Scene structure is an essential concept writers must grasp in order to construct solid, fluid novels. I chose that word fluid because I feel readers want something akin to a smooth read. I don’t mean specifically a linear story in which every moment passes in time the same way. I mean the story being told is easy to follow because the scenes string together in a clear flow of time, each giving the sense of real time passing, right here, right now.
This may be a tricky concept for some to grasp, so bear with me a bit. I’ve written some posts in the past on showing time passing in novels. In a film, there are lots of techniques available to the screenwriter and filmmaker to make time appear to slow down or speed up. But not so easy to do with a novel.
Novelists have to use creative ways of wording to show these same effects. But scenes, essentially, are all about showing significant action happening in real time—the way time passes for us as we go through our lives. The variable, however, is linked to the POV character who is experiencing and showing the scene through her eyes.
Time Is All about Perception
What do I mean? Well, time is perceived by each of us individually and differently. Sometimes time seems to drag. Other times it goes so fast, we can’t keep up with what is happening around us. Perception is the key.
Now, let’s take this whole concept and think about scene construction. Last week I shared with you the definition of a scene that my author friend, Jordan Rosenfeld, gave in her book Make a Scene (and she has graciously jumped at the opportunity to share a guest blog post this month about scene structure, so watch for it!). Here is the definition again:
“Scenes are 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.”
Great Scenes Are Capsules
In each scene in your novel, you cover a specific period of time. There is a starting point in time and a point when the scene ends. That scene might last for one minute or one hour. Why might it vary so much? Because whatever needs to take place in that scene does so via the perception of the POV character.
Let’s say you have a scene in which your hero is dangling by a rope over a cliff. The bad guys have shot him and he’s bleeding profusely. The whole scene is his struggle to pull himself up onto the ledge and to safety. You may feel like that isn’t a whole scene. It certainly can be, if it has a beginning, middle, and end (which can, literally, be a cliffhanger). If you are not aware that your scenes need to be like mini novels, read this post. So long as a scene accomplishes its goal—to reveal an important element that moves the plot forward in a specific way—it doesn’t matter how much “actual” time passes in that scene.
I’m not going to spend months on scene construction because we have twelve essential pillars of novel construction to cover in fifty-two weeks, so I would highly encourage you to read all my posts on scene construction beginning with this one here.
So, you could have a rich, compelling scene that might even take ten long pages to show your hero pulling himself up onto a ledge covering maybe three minutes of real time. In another scene, three minutes may pass in the blink of an eye. It’s all about the character’s perception and what is happening to him.
However, it is very hard to create an efficient, effective scene if too much time passes and too many things happen that are not clearly built as an individual high moment. Scenes like that will feel pointless and will usually drag. Readers are looking for that point of your scene. If they get to the end of it and you haven’t made a point, they will feel gyped, even if they don’t realize it. I see many writers make the huge mistake of briefly skimming (summarizing) events in a scene that keeps jumping ahead hours, days, weeks without any clear purpose.
Adjust the Pacing of Your Novel So It Reflects Real Life
When we’re in danger, or anxiously waiting for something, or in great pain, time seems to drag. When we’re in the midst of an exciting competition or other fast action, time sometimes seems to move at the speed of light. The challenge for the novelist, then, is to keep time moving forward by showing significant action in real time, but tweaked appropriately for the POV character’s perception.
This will greatly affect the pacing of your novel, which should vary just as time in real life varies. You should have scenes that feel as if they are moving fast and others in which it seems time is dragging, even painfully slow. Genre plays a part, as does the position of a scene in the novel. Fast-action suspense scenes speed up the closer they get to the climax. But you could have a suspenseful survival story, perhaps about someone cresting Mt. Everest or trying to tread water in a hurricaine, that slows down to a grueling crawl in the scenes leading to the climax, but is full of great tension.
Just because time is moving slowly, that doesn’t mean the pacing or novel itself is dragging. Don’t get confused about that. Suspense and pacing are all tied up with the reader caring—worrying—about what will happen next to their beloved protagonist. That is what creates suspense, for the most part. Once again, it all comes back around to the protagonist and her goal.
String Those Capsules Together
Playing with the sense of time passing is one of my favorite things to do in a novel. I love the way time flows and ebbs and stalls and rushes in my life. Time takes us on a wild ride, an erratic adventure through the ups and downs of existence. Time should be that way for your characters—and readers—as well.
But with that said, scenes need to be strung together as capsules of time, like a string of pearls, each unfolding the story and providing meaningful—important—information to help push the plot and characters forward in a compelling way.
It’s all about showing a scene playing out in real time. Readers do not want to be told what happens to the characters. They don’t want story summaries in the guise of scenes. They want to watch, in real time, what is happening to the character—but through the POV character’s eyes and perception. Once you really get that, you will discover how fun it is to manipulate time as you play out your plot.
This structure is an essential pillar of novel construction, so spend time learning proper scene structure. Read novels by authors who really have this technique down and study just how they do it. Examine their scenes. Figure out just how much time seems to pass in each scene and whether it feels as if time is moving quickly or slowly. If you come across powerful scenes that really work, tear them apart and see why they work. Don’t just assume scenes will write themselves; trust me—they won’t.
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Any thoughts about the way time passage can be conveyed in a scene? What scenes in your novel require you to slow down or speed up time?