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Aug 27, 2010

Handling Short Scenes

In film and television, a scene can be extremely short and still feel complete. The visual medium helps. The eye can take in the whole setting, while also tracking the action. But I'm having a hard time with short scenes in my novel. I don't want them to waste many words, but how do I make them feel "complete" -- not rushed, or sketched?

One trick I've tried is to think of the scene as a piece of flash fiction. Flash also can't be longer than 500 or 1000 words, and yet it needs to be even more independent than a scene in a novel.

Any other ideas? I'm scratching my head.

UPDATE: I was too tired to give examples earlier, but here's what I mean.

In a movie script you could have two short scenes in a row, like this:


A DARK FIGURE runs through the trees.



He's taken the bait.

Send someone to follow him.


But if you do that in a novel, how do you do it? It seems very choppy if you say:

* * *

A dark figure ran through the forest, keeping to the shadows of the trees.

* * *

A warrior rushed into the compound and knelt before the war leader.

"He's taken the bait," the warrior reported.

A grim smile spread over the war leader's face. "Send someone to follow him."

* * *

...but do I really need to go into the details about how the woods looked and smelled, or the compound, if I've described these things before? I kinda just want to cut to the good stuff....

If I were writing in omniscient, I could roll both scenes together.

That night, illuminated only by a sliver of moon, a dark figure raced through the trees. The swift and furtive motion of the lone fugitive suggested he did not want to be observed.

He was observed, however, and not long after his flight through the woods, a warrior rushed into the compound and knelt before the war leader.

"He's taken the bait."

A grim smile spread over the war leader's face. "Send someone to follow him."

However, I'm writing the rest of the book in Third Person at various degrees of Closeness.

Can you have a scene in a novel that's only one or two sentences?


Elliot Grace said...

...while scripting my current mess of a WIP, my editor informed me that sometimes the saying "less is more" also works when writing short passages in a chapter, or in your case, short fiction. Sometimes leaving out certain details, and allowing the reader to figure out a few things on their own, is a neat way of promoting thought, not to mention keeping the wordcount to a minimum.
Its been working for me at least:)

Tara Maya said...

Thanks, Elliot. I frequently need to be prodded with the "less-is-more" stick. But a few beta readers complained about my shorter scenes, saying they felt incomplete, not quite solidly situated. I know there are some writers who can create the sense of solidity in a scene with just a few brushstrokes.

Cruella Collett said...

This is a good point, and I should imagine that the flash fiction pov should help. The only type of flash fiction I've ever written are drabbles, and they can only be 100 words. It is amazing how much you are able to tell with those 100 words, though. I find myself cutting a lot of the fat away from these mini stories, and often this makes them more poignant and less cluttery.

Also, one really useful blog I have read about setting ( stresses the importance of sensory information. Much about a setting is conveyed through a character's observations through its senses. A short description of how a room smells, for instance, can say as much about it as a paragraph describing how it looks.

Good luck!

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

Is it just the setting that doesn't feel solid? Does the scene have its own arc, with the character trying to reach a goal and getting some sort of result?

Description isn't my strong point, but a character's emotions color how he/she perceives the setting.

Hope this helps.

Davin Malasarn said...

Tara Maya, I'm currently struggling with the exact same problem. I recently finished a novella and am working on another story and both have had these little short scenes. I think the writing is fine, but somehow they always mess up the pacing. I'm not sure how to solve it yet. I can't tell if it's just my reading of my own work or if they are really problems. It's frustrating.

Tara Maya said...

@ Cruella. Thanks for the link! I'll check it out.

@ Sandra. I don't know if it's just the setting, but that was mentioned explicitly.

@ Domey. Yes, maybe it's pace rather than setting that's the problem. In thrillers and military sf, particularly if there are a lot of minor characters, short staccato scenes are used to quicken the pace toward the climax. I like to use a succession of short scenes in battles, where I think it works okay.

It's when I try to put a few short scenes in with "normal" long scenes that it seems to scan awkwardly.

I'd be interested in reading how you handle it. If you want another beta reader, just say the word....

Anonymous said...

Just remember in a short, every paragraph has to move the story forward. Tight short stories don't have a lot of descriptive chaff so look at it, read it out loud, determine what is needed. Take the rest out. Read it again. Did it work?

scott g.f.bailey said...

What's the important bit of this passage? The guy running through the forest, or that he's taken the bait and been seen? You can probably cut the figure running through the trees and just have the warrior reporting to the leader, can't you? Especially if all you want to say is that the figure has taken the bait, right? It's not the shortness of the scenes at issue here, but where the storytelling is focused. Also, I would consider all of this to be a single scene.

Tara Maya said...

@ brian-pettera. Thanks for dropping by! I wanted to comment on your blog -- 20 panals? are you insane? did the snarks drill your brain? -- but I couldn't because LiveJournal first made me watch a commercial (I hate that) and then wouldn't let me comment without an account. Anyway, interesting posts!

Tara Maya said...

@ scott. What I had in mind was that first the reader interprets the figure running as a threat, but the next scene shows that actually he is entering a trap. It's a reversal, albeit a quick one, which is why I wanted both scenes. Also -- it's not really clear from this short example -- the shift in scenes represents a shift in POV. This is when I really wish I were writing in omniscient. Perhaps it would be okay to toss in an omniscient scene where needed, but I'm not sure. That might be inconsistent and therefore confusing.