Andromeda: Making A Scene

“Knowing what
scenes are required in a novel is at the heart of the fictional art. The author
has to write the obligatory scenes so that nothing of importance happens
offstage. She must write the pivotal scenes and make quick expository moves
from scene to scene. We can’t have three paragraphs to get the character from
the front porch to the backseat. And no small talk. Nothing trivial…. “
John Dufresne, Is Life Like This?
“The thing to do
is to say to yourself, ‘Which are my big scenes?’ and then get every drop of
juice out of them.” P.G. Wodehouse
As a writing
teacher, I see my students struggle with scenes. That’s not surprising. If we
were all great at selecting, crafting, and ordering scenes, writing would be
fairly easy, since what are most novels, memoirs, and screenplays but a
selection of scenes built into meaningful sequences, depicting the
transformation of a character or characters over time?
What is surprising is how many people don’t
actually know what a scene is.
Again this year, I
had not one but several students who wrote thoughtfully,
distinctively, authentically, beautifully.
The problem these students were
having had nothing to do with either imagination or sense of story or mastery
of sentence-level craft. But they were writing in summary mode, as if they were
telling a compressed anecdote, instead of rendering it dramatically on the page.
I had several other students who intuitively wrote both scenes and summary but
couldn’t tell which was which, and would jump from one mode into the other
without purpose. That makes revision even more difficult.
It’s one thing to
try to teach someone who knows she needs to strengthen her scenes. It’s harder
to teach someone who thinks she is writing
in scene, but isn’t.
Let’s look at some
basic definitions.
We’re told to
“show” and not tell, and this advice can work on many levels. On a
macrostructural level, when we are fully showing, we are in scene. The key
moment to look for as writers and as readers, in order to be assured we are in
scene, and not simply in vivid, well-crafted summary, is that scenes have a specific time and place.
Once we drop into a specific place and time, and time itself starts
approximating “real time,” we are in scene. The reader follows the action
moment to moment, as if present, watching and hearing. Often, there will be
dialogue. There may be a sentence or two woven into the scene that is not truly
showing – it is summary, reflection, or exposition – but as long as the action
keeps rolling without significant pauses or fast-forwards, we are still in
When we leave a
scene, we will often move into summary, which is usually a compression or fast-forwarding
of time. Craft books or writing websites often lump reflection and exposition
into summary, and for the purposes of distinguishing scene from non-scene,
that’s fine. But here’s a secret: reflection and exposition don’t fast-forward.
They actually freeze or step outside of time altogether. That’s why exposition
in big doses can be so deadly to the reader, who wants to keep moving forward.
And here’s one
more chronological secret: scenes play out in real time, but read quickly, because
our brains like them so much. We lose ourselves in scenes, which is what makes
them so powerful. Summary actually fast-forwards, but reads slowly, because our
brains are less engaged—or rather, engaged in a less emotional, more distanced
and intellectual way—when reading it.
When we call a
book a “page turner,” it is nearly always heavy on scene. When we call a book
“slow” or “thoughtful” it is usually less scene-intensive.  Commercial authors are usually happy to stick
with the page-turning pace. Some of my favorite, less-commercial authors minimize
scenes and “tell” more often than “show,” in contrast with the more common
advice of “show don’t tell.”
Literary authors
manipulate time, scene and summary like a conductor leading an orchestra or a
jazz musician improvising. The trick is not just to play fast or loud but to
create variety, to occasionally subvert expectation. Some experimental novels
are willing to completely frustrate or puzzle us. It can be fun, as a reader
and writer, to start really noticing what affects our mental states, our level
of immersion, our ability to focus and sense of pacing, as we read. It isn’t
always the content per se (“what’s happening”), it’s also the macro-structure
(scene, summary, aggregation of scenes into acts, transitions and progressions). 
Mark up texts, at
least for a chapter or few chapters, highlighting scene and summary in
different colors. This can be a challenge, since scenes nearly always have
threads of summary – just a few sentences – running through them without
disrupting the scene. If the time and place remain constant, we’re still in the
same scene. If the time and/or place change considerably, a new scene has
begun. (It may help to picture this as a movie or play. If a set change is
needed, the curtain drops, or all the cameras have to be moved—not just brought
in for a closeup) we are definitely in a new scene.
Note how many
scenes are in a typical chapter. Across an entire novel, note what the big,
memorable scenes are. Note how your favorite authors transition between scenes,
especially when time compression is needed.
Note authors’
different styles: some write almost entirely in scene, some write in longer
narrative passages that summarize or stop time altogether. Note when authors flashback (to full scenes from the
past) and when they simply blend in backstory
(compressed summary of a past incident or fact that doesn’t develop into a full
scene, set in a distinct time and place). 
Note how your
favorite author seems to decide what needs to be shown in scene, and what can summarized;
usually, anything emotional or highly significant, including major turning
points, are shown in scene, but not always. Some authors and some more
experimental novels (Virginia Woolf’s To
Lighthouse comes to mind)
surprise us by making huge events –even deaths – happen in summary, “off
camera.” Sometimes, we avoid showing the drama in scenes because we are
intentional obscuring what the reader knows for certain.
You may or may not
ever wish to analyze – or “reverse engineer”—a novel in exhaustive detail. But
it can be done. A deep and structural understanding of just a few favorite
books can teach you more about writing than reading hundreds of novels without
attention to how those books are organized, scene by scene by scene.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of The Spanish Bow, published in 11 languages, as well as The Detour and a forthcoming novel, Behave. She teaches for I2P, 49 Writers, and in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program. Her website is

1 thought on “Andromeda: Making A Scene”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Great post, Andromeda. I enjoyed the scene workshop I took with you a few years ago.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top