Better Writing With Heuristics 2: SCENE
SCENE is an acronym-based heuristic I use when I assess my fiction writing and when I look at others’ writing.
It’s derived from the framework of a writing rubric, but I don’t like using it as a quantitative assessment tool. Rather, it’s more of a way to organize and guide feedback and self-evaluation.
As a heuristic, the purpose of SCENE is to give me a tool to quickly and easily assess fiction and creative writing. I explained heuristics in more detail a while back, and the idea is pretty simple.
One point of any acronym is to serve as a mnemonic, which is a tool that helps you remember things. SCENE combines five different ways of looking at a text into one process.
It’s also self-descriptive about the intended level that I apply it at. I don’t over-explore line and paragraph level details, and at some points a single chapter might be too long to assess in its entirety.
That’s not to say that I’d never tweak these things, but those are cases for copyediting or developmental editing, respectively. What I’m concerned about is making sure that my work has a punch and flow that keeps readers coming back.What I'm concerned about is making sure that my work has a punch and flow that keeps readers coming back. Click To Tweet
SCENE covers the five pillars that I’ve found are most helpful in setting up a piece of writing so that readers get hooked into it instead of having their eyes glaze over.
There’s also a trouble-shooting order here.
I start with very concrete, easy to remedy things. Then I move into more abstract and big-picture things. I don’t want to consider the part that a section of a story plays in the greater whole until I know that the part’s up to spec. Putting a lousy piece in a good book is frustrating for everyone.
One element that pervades everything in a scene is the setting, but it’s easy to forget just how big a role it plays.
Whether it’s to help readers visualize what’s going on or frame characters’ actions in context, knowing what the setting is makes up the first step of SCENE because it is the space that holds everything else together.
Could you match your setting to a picture? This is a good visual exercise that helps you know that you’re starting from the right place.
That doesn’t mean that your readers are going to see exactly what you see.
I included the picture on the right because it immediately reminded me of the opening scene in a novel I wrote.
Setting isn’t limited to sights, either. Smells, sounds, and other sensations play a key role.
Solving Setting Issues
The first question I ask when I look at a scene is “are the characters here?”
That’s a simplification, but you need your scene to provide space for your story. If you can set up a story with a panning view of the river that runs a few miles south of Soledad, that’s fine too. Just remember that brilliant exposition does not make a story.
One thing I often look for is an element early into the piece that shows where and when the events are going on. You don’t need to go To Kill A Mockingbird and let the audience know exact details through the narrator’s perspective, but it should be there.
Setting doesn’t have to be stated explicitly. Are the characters on a spaceship? Their boots echo in the metal corridors. Is it terribly hot? The protagonist is fanning themselves to keep cool.
Setting interacts with everything all the time.
That means you can show it in everything.
Another important thing: if there’s an aspect of the setting that’s important, point it out before it becomes important. If people tumble over the edge of a waterfall that hasn’t made an appearance yet, there’s no tension built up and it just becomes a “look here, there’s action!” moment.
If there’s a waterfall the mist and noise should be apparent. This is true of anything else in a scene that becomes a problem later. Use it to build tension, don’t keep it a secret until the readers get confused by what’s going on.
Characters are the emotional connections to your stories. People read because they want to connect to someone, even if that person doesn’t exist. This is true in any storytelling.
Think about the characters in any scene as a window into the world. As I mentioned earlier, you can get away with a luxurious description of a place for a while. But eventually your readers want something to happen.
And characters are the vehicles of action (and reaction).
Characters need to be present in a scene for it to be meaningful, and that doesn’t just mean that they make an appearance.
It’s not always necessary for them to be changing or revealing something new about themselves, but they should show who they are.
That doesn’t mean deep, either. Sometimes people are shallow. It’s most important that characters match who they are at that moment in the story and not become something that fits the need of the scene but causes problems in how the reader understands them.
Solving Character Issues
I am consistently surprised by how many issues in my writing I have fixed by asking “Yeah, but would they really do that?”
Making characters fit their personality and circumstances is the first thing to consider in any assessment of them in a scene.
This doesn’t mean that the reader needs to know everything. Mysterious circumstances or motives can make for a source of tension and appeal, but characters need to be act on something that exists and not just do something for the sake of doing things.
Another issue with characters is what I call “placeholder replacement” which occurs when anyone would do what the character is doing and there’s no defining quality to it.
This is one issue with poorly written dialogue and can be a major impediment to storytelling. Even if the character is doing something obvious and necessary, like running away from a fire, consider flourishes.
Are they clumsy? Maybe they trip. If they’re avaricious, maybe they turn around to save money from the fire. Do they say anything while running away? Are they thinking of others?
Even simple actions can feel different with small inflections.
What actually happens in the scene?
It’s hard to have a setting and characters that work and still have a boring story, but it’s possible if nothing actually happens. Even in sit-coms where characters are “just sitting around and talking” there’s usually an underlying event going on. They’re competing for dominance, they’re trying to share information (and sometimes failing for comedic effect), or they’re setting up a future joke.
Any scene that is more exposition than action is going to drag out. That’s not always bad. I’m listening to the Sicario soundtrack as I write this, and that stands out to me as an example of a movie where they spend a lot of time focused on details and exposition to have it explode in tension.
It’s also a film that’s incredibly intense, and its violence is more disturbing because it comes suddenly amidst a backdrop of expectation.
Most of the time, though, you want to have clear sequence of events. Your story won’t be all action, but it will have a central action in any given scene. It doesn’t have to be gunfire and explosions, either. Uncovering a secret, a change in a relationship, figuring out a problem, or anything like that works so long as it changes the world of the story.
Solving Event Issues
The number one issue I see with events in stories is that they don’t change the world of the story.
Darth Vader cutting down rebel troopers by the dozen isn’t changing the balance of the plot, it’s serving as exposition. We know he can do it (or should know), and he’s as capable of it before as he is after.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t have characters reveal new capabilities. One of the great parts of the Hero’s Journey is the bit where the hero shows off their new capability by overcoming their greatest challenge.
The thing is that by doing so they’re changing the world of the story. Whatever was a problem isn’t a problem anymore. There might be additional problems, or other old problems to resolve, but the focus of the scene (or the whole story) revolved around that problem getting fixed.
If nothing changed, you didn’t have an event. You had window dressing. Events have consequences that go forward in time with the characters.
Narrative refers to placing a scene within the work.
When examining a short piece, this might simply ask “Did this tell the whole story?”
When examining longer works, you want to use something like the Hero’s Journey to see if the scene fills a role within its context.
This is a way to make sure that the story is coherent. It’s easy to create a lot of superb individual scenes that don’t come together into anything major.
Meandering and long-winded stories that don’t go anywhere are one of the greatest mistakes an author can make, and it’s a great way to put readers permanently off of your work.
Solving Narrative Issues
Talking about the various pieces that come together to make a story is a larger topic than can be addressed here, but there’s a few excellent rules of thumb that can help.
A scene doing its job in the narrative suggests a future scene and ties to a past scene.
Sometimes in a complicated and interwoven story, you might have individual pieces of the plot that seem to start out of nowhere and resolve before the rest of the story.
These side-plots are narratives in and of themselves that must support the main plot.
The first piece of any narrative will have an intuitive precedent, meaning that there is backstory and character development that won’t make it into the text.
The last piece of the story will have an ending, but it may be left to the reader’s imagination. I’ve talked about this in the past for figuring out if a story’s any good from a pre-draft perspective.
Each piece should have its own purpose, and not repeat a previous piece’s function. Writers don’t need to tell audiences that the kingdom’s been destroyed by a dragon fifteen different times. What’s important is that readers see what comes before and after too.
Evocation happens when a story brings out emotion in the audience.
When a writer evokes something successfully, they’ve gotten the desired effect. Dialogue that’s too on-the-nose might make an audience laugh because of how silly it comes across, but it ruins the vibe of a horror story.
I save evocation for the last focus in the revision process because it depends on everything else being in place. If revisions are necessary, moving things around after fixing dialogue or tightening up language means that the evocative element can be revised out accidentally.
It’s also one of the harder parts for a writer to self-assess, since writers almost always over- or under-estimate the impact they have on their audience. I assume that my writing is dryer than my readers tell me it is, which is saying something! But it’s also possible to think of work that has emotional meaning for you as having stuff you didn’t actually put into it.
For this purpose, it’s worth thinking of evocation as something that’s tied to craft but also a matter of execution.
When I self-edit for this, I always look for things like filter words or textual errors that might take people out of the scene. If you’re editing someone else’s work, it’s a lot easier because it’s about whether you feel the emotion they want you to or not.
Solving Evocation Issues
Evocation comes down to communication.
Anything that impedes communication must go.
Filter words, awkward phrasing, on-the-nose dialogue (outside deliberate use in comedy), and irrelevant details should be cut.
This is also where idiosyncrasies go to die. Sometimes a writer’s pet habits are fine. But often they’re a distraction from what readers expect.
Addressing evocation last means most of the major issues get caught earlier. Keep in mind that the point is to make sure that things come across clearly. Any cracks in the suspension of disbelief, yawns due to wordiness, or questions about writers’ decisions need to be addressed here.
SCENE gives a handy tool to look at the most common issues that plague fiction writing. It’s designed to give the clarity of an academic rubric, but also the qualitative approach needed for artistic expression.
I use it to make sure that my fiction dazzles and excites, and now you can too!
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