Recently I came across this statement again this week when analyzing the scenes of your novel (this is not verbatim, however): "If a scene does not do three things then it should be cut out." So, I got to thinking today. What are things a scene can do that would be of interest to the reader. Below I have some options but I would be interested in hearing thoughts from everyone regarding what you feel a scene can do. I'm sure I'm missing many things here.
* Introduce a character * Move plot forward * Establish setting * Pose a mystery
I know the question is posed in sincerity, but this is yet another one of those rules wandering around without a head.
What if you write a tender, tender love scene that doesn't really do anything else but deal with the question of intimacy and commitment between two people, or the man and his dog, or the two buddies, whatever? Does that mean the scene fails? What if you're doing only 2 things? What if you do 5--is that even better?
Can you ever really only do one or two things anyway? It seems that if you have a character in a place doing something related to the story question that you've already got characterization, setting, and plot. And that's when we're not even trying.
The biggest problem with this rule, just as with all the others, is that it's not tied to its effect on reader experience. And therefore has no head. No brains. No intelligence. What do 3 things do that 2 can't? And which three things, just any old random three? Or are there specific combos?
What if the reader is enthralled with the brilliant execution of one thing? What if adding something else (Mystery!) would water down its effect? If we're following this rule, we ignore the very purpose for which we write, and we cut the scene.
Sorry for the rant. But my advice is to chuck this idea in the waste basket. What it seems we want to do is make every page interesting to the reader in the context of giving them a certain type of experience with the story as a whole. There are many techniques for making each part of your scene interesting. And a huge heap of them have nothing to do with having multiple things going on at once.
[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited June 30, 2010).]
What's ironic is that shortly after posting this I went back to some of my old Daily Kick e-mails from David Farland regarding "Building a Connection to Your Reader" and this goes along with what you are saying here.
I appreciate the comments. Sometimes I need a good kick in the head. Just don't tell my wife that.
It wasn't directed at you, buddy. Nobody needs a kick in the head. Unless, perhaps, you're a relative of Mr. Data and need something jiggled back into place. It's just that I tried following headless rules for so long. They took me all over the place, but didn't get me anywhere I wanted to be. It's been so freeing to think instead about what kind of experience I want to create for a reader in a scene, and then try to do that. And use that as the only criteria.
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WB Schmidt- I have heard that same advice and it has come up in crit's people have given me. Sometimes it is hard to know if people are making comments because the scene isn't working or because they are repeating that advice. I actually think one of my breakthroughs in writing was realizing that not everything had to be crucial. I have a tendency to be extremely overly painfully minimalistic though.
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I think that advice is often used because a lot o fpeople don't think in terms of scenes at all, and certainly don't consider their "purpose".
I've tried to analyse this scene breakdown in some published books but I find it very difficult because you don't always know what the author may have had in mind. I think one of the best genres to do scene analysis is probably crime/mystery, and there it can be quite illuminating to look at why a writer has chosen to show one thing and not another - particularly when a writer is using multiple POVs or (as is generally much more common outside SF/fantasy) an omni kind of viewpoint. While the "here's what we're going to do..." cutaway still annoys me, it is successfully used by more than one best-selling author, and I can see the point in not showing the plan being made, and then executedd as well.
Ultimately you can suggest that story-telling is like the proverbial way of carving the statue of an elephant - take a block of stone and remove all the bits that don't look like an elephant. The "story" the writer ha in their head may contain all sorts of irrelevant, even unhelpful, details, and it's worth spending time determining, not just what to include, but what NOT to. I'm trying to prune back some of my early, over-wordy novels and analysing scenes to determine what they achieve is one way of doing this (cutting out a lot of largely irrelevant character introduction is proving to be another).
As far as a scene is concerned, yeah it should add to the story. However, I believe there are moments that occur that don't need to. Some movies don't have a single moment that doesn't propel the plot forward. I find those movies too sterile for my liking. Not to say I won't or don't like the movie, but I do notice that as a creative decision and it takes something away from the realism.
It's like watching deleted scenes on a DVD. I've asked myself "Why did they cut that?" Sometimes the director or whoever will say it didn't pace right or slowed the movie down so it was cut, but I often find the scene would have added something to the flavor or mood of the movie. (like the LotR extra scenes)
johnbrown I love your phrase about "headless rules." You, again, nicely put forth more or less exactly my own point of view on things, something you've kindly if unintentionally done several times before.
I'd just add that writer experience, or intention, is important too. Its mostly semantical but, because I know everyones experience will be different I think a little more in terms of what I want the story to be. Although that is also, in large part, what I want the reader to experience, but I know that no matter what I do some readers still wont experience what I intended them to. My motto is first and foremost write what you want to write. If a scene does something you want it to do its a good scene whether it fits someone else's notions of what scenes "must" do or not.
I have to say in about 2 and a half years of active workshopping and all, while all the rules I've seen havent been entirely headless I don't think I've encountered many that weren't at least cranially challenged.
We can certainly find rules everywhere. I also have tried to analyze books and determine why an author put in specific scenes. However, even when I could not discern the scene's "purpose," those scenes did not deter me from enjoying the book.