Dec 11 2007

Writing Without Scenes

This article will discuss some benefits and drawbacks of writing a chapter without scenes and some common problems of sceneless chapters.

What is a “sceneless chapter?” It’s a chapter that occurs in what seems to be a vacuum. For example, if one of your chapters is a diary entry or newspaper articles, it’s probably sceneless. The key to a scene is setting and generally, a recounting of a story often skimps on the setting and almost always avoids the sort of visceral details that really immerse readers in a scene. “I walked down the creeking, damp corridor…” isn’t something you’d find in a newspaper article.

Finally, sceneless writing usually lacks a distinct cast. A diary might shift from one character to whichever character is relevant, but a scene has a definite cast. Characters X and Y are present and, although Z may enter and Y may leave, at any given time we know who is participating.

I’ll give some examples of chapter frames that are usually sceneless.

  1. Letters/e-mails/notes
  2. Newspaper articles
  3. Diaries/journals
  4. Memos
  5. Transcripts of conversations*
  6. Legal briefs
  7. Scientific or social-scientific works, like a professor trying to explain how a superhero’s powers work or a sociological profile of differences between OSI agents and Social Justice Leaguers.
  8. Security briefings

Your world is probably pretty different from Superhero Nation, but you could probably adapt these to your story if you were inclined to do so. For example, instead of discussing science, one chapter might discuss the art of magic or religious beliefs and practices.

Strengths of Writing Without Scenes

  1. It breaks up the pace/intensity level of the story. Putting some distance between your reader and the story by having them read someone’s recount of what happened to them will probably slow and reduce the intensity. On the other hand, sceneless chapters can also intensify the story by giving rapid-fire foreshadowing and removing a lot of the clutter (and, usually, the setting’s flavor).
  2. It changes the story’s tone, particularly the seriousness. Legal briefs are innately sober, diaries are intimate, etc.
  3. It dramatically alters the narrative’s focus. For example, a transcript focuses far more on the dialogue—particularly spoken content (not body language)—than a scene.
  4. It may provide an opportunity to show-not-tell. One of Superhero Nation’s recurring themes is that New York—and the New York media especially—is insular and parochial. But I don’t want to say that. So I wrote a mock NY Times article that describes something happening in Chicago, “a city of four million 700 miles west of New York [snip]… the home of O’Hare International Airport.” By writing the article, I’m able to parody more freely and show my story directly rather than tell readers what to think.
  5. It’s usually easier to shift perspectives to follow the action. For example, in Superhero Termination I have nine chapter breaks over ten pages. It goes from The Canadian to Lash to the USS Saltmore to Agent Orange to the striking Leaguers to Lash again to Lash/Orange. If I wrote a scene for each of these characters, the changes of perspective would be horrendously jarring.

Weaknesses/Potential Problems

  1. A story’s setting is an integral part of the story. Relying too much on sceneless chapters may make it feel like the story is taking place in a vacuum.
  2. Most varieties of sceneless story-telling limit the author’s ability to write in body language, sight/touch/smell imagery, and other elements of strong storywriting. The overarching problem is that strong scenes immerse readers and sceneless writing has to compensate for that.

I’ll get into solutions soon, but I have work to do right now.

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