You’re at a restaurant. You’re having a fight with your boyfriend. He’s breaking up with you because he’s fallen in love with your sister. Worse yet, your daughter. No wait, make that your mother. You begin to scream at him. “Are you insane? Have you seen the varicose veins on her legs?” He asks you to please be quiet, you’re making a scene. You look around and notice everyone in the restaurant is staring at you. One of those people is your mother. When did she walk in? Oh god. Did she hear that comment about the veins?
When you’re writing your novel, it helps to think in terms of making scenes. And since no one is actually watching, you don’t have to worry about your mother. Really. She can’t read your mind, I promise, and the files in your computer don’t automatically feed into her hard drive. That also goes for fathers, ex-wives, ex-boyfriends, and ex-employers. I’m not sure about ex-psychics.
That doesn’t mean your novel needs to be one big dramatic confrontation after another. By “scene” I really mean an interaction. It can center on an event that can be large or small. Usually it will not turn heads in a restaurant. But something needs to happen to move the plot forward.
Perhaps the most important aspect of a scene is that it takes place in “real time.” As opposed to exposition, explanation, and flashback, a scene is “happening.” That’s why scenes are so engaging.
Maybe some of you are thinking that I’m just talking about the old “Show Don’t Tell” thing. I guess I am. I never liked that phrase. It confuses me. When we’re writing a novel, aren’t we telling a story? How do you NOT tell? You have to tell. That’s what this whole endeavor is about, isn’t it? So how do we know when it’s okay to be telling, and when it’s not, if in fact you are telling the whole darn thing? Who invented this “Show Don’t Tell” rule anyway?
I prefer to forget about showing and telling and think in terms of SCENE. In plays, characters might have speeches with exposition, but there’s no way around the fact that something dramatic is playing out “right now” before our very eyes. Unless it’s a horrible play and god knows I’ve sat through enough of them.