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  Lesson 10: Shaping Scenes & Chapters

Constructing Scenes and Chapters

Chapters are the building blocks of a novel, and scenes are the building blocks of chapters. Longer chapters will likely contain a balance of scene and summary, while short chapters may consist of a single scene.

  • Use scene when an important event or action needs to be experienced by the reader.
  • Use summary to convey information that doesn't need to be dramatized in a scene.
  • Scenes differ from summary in that they contain direct dialogue and action that takes place on stage.
  • Flashbacks are scenes, just not scenes that occur in the present time of the novel.
  • Brief passages of summary can be used to tie scenes together, but you may also move from one scene to the next with no summary in between by using a space or chapter break.

When I begin writing a novel, I keep a notebook in which I maintain a list of scenes that need to be written. This list is what I go to when I sit down at my desk each day. I started working this way years ago, after I had my son, when my writing time was severely limited. I credit those expensive babysitting hours with teaching me how to be a more efficient novelist. At $20 per hour, I had to get something on the page!

I still use lists. Some days, you'll sit down and be inspired. Many days, if you're like most writers, you won't. That's when the list of scenes will save your writing time and your sanity.

Building the Scene List

Creating a list of necessary scenes forces you to think about what has to happen in your novel. You need scenes that:

  • Demonstrate your protagonist's desire
  • Show your protagonist in a struggle with another person/nature/society/God/himself/ circumstances beyond her control
  • Show things getting worse, whether emotionally or physically. Don't be afraid to put your characters through the paces!
  • Reveal your protagonist in a moment of crisis
  • Show your protagonist making difficult choices
  • Show your characters together, in harmony or in conflict, characterizing by contrast

Inciting Actions: Not Just One, But Many

We're all familiar with the fact that a novel must begin with an inciting action: the event that sets all of the other events of the novel in motion.

But did you know that your novel will have more than one inciting action? In fact, it will have many more. Ideally, every scene in your book will play out like a microcosm of the narrative as a whole, with an inciting action, a progression of conflict (the rising action), and a climax.

In most of your chapters, ideally, your protagonist will be faced with a choice. The chapter will include either an action that subtly or not-so-subtly shifts the story, or some kind of revelation that subtly or not-so-subtly shifts the story.

When you examine each one of your scenes, ask yourself:

  • Does this scene have a beginning, middle, and end?
  • Is something different at the end of the scene than it was at the beginning? Have we learned something new about the characters, the situation, or the direction the plot is taking?
  • Does something happen at the beginning of the chapter that sets off the events of that chapter?

The inciting action may be internal or external, but if it doesn't exist in some form, the chapter will lack momentum.

So, if you read your novel-in-progress and feel that it lacks urgency or momentum, it may be because your chapters are not constructed with a beginning, middle, and end. A scene or chapter cannot be amorphous. It must move the bigger story along, while providing the feel of something completely rendered. That is not to say that a chapter should be self-contained in subject matter and character, rather that it should be self-contained structurally.

While cliffhangers can be a good way to end a chapter, avoid melodrama in your final sentences. There should be a natural tension in the space between what has happened in the scene, and what the reader expects to happen next.

Notes on Nonfiction Plotting & Point of View

Although Tangled Vines is nonfiction, I think it can teach novelists plenty about plot and characterization. I'd like to take a moment to discuss plotting and point of view techniques that you can learn from Tangled Vines, whether you're writing fiction or nonfiction:

  • The author, Frances Dinkelspiel, tells the story as an interested observer (we discussed this type of narration with The Great Gatsby). Dinkelspiel is a journalist, and she has brought her journalistic style into the telling of this story.
  • The book opens with a scene in which the author is present, attending a party the "I" apparent from the first page. However, it is clear that her focus is on other characters.
  • The narrator, at times, has the knowledge of an omniscient narrator. However, because of the construct of the book--a personalized journalistic retelling of a true event--we understand that the voice of narration, the author herself, has access to the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the characters because she has interviewed them. In other words, it is an earned omniscience. Earned omniscience, by the way, is not an actual literary term; it's just my way of explaining the point of view of this and other journalistic narratives.
  • The first chapter begins with a scene to draw us into the story, and after that we go into Napa and winemaking background.
  • Throughout the book, the author switches back and forth between these two types of telling: scenes in which people, places, and events are vivid and dramatic; and exposition about wine history, family history, California history, and geography.
  • Part One is devoted to introducing characters and their histories in Napa. Characters are drawn physically only with a swift brush stroke, but we learn a lot about what drives them and how they came to be winemakers or, in some cases, wine owners.
  • Little is said of Mark Anderson in Part One, but he is always there in the background, a teaser, a kind of cliffhanger. Novelists can use this technique as well--the antagonist who lingers mysteriously in the background, as we wait to learn his role in the drama.
  • Part Two begins brilliantly with a sudden understanding of the author's place in this story. Her family's wine was lost. It isn't until the opening of Part Two that we understand that one of the characters we met in Part One is a relative of the author, and that the family who lost their ancestors' entire wine inheritance and history is the author's family.
  • Also in Part Two, we get a complete study of the antagonist of this true story, Mark Anderson. We learn about how and where he grew up, and we get a sense of his personality through the observations of the Sausolito community in which he was well known. We see the letters he has written to the author, and there is the wonderful moment when she comes across one of his photographs in a shop, confirming that, despite his vast catalogue of lies, one thing he has said about himself is true: he is a photographer.

Plotting with a Story Chart

One of the most helpful ways I've found to plot out my novels is to use visual aids. My go-to aid for quite some time has been a simple Post-it calendar (you can find these at Target or here at Amazon.) The calendar provides a color-coded map of characters, locations, and themes. Watch my story chart video for an explanation.

Recently, however, I've come upon another visual aid--slightly more complicated, but possibly more useful in the long run. I was inspired by Shawn Coyne's Story Grid, which I've distilled into a simpler story chart. I make my chart on Word, but if you're handy with xcel, that would work to. My chart is a table with several columns, and each chapter gets its own row. The columns include:

  • word count (which is useful for seeing if your chapters are too long, too perfectly symmetrical, or wildly out of balance)
  • Story event (what's the main thing that happens in this chapter?)
  • Turning point (what changes, internally or externally, by the end of the chapter?)
  • Location
  • Point of view (what is the point of view of this chapter? If your entire book is written in first person point of view or third person limited from the perspective of a single character, you won't need this column)
  • Onstage characters
  • Offstage characters (who is mentioned but not present?)
  • Time (When does this chapter take place. If flashback, how far back? This will help you to see if your book is loaded to heavily with flashback, interrupting the present action)
  • Idea/complication introduced (What does the reader learn to care about in this chapter that hasn't been mentioned before? This can be a plot element, a thematic element, or an idea)

Here's an example of the first page of my story chart, which runs 17 pages. You'll notice that the "Turning Point" column hasn't been filled in on most of the chapters, nor has the "idea/complication" column. At this point, I was just laying out the word count, onstage and offstage characters, point of view, location, time, and story event. In other words, I was doing the easy work! I actually created this chart after I had a complete draft of my novel. You may find it helpful to create your chart before you begin, midway through the book, or after you have a draft. It really depends on how much planning you like to do.

While Coyne offers a very helpful system, it's clear from an examination of the planning techniques of novelists through the decades that this kind of chart has been around for a long time.The Daily Mail published photographs of the handwritten story-planning pages of a number of writers, including James Salter, JK Rowling, Sylvia Plath, Jennifer Egan, Norman Mailer, the recently infamous Gay Talese, Henry Miller, and Joseph Keller.

I was struck by the resemblance of Heller's and Rowling's story planners to the method suggested by Coyne. Below is Heller's highly detailed chart for Catch 22.

View an expandable version here. Heller keeps a detailed chronology on the left hand side, and has columns for each of his characters; Yossarian's column is understandably the largest, encompassing three full columns instead of the single column granted to the other characters. He also has a column for casualties; it's unclear if he intended the casualties column to be composed of characters, or of the events that happened to these unfortunate characters.

(As the other charts are not, to my knowledge, in the public domain, I cannot reproduce them here. Please follow this link to see them.)

Rowling's chart has columns for Time, Chapter Title, Plot (in which she describes what happens in each chapter), and plenty of other things I can't make out in the handwriting. I have a feeling that we writers intentionally cultivate handwriting that is illegible to everyone but ourselves, in order to keep the secrets of our stories!

Salter divides his plot into parts 1-6, all on a single page, each part delineated by a simple bracket. I love his big note to himself at the top of the page, written in bold letters and circled enthusiastically: "AT THE END GO THROUGH NOTEBOOKS!"

I have a few "cuts" files for every novel I've ever written. Every time I cut something, it is with the intention of going back and seeing what I've left out before I send the novel on to my editor. I even have a heading in each file, "THIS MUST GO BACK IN." However, I would estimate that only about half of the time, probably less, do the paragraphs/chapters under "THIS MUST GO BACK IN" actually make it back in. There was a reason, after all, for cutting them. Did the story bleed when I cut it? No? In that case, it can stay in the graveyard of the cuts file. While my failure to re-insert pages from my cuts files is probably motivated in part by fatigue--one produces such volumes of material when writing a novel--it also has something to do with the fact that, ultimately, the passage in question proved unnecessary.

Egan keeps a tidy story chart for her story "Black Box," although it's easier to be tidy with a story than with a whole novel. Mailer begins with a symmetrical grid, but his color-coded handwriting and balloon-like containers almost render the grid invisible. Mailer's left hand column is reserved for the date, like some of the others. What is most interesting to me about Mailer's, though, is a column toward the right hand side of the page, "World Events," in which he notes what is going on in the world on that date--the global backdrop, the bigger picture against which his novel plays out.

What these charts demonstrate is that:

  • A visual, gridded story chart is very helpful and seems to be a natural way to organize the many parts, characters, scenes, times, events, and meanings that make up a novel.
  • You should make it your own! Your chart will contain columns that no other chart contains, and each novel you write demand a slightly different chart.
  • Every chart, though, needs to contain a listing of chapters, which characters are acting in those chapters, and what happens.

Essential Elements of a Good Plot

During week 2, a student asked a question that I think bears repeating: What makes up a good plot? In case you missed it in the discussion, I am posting my answer here.

  • The first is conflict--the trouble that drives the story from chapter one.
  • The protagonist must want something badly. Without desire, it's very difficult for the reader to care about what happens to the protagonist--and therefore about the plot.
  • Once the conflict and the protagonist's desire are presented, the plot needs a series of progressive complications.
  • The complications often involve the protagonist trying to get what he or she wants, and facing ever-increasing obstacles. The obstacles may put the protagonist or someone he or she cares about in mortal danger (as in a thriller), or they may put the protagonist in moral danger--in a plot that pits the protagonist against himself, or society, or his vision of the way the world should be.
  • A plot must have a crisis--a moment when all of those progressive complications reach their zenith.
  • It must have a climax--the moment when the protagonist makes an important choice, fails or fails to act, succeeds or fails.

Finally, it should have falling action--that brief segment in the narrative timeline in which we discover what all of this means, the aftermath the climax.

To Read This Week

Although Parts 1 & 2 of Tangled Vines were originally your scheduled reading this week, it turns out that almost everyone in the class is writing a novel instead of nonfiction. For that reason, Tangled Vines is now optional reading. For our weekly readings, we will turn to essays on craft.

Readings on Craft

On Plot and Pacing from The Center for Fiction, by Simon Van Booy

Man in a Hole: Turning Novels' Plots into Data Point, by Dan Piepenbring for The Paris Review