Ugh…I should have written this earlier.  The number is my guesstimate for where this will go eventually.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scene structure terms.

I’m going to be using some terms about scene structure that may not be familiar, or that may not be used exactly as other writers have been using them.  These are terms that I developed for my own benefit as I was studying novels and short stories.

I found that breaking down books into smaller and smaller parts helped me see what the author was trying to do.  It can get really overwhelming, trying to sit down and say, “How did the author pull off this one cool thing in that book?!?”

I made up and adapted some terms so I could take smaller bites.

For the purposes of this blog series, I’m breaking down stories into the following:

  • Scenes, which are groups of text between one blank row and another, and which have a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Chapters, which are groups of text that has a first-level header line, such as “Chapter 1” or “1,” and which may cover multiple scenes or only one scene.
  • Sections, which are groups of text that covers multiple chapters.  May also be called “Parts” or “Books.”
  • Mini-scenes, which are bits of text within a scene that has its own beginning, middle, and end and has a change in time, setting, or the characters in that section.
  • Beats, which are bits text that has a beginning, middle, and end but is connected by transitional material within a scene or mini-scene.
  • Transitional material, which are bits text that transitions the reader from one unit to another unit, usually a beat or a mini-scene.  This is often a summary.

I may also use the following term in my movie examples:

  • Sequences, which are series of related scenes as a character tries several different tactics to achieve the same thing.

A chase “scene” is often a sequence covering may different locations and different tactics as the characters attempt to outwit each other.  For some reason, in movies this tends to be told through different scenes, while in fiction this tends to be mini-scenes within the same scene.  I’m not sure why that is.

Text, for our purposes, can either be summary or real-time.

  • Summary text sums up things that happened.
  • Real-time text demonstrates things happening.

For example, if a flashback is summed up in a few paragraphs or as an aside in dialogue, it’s summary text.

If a flashback is played out in a scene with dialogue, action, and description, it’s real-time text.

I don’t know if anyone else is using these terms the way I do–but I’ve found that I needed them to help identify pieces of structure.  Summary text is often used as transitional material; scenes are often in real-time.

The rule of thumb that is given to beginning writers is to “show, don’t tell.”  And, for the most part, that is a good rule of thumb–for beginners.  For intermediate writers, it’s important to be able to summarize actions to move the book along at a reasonable pace.  Do we need to know about each characters’ morning routine in detail?  When is it better to skip a morning routine entirely?  When it is better to summarize?  When is it better to write the scene out?

These are judgment calls that intermediate writers have to make all the time, and the rule “show, don’t tell” doesn’t really help at all.  Different writers will make different calls on these questions:  some writers love to write all their backstory in real time.  Others summarize, summarize, summarize.  Some writers love to connect beats and mini-scenes with transitional material; others don’t.

This is what I’ve observed from my studies:

  • If you want to lie to or mislead the reader fairly, write in real-time.
  • If you want the reader to take something for granted, summarize.
  • If you want to draw attention to the events of a scene, write in real-time.
  • If you want to focus attention elsewhere, summarize.

If you want to show that one character is taking something for granted (but that the reader should have some doubts about the statement), have them summarize the situation in conversation.  You can see this all the time in mystery and crime novels.  The investigator questions someone.  That person makes a statement.  Something about that statement, the investigator thinks, is off.

Most backstory involves conflict.  It’s possible to turn any summary into a real-time scene with conflict in it, and it’s possible to turn any scene, no matter how dramatic, into a summary.  Especially when you need to sum up the events of book 1 in the beginning of book 2…

Back to Endings next time!  Sorry about the side note!

Live, die, rewind… The Clockwork Alice