Craft Lessons

Scenes are the building blocks of powerful fiction, narrative nonfiction and screenplays. An effective scene stands on its own—a taut episode featuring characters, dialogue, description and tension that is one part of a mosaic that reveals the action and themes that make up the entire work. With them, you have an engine that drives your story. Without them, you’re stuck with writing that is nothing more than a lifeless encounter between characters. 

By way of definition, a scene is a single dramatized event, uninterrupted by summary and a change in setting. 

Many writers have trouble writing scenes. As a young writer, I found that much of my fiction and was told in summary rather than dramatic narrative. “Telling a story,” I found, took much less effort than “showing” and my stories suffered as a result. It wasn’t until I learned how to write scenes that my stories began to be published. 

Of course, summary narrative has its place, to describe characters and bridge passages of time, except in scriptwriting, which relies exclusively on scenes, since scriptwriters generally don’t have access to those two tools (with the rare exception of voice-overs or a soliloquy.)

To write successful fiction, the writer must learn how to “intuitively or deliberately build their scenes,” says Albert Zuckerman, a book doctor who has shepherded two dozen novels onto best-seller lists and taught playwriting at Yale, and has important things to say on the subject.

“Somewhere in the first few lines or paragraphs (or carried over from an earlier scene) a question is subtly (or not so subtly) raised,” Zuckerman says “In Writing the Blockbuster Novel.” That question must be answered with a climactic moment. Zuckerman offers important advice to these writers. Take your manuscript and select two or three substantial scenes. Does anything in the text “raise a question that sets up suspense that is then dealt with or resolved in the scene’s climax.” If not, decide on what your climax should be, “write it, and then find a way to prepare for it.”

The same holds true for narrative nonfiction, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin writes in his essential handbook, “Writing for Story.” “In the realm of structural construction your concern will narrow to the practicalities…of scene-setting and building, pacing, action sequencing and the other techniques that will allow the reader to slide easily through your story,” Franklin says. 

Film can be an effective teaching tool for writers learning to craft powerful scenes in narrative nonfiction. Katie Engelhart is a documentary film producer who has written a powerful new book about assisted dying, “The inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die,” that focuses on people with terminal illnesses, mental anguish and dementia who want to end their own lives even though in many state’s it’s illegal. Barred by law, hospitals and hospice, some rely on sympathetic doctors and activists willing to help them make a peaceful final exit. 

“I think that working in film has helped me to see things in scenes, when I’m reporting — and then, later, to string those scenes together in a way that feels vivid and motivated,” she told me in a recent interview. “Other writers know how to do this instinctively, but I’m not sure I’m one of them. I needed to learn.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A superb example of scenes in a film can be found in the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” based on Mario Puzo’s novel; it’s a sequence of scenes that asks the question whether Michael Corleone will summon the courage to murder the family’s rival mobster, Virgil Sollozzo, and the corrupt police captain who broke Michael’s jaw after Don Corleone was ambushed in the street by Sollozzo’s thugs. In an earlier scene that foreshadows what’s to come, Michael arranges for a gun to be hidden in the bathroom of the restaurant where he and Sollozzo are to meet to discuss a truce. 

Later, on a moody dark night, Sollozzo picks him up outside for a ride to an Italian restaurant. In a brief moment of foreshadowing, Michael tells his father’s rival, “I’m going to straighten everything out tonight. I don’t want my father bothered anymore.” Sollozzo believes a truce is in the offing, but Corleone knows better. Then, in perhaps the film’s tensest scene, an obviously torn and frightened Michael excuses himself to the bathroom and returns with the gun. But facing the two men, he hesitates as he wrestles with the morality of what he is about to do before making up his mind. The story reaches its climax when he shoots them in the face, drops the gun and flees to a waiting car. You can watch the sequence of scenes here.

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