devices” to further the action. The less important the characters, the less the reader needs to know about them. If you spend too much time with these minor characters, you take away from the plot and lead the reader astray.
The central characters have to be well-developed enough so that what they are willing to do to reach their goal is a logical outgrowth of the type of people they are.
There also has to be a reason for other characters to be present in any scene. You need to ask yourself why they are necessary to the advancement of the plot. Each character in a plotted story, like the protagonist and the antagonist, has a goal. Maybe a husband’s goal is just to support to his wife in her struggles. Maybe it’s as simple as a mailman delivering a letter—his goal—that is important to the plot.
There’s also the matter of exposition. You need to determine everything the reader or audience member needs to know in order to understand the scene. Exposition establishes the time period, the location, the situation, and anything else the reader needs to know. At the same time it shouldn’t call undue attention to itself.
The first of the two following examples is ludicrous; it’s intrusive and unnatural:
John: Well, here we are, the first day of our vacation in Paris, and we forgot to ask the Thompsons to water our plants while we're gone.
Marsha: Yes, and, like we discussed, we should have canceled the newspaper.
John: Oh, well, since this is the first vacation we've taken in the last eight years, we should just try to forget such things and enjoy our two weeks together.
Such a scene can come across as humorous or boring. Besides that, the characters are telling each other things they already know. Some of the information may be necessary for a reader to know, but presenting it this way doesn’t work.
You could rewrite the same material to give it tension and conflict:
“For heaven’s sake, Marsha, how could you forget to ask the Thompson’s to water the plants?”
“I suppose, John, the same damn way you forgot to cancel the paper. I mean we did agree on who was responsible for what!”
“I take you to Paris—for a nice vacation, one I thought you’d appreciate—and you act like this.”
Or take the following scene from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The scene is pure exposition, yet Wilde makes it humorous, reveals lot of information about the two characters, and sets up what is to follow:
ALGERNON: How are you, my dear Earnest? What brings you up to town?
JACK: Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? Eating as usual, I see Algy.
ALGERNON: (Stiffly) I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’clock. Where have you been since last Thursday?
JACK: (Sitting down on the sofa) In the country.
ALGERNON: What on earth do you do there?
JACK: (pulling off his gloves) When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.
ALGERNON: And who are the people you amuse?
JACK: (airily) Oh, neighbours, neighbours.
ALGERNON: Got nice neighbours in your part of Shropshire?
JACK: Perfectly horrid! Never speak to them.
ALGERNON: How immensely you must amuse them! (Goes over and takes a sandwich) By the way, Shropshire is your county, is it not?
JACK: Eh? Shropshire? Yes, of course. Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming to tea?
ALGERNON: Oh! merely Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen.
JACK: How perfectly delightful!
ALGERNON: Yes, that is all very well; but I am afraid Aunt Augusta won't quite approve of your being here.
JACK: May I ask why?
ALGERNON: My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you.
JACK: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.
ALGERNON: I thought you had come up for pleasure?...I call that business.
JACK: How utterly unromantic you are!
ALGERNON: I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
Some of the things we learn in this scene are that Jack and Algernon are good friends since Jack has felt comfortable enough to drop in unexpectedly. We learn that Jack will be serving tea to Gwendolen, whom he obviously intends to marry. We find that Jack and Gwendolen obviously love each other. Wilde also begins to reveal what the two men are like and hints at what is to follow. Furthermore, Wilde sets up a series of small conflicts. Many of the lines are humorous because we don’t expect them.
In the following, the two characters had been hovering over their bodies in an emergency room. Suddenly, they swooped down…into the same body:
Frank opened his eyes.
"Well, Brad, I see we're awake," a female voice said.
Brad! What the hell was going on!
"What...what happened?" His voice sounded funny; he felt strange.
Brad woke up, his head filled with random images, alien thoughts. What's going on?He screamed inside his brain.
Stop the damned screaming!
What! Who are you?he asked.
Frank Willard. Who are you?
What are you doing in my head?
You're in my body,Brad said. Get the hell out!
Your body? What happened to my...oh, my God!
I was in this smash-up. A guy wasn't looking. An asshole in a semi. He pulled in front of me; I couldn’t even swerve.
You!Brad said. You were hovering. I thought how awful your body looked. A pile of rubbish!
My body isn't... Oh, Jesus, I was up there, and floating beside me— You! Nothing seemed to be wrong with you.
Nothing wrong, you stupid shit! I'd been stung by a bee!
A bee? You were stung by a bee. What kind of person—
I'm allergic to bee stings, all right! I could die.
What kind of sissy are you, man?
Look, creep, you're the one who's dead.
Dead! Oh, Jesus.
You ...Brad sensed that part of his brain had gone to sleep. Oh, fuck. How could this be? He really was crazy.
Then he remembered. Somebody saying he was going to make it. At the instant he merged with his body, he felt another—
"Yes," he said. "It's just me."
The second scene, presented humorously, is filled with conflict, though with elements of personality and some exposition involving the situation. But the scene sets up what is going to be a series of conflicts in which the two men have to solve the major problem of sharing the same body. Obviously, this is going to affect everything they try to do in that each is stubborn and refuses to give in to what the other wants.
Some scenes are strictly narration, as in the following excerpt from a longer scene in which a man with serious mental problems has been trying repeatedly to kill a young actress. Though the scene consists only of his thoughts, we certainly get a glimpse into the sort of person he is and how he feels.
I said I loved Mary. I was going to kill her… I love Mary. I love Ruthie. She'll have to have me. We're going to be married. If she doesn't marry me, I'll ki...
No, I love her. Damn it, I love her. I love Mary too; no, I don't, the little bitch.
Some scenes are strictly narrative. They may show a character jogging or traveling in a train or any one of dozens of other scenarios. Or they may be entirely descriptive. But they set up what is to follow; they anticipate and so build interest and suspense.
It is important to remember that each scene in a story is different and therefore has its own purpose and its own requirements. What you need to do is to determine that purpose and how you can do your best to achieve it.
Examine each element of your scene and figure out if it accomplishes what you want it to, and that it is consistent with the other scenes in the story or novel.
Does the dialogue fit the character, the situation, the mood, the time period? What is jarring about the conversation? What doesn’t fit?
Do the same with the important characters. Are they believable and consistent within the framework of the story? Is there anything out of place? If so, what, and how can it be fixed?
Is the scene interesting? Will it hold a reader’s attention? Is there tension and suspense? Have you written the scene so that it holds the reader’s attention and make him or her look forward to the next scene? Are the characters themselves interesting? Will the reader care about the protagonist and those close to him or her? If not, you need to make the character more appealing in whatever way you can. What can you do to make the reader care?
Writing a good scene is a matter of figuring out its purpose and following through in an interesting manner. If you do that, you should have no problems.
Marsh Cassady has Ph.D in theatre and is a former actor, director, and university professor. He is the author of fifty-seven published books and hundreds of shorter pieces. His plays have been performed in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., including Off-Broadway. For about eight years he was co-publisher of a small press and a literary journal. He has also taught creative writing at the University of California, San Diego, and for thirty-five years led all-genre writing workshops.
Playwrights and screenwriters have always understood the power of dramatic action — but many fiction writers fail to fully harness dramatic writing in novels and short stories. Check out our masterclass on dramatic writing, and learn 3 tools that will help keep your readers hooked to your story.