How to Eat a Whale – A Guest Post by Art Holcomb
Today’s guest post is by Art Holcomb, with some excellent tips for writing scenes.
Scriptwriting – the crafting of screenplays, teleplays, stage plays, radio plays, comic books, commercials, lyrics and the like – are some of the most powerful story forms in our lives.
These forms are created by linking a series of brief scenes of specific length together (sometimes designed to fit between commercials) like pearls on a string, individually beautiful but coming together to create something like a necklace that is more lovely than the sum of its parts.
Scenes are the way we come into the world. Memories, one of our strongest motivators, are almost completely made up of scenes. They are stories in miniature; they are bite-sized, easy to digest, and easy to remember and retell. They are the building blocks of all narrative writing.
It’s easy to see why:
- scenes make up sequences,
- sequences make up beats,
- beats make up acts
- and acts make up stories.
The scene is also a microcosm for the whole. It has:
- a beginning, middle, and end as well as
- its own conflict, goals and obstacles;
- its own tension and release through pivot points;
- its own surprises and revelations . . .
- its own stakes – some stand alone to the scene, some part of the greater story;
- Like a poem that’s crafted for maximum impact with a minimum number of words, scenes alone have the power to create moments within a story, the very moments that the audience might remember after the performance is over.
I recently heard a quote attributed to George Lucas who said that a film should consist of “sixty great two-minute scenes.” Absolutely! Like dominoes, when lined up correctly, great scenes fall with a beauty and grace of their own, the action within one creating the power and momentum that propels itself into the next. When done right, it is seamless. When it’s not, it can be like choking on a chicken bone.
Authors like James Patterson and Robert B. Parker use the same concept in their non-scriptwriting fiction, building a novel with a hundred or more short scenes or chapters. The length of their chapters become shorter as the pace and tension builds. Each chapter or scene is a vignette, a small chip of ceramic placed in a greater mosaic, bringing together the smallest of things to make great beauty and power.
If, as we write, our goal is to develop the above elements, we have to assemble the tools we need to make great scenes. As you write, consider these techniques:
Enter the scene as late as possible – this can maximize the time you have inside the scene; remember, if you’re shooting for two-minutes scenes, then every little bit of saved time or space can be put to better use.
Let the action inform the reader as to setting and tone. Much of exposition in a screenplay or novel is actually reference and inference. There’s an old saying that the real story begins in chapter three; why not try starting there without the build-up and see how much back-story and information comes from the action?
There must be an identifiable beginning, a time before the problem or attack takes place (this is known as the Inciting Incident). Make your beginning striking. You can place readers suddenly in a situation that heightens their senses or lulls them into being comfortable before hitting them with the stark contrast of the main conflict.
Create a middle that pivots us around. The main character is fighting his way in one direction – now, spin us around! Give us something that we didn’t see coming. Conflict us, confound us, do something bold and unexpected. Make the decision points of the story clear. Doing this part well provides depth and roundness to the scene. Your readers will thank you for it.
End the scene. Too many writers ignore this point. They let the action stop, trail off, or have a character leave the room (literally or emotionally) or fail to make a decision. These can be valid parts of a scene’s ending but by themselves are not enough to propel us into the next scene, to the next pearl in the strand. The ends of scenes contain one of the greatest dangers a writer can face because this is a natural point for readers to decide whether they are going to continue reading. Find a way to hook your audience so they come back. One of my mentors in writing comics, the late Archie Goodwin of DC, advocated making the last panel in a page of a comic book (being akin to a screenplay scene) tie directly into the first panel of the next, enticing the reader to turn every page. Done right, this makes the reader need to know what comes next. Then, you do it all over again in the next scene.
Every word, every phrase, or exchange must have a purpose. If not, you should ask yourself whether you really need it. The real estate on the page is too precious to waste with literary weeds and overgrowth.
Always know what the objective for the scene is. Every scene should have at least two: One is the objective for the story: what the characters must accomplish or what they need to feel in order to march ever forward to their goal. But also there is an objective for the reader. You are the one telling the story; you are in control. What is it that the reader wants to feel from this passage? Your skill plus their own personal experiences dictate what they get out of your tale. You need to do your part to give them the ride they paid for.
Drive the narrative smoothly from one scene to another; each scene must make a fluid link between the scene before and the scene that follows.
Finally. try to accomplish at least two of these three things in each scene:
- Expand the narrative: move the story along (escalate).
- Deepen the characterization: reveal more (give details and emotion).
- Promote the subtext and theme.
These strategies will serve you well regardless of your story’s format. It’s simply quality storytelling.
For more information, try Larry Brook’s excellent chapter on scene development in his Story Engineering or some of the passages dedicated to scene writing on Storyfix. In addition, I recommend The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield and Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Oh, and the answer to the question in the title: how do you eat a whale?
Why, one small bite at a time . . . of course!
About the Author: Art Holcomb is a screenwriter whose work has appeared on the Showtime Channel. He is a comic book author of such comics as Disney/Marvel’s X-Men and Acclaim’s Eternal Warriors. Art is a regular contributor to Storyfix – voted the #1 fiction writer’s website on the Internet. A number of his recent essays appear in the collection: Warm Hugs for Writers: Comfort and Commiseration of The Writing Life (Amazon Books). He appears and teaches at San Diego Comic-Con and other conventions. His most recent screenplay is 4EVER (a techno-thriller set in the Afterlife) and he is completing a workbook for writers entitled The Pass: A Proven System for Getting from Notion to Finished Manuscript. Art lives in Southern California.