When I was a beginning writer, I could write the hell out of my character’s internal landscape, their mental state, if you will. I had a way with words, too. So most of my early stories were beautiful bits of internal monologue.
And that was exactly the type of feedback I’d receive in my critique groups. “This is beautiful and I love the characters, but I have no idea where they are or what they’re doing. I can’t see them.”
It took me a long time to learn that what readers were really saying was, “You need to make some scenes.” And even when people started saying that, I didn’t know how to do that. Wasn’t I already writing scenes? My stories had beginning, middles and ends. The character made a mental transition. Wasn’t that a scene?
Well, yes and no. Turns out, language is imprecise, especially (ironically) the language of writing. Scenes in this case didn’t mean a structure element that is used to build the larger story. Scenes, in this case, meant “Not narration.”
Narration is the internal landscape of your character. It’s usually voicy, beautiful and very, very internal. It exists in their head, it uses generalities, and it “describes.” (This is often what people mean when they talk about “show vs. tell” — narration is telling. And while there’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, narration is very important), it’s also important to “show.” Again, though, the language is imprecise. You can show someone a scene through narration. But it’s still telling.).
Scenes in this case are the external landscape of your character. They consist of specific elements: dialogue, action, description and in-scene narration. They don’t need all of these elements, but they do need some (or else they’re just narration).
Here’s an example from one of my favorite writers, Amy Bloom. This excerpt is from her fantastic short story, “Love is Not a Pie.” Take a read through it, and see what you think: scene? narration? both?
In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding. August 21 did not seem like a good date, John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry, and I couldn’t see myself in the long white silk gown Mrs. Wescott had offered me. We had gotten engaged at Christmas, while my mother was starting to die; she died in May, earlier than we had expected. When the minister said, “She was a rare spirit, full of the kind of bravery and joy which inspires others,” I stared at the pale blue ceiling and thought, “My mother would not have wanted me to spend my life with this man.” He had asked me if I wanted him to come to the funeral from Boston, and I said no. And so he didn’t, respecting my autonomy and so forth. I think he should have known that I was just being considerate.
After the funeral, we took the little box of ashes back to the house and entertained everybody who came by to pay their respects. Lots of my father’s law school colleagues, a few of his former students, my uncle Steve and his new wife, my cousins (whom my sister Lizzie and I always referred to as Thing One and Thing Two), friends from the old neighborhood, before my mother’s sculpture started selling, her art world friends, her sisters, some of my friends from high school, some people I used to baby-sit for, my best friend from college, some friends of Lizzie’s, a lot of people I didn’t recognize. I’d been living away from home for a long time, first at college, now at law school.
What did you decide? While this might seem like both narration and scene, I actually think the entire thing is narration (or to make things more confusing, “a narrated scene.). We are never settled in one place for very long, and although there is action, dialogue and description, it’s all told to us through voice. We never get a chance to sit down with the character in a specific place at a specific time and watch the action unfold. There are some fantastic scenes later in this story, if you read the entire thing, but in my opinion, this section is all narration. Because Bloom is a master of language and character, she makes narration SEEM like scenes. (Which is great for readers, but can make it confusing for us writers who have similar skills; albit why I thought I was writing scenes all those years when I was really narrating them).
If all of this is actually making you more confused, don’t worry. That’s probably as it should be. I didn’t learn to write scenes until I tried it myself. In order to learn, I went through and copied the elements of published books, breaking them down until I understood how it worked. Suddenly, everything clicked. I understood the difference between scene and narration. It was so clear in fact, that I couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to get it. Now, scenes are the lifeblood of my stories, something I do instinctually.
This is on my mind because it came up in my most erotica recent class, and I gave students a scene-making assignment that always seems to be very helpful. And so I thought I’d share it with you. If all of the above makes sense to you, you probably don’t need the assignment. However, if you read through it and are still feeling a little confused, I recommend giving the writing exercise a try. It’s short, it’s easy, and it just might make all the difference in your fiction writing career.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on narration and scene — or to read your finished scene if you end up trying the exercises!
Kiss kiss bang bang,