Scene and Narrative, Part 4

Agent Rachelle Gardner recently held a two-part contest she dubbed Finalist

This was an enjoyable writing exercise, one I needed to get me back into creating a character, a scene, a scenario.

But here’s the interesting thing. The winning entry, posted today at Rachelle’s Rants & Ramblings, is almost all narrative. Not scene.

Contrast it to my honorable mention entry that jumped into a scene as quickly as possible.

Is there a lesson here? I wish I knew. Of the six honorable mention first pages, three were primarily exposition and three were primarily scene.

I’ve decided that my strength as a writer is in creating scene. I tried a different style and have learned some things in the process, but more than once I’ve had readers tell me that the scene version of a passage rather than the exposition of the same events is stronger.

So maybe that’s the point. A writer needs to create a story using his or her best tools.

Of course, I’d love it if my pieces of exposition were as strong as my scenes. I suppose that might be what an editor is looking for. 😉

Published in: on April 16, 2008 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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  1. Becky, I don’t understand your use of the word scene here. I believe a scene is a small part of a story, with its own mini-arc–a piece of the story in which something changes. A scene, usually a defined part of a chapter, may contain dialog, action, narrative, and/or thoughts. It usually contains more than one of those things. So I’m not certain what you mean by saying that the winning entry was not *scene* but that yours was. Yes, hers contained backstory–compelling backstory, but not current. But it’s still the beginning of a scene. Something changes. We discover that her mother isn’t really dead.

    What I think you’re saying is that exposition and scene are opposites, mutually exclusive. And yet I believe that exposition (narrative) is a part of the scene.

    I’ve gone back and forth between your post and Rachelle’s blog several times and I’m no clearer on your definition than I was before.


  2. Becky,

    I think what you’re saying is that some of the entries jumped straight into the story and some started with exposition and backstory, setting the stage for the story to follow. I don’t think there’s a formula to be found here for finding something that works, other than to say that whatever path you choose, it needs to be interesting and make the reader want to turn the page. I think all of the entries passed that test.


  3. Val, I’m using “scene” the way Jack Bickham does in his writing books, such as Scene & Structure:

    The scene is the basic large building block of the structure of any long story … it is a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story “now.” It is NOT something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.

    Bickham has another book called Scene and Sequel, I believe, in which he lays out the interweaving of narrative and scene, as he sees it.

    I think it’s Donald Maass or maybe Sol Stein who says that’s an old-fashioned approach. The contemporary style looks like what you described, with the narrative and the scene components so interconnected you really don’t know for sure where one stops and the other starts.

    I’m convinced this interweaving approach is right, good, best. But in these posts I’m not so concerned with the where narrative should be placed but the amount of the story devoted to the “story now” action.

    Mark, I agree, I don’t think there’s a formula, but “commercial fiction” tends to use more scene and literary fiction more narrative.

    From the beginning of my fiction-talk, back in the FIF forums, I’ve said I think a book can be commercially successful, yet retain literary merit. Some of the masters did that. Tolkien and Lewis did that.

    So, what’s it take? I think I’m constantly asking myself that question.



  4. Becky,

    When you say: “I’ve had readers tell me that the scene version of a passage rather than the exposition of the same events is stronger”, do you have some examples?

    That would be great to see the same passage written two different ways, and give us something concrete to discuss.



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