One of the biggest problems with young writers is that they don't know how to tell a story in scenes. They're great summarizers and generalizers, but they're sucky at specifics. So I put together this exercise today to teach scene writing.
I started designing this exercise at 6:30 for a class that started at 7:25, so it's pretty raw. So far, though, they are having fun with it. My class has the laptops so they can e-mail me their scene. I'll paste their scenes into PowerPoint slides for tomorrow, and we'll talk about the results.
Here's the exercise. The key is to do every step before writing the scene.
Telling a Story in Scenes
A story is not like an essay. In an essay, you want to give the reader your opinion or information. The emphasis in an essay is an answer to the question of “what?” An essay is a response to the question, “What do you know?” We read essays to find out stuff. Stories, though, are about experience. We read a story not to find out information but to experience something. The key question of a story is “how?” as in “How did it happen?”
Story writing requires a different set of writing skills than an essay. Story writing requires that you can present a scene.
Think of a scene in a story like a scene from a play. The curtain opens. The audience sees the setting, the characters enter, and the action begins. We need to present in a scene in a story the same elements an audience sees in a scene from a play:
For this exercise, you are going to do some thinking and planning for each of the elements, and then combine them in a scene.
Let’s start with the main character:
What is your character’s gender? (this is a science fiction story, so if you character is not human, what does the reader need to know to understand who this character is?)
What is your character’s age?
What is your character’s name?
What is your character’s character? (is he/she/it optimistic/pessimistic, mentally quick/slow, educated/uneducated, kind/mean, etc.)
In this scene, what is your character’s mood? (happy, sad, anxious, angry, thoughtful, etc.)
Let’s move on to setting.
To orient the readers, you need to show them where they are. The key to setting in a story, though, and this is where a story can be different from a play, is that the reader sees the setting though the eyes of your main character. Remember, in a story the readers want to experience something, and what they want to experience is what the main character is experiencing. Your readers are not sitting in an auditorium watching a play; they have become your main character.
You have to make some decisions. Answer the following questions:
Where is this scene (outdoors, indoors, in a car, in a spaceship, underwater, etc.)?
What are the key props in the scene (this could be another character, furniture, vegetation, equipment, etc.)?
For this scene, what can your main character see?
For this scene, what can your main character hear?
For this scene, what can you main character feel?
For this scene, what can your main character smell?
For this scene (if appropriate), what can your main character taste?
Now that you know something about the character and the setting, we’re ready to put the character into action in the setting. You are creating a scene. To write the scene, you need to combine your thinking and planning that you already did. You probably will not use all the information you’ve written down in the scene, but you need to provide enough for the reader to stay oriented.
A scene can be like a tiny story. The character wants something and either initiates an action to get it, or the character will react to something that you have happen in the scene. The key is that the character acts. If there is no action, you haven’t written a scene.
Your scene should be around 250-300 words long. Be sure you include character info, the setting as the character experiences it, and some actions.
Here’s an example:
Jason didn’t think he was too young to do a solo moon walk, despite what his dad had told him. He was sixteen, after all, and had aced all of his equipment tests. As he waited for the airlock to empty, he flexed his fingers in the heavy gloves. The suit crackled as the air pressure dropped, and where the fabric had been pressing against his skin, it now pulled away. Standing in a space suit in a vacuum was like being in a balloon. The pressure in the suit made bending his arms or legs difficult. He yawned to pop his ears. The red light above the door out of the station switched from red to green as the airlock finished cycling the air away, and the heavy metal hatch swung open. Jason squinted against the brightness of the sun on the horizon. For a few breaths, he listened to the hum of the suit’s machinery. Okay, he thought, I’ve done this a hundred times in a simulator and a dozen times with my class. I’m no stranger to the moon. Still, when he took the step out of the airlock and onto the airless surface, he felt as if he’d broken through a barrier. As if for the first time, he felt the moon’s gritty soil crunch beneath his boot. As if he was the first human to see the alien surface, he surveyed the landscape before him. I can go anywhere, he thought. I can be anybody.
Now, write your own scene.