scenework One of the most significant skills writers learn is how to make a scene.

Not in that way.

I find that scenes, strictly defined, eventually tend to happen. You can agonize over them as a new writer, floundering in a mire of slack tension and languorous action, fumbling with a lot of lines that should lead somewhere but really lead nowhere, and when it’s all put together at last–

–nothing’s happened.

I’ve been there. I’ve lived there. I still wake up screaming.

Chesterton blamed this for the artistic temperament. Artists, he said, are emotional and touchy and irritable and a thousand other anti-social things because they’re swilling with pent-up emotional expression they can’t adequately express. Because artists can’t purely and perfectly express themselves through their art (to their satisfaction, at least), their frustration at their imperfect work burst out in other ways.

To put it another way, writers make scenes because they can’t.

Chesterton was, of course, an accomplished painter, cartoonist, and writer. So he knew what he was talking about. (He was also a jolly, good-humored, cheerful idealist—so not all artists need find refuge in moodiness, apparently.) And, as he famously observed, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

I take great comfort from that, as a writer. Particularly as a writer reevaluating the scenes in a new novella manuscript. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m plodding my way through Jenna St. Hilaire’s seven step process for revising novels. Free spirit that I am (I’ll wait for you to finish laughing), I’ve merged several of the steps. I’m currently on step 4-5, summarizing the individual scenes of the manuscript, and then reviewing and reworking the manuscript through the grid of the summary.

So far it seems to be working. Jenna’s employment of a simple bulleted outline for the scene summary is actually the most effective way of doing it. (As a large swatch of wasted time designing colorful—and ultimately useless—spreadsheets finally convinced me.)

It does, however, take time.

You need to read the manuscript, for one thing. For me this was probably the sixth time through—there’ll be at least one more before I’m satisfied. Contra the recommendations of step 3, I didn’t actually demarcate all the scenes beforehand. Mostly because the novella intertwines three discreet timelines, and so the scene breaks are apparent in the layout.

This sort of reading demands your attention. That was what I enjoyed most, really. The whole experience of scene summarizing was, for me, a microcosm of writing the novella—I enjoyed spending time getting to know the characters. That made it a delight to write. At the same time, the tension of the story emotionally drained me, and my writing speed was uncharacteristically slow.

This slow editing process—sitting and thinking and rewriting and tracing themes and so on—brought out the same delight, enjoying being with the characters, reliving their struggle. But it was tedious, it was slow.

Was it worth it? I think so. At the very least its a sanity check for my inborn sense of pacing. Because doing this long enough lets you get an intuitive sense of Story and scene alike. You know what has to happen, when it has to happen, how it happens. You think, as it were, scenically. The scenes, at long last, happen. And you become, presumably, easier to live with.

That’s at least what happened to me. Or so I’ve always thought.

But then, I’m the one writing this, aren’t I?

I worriedly consult a bulleted outline…


4 thoughts on “scenework

  1. Hmm. I may decide to attempt this with my currently-stalled Fractured Fairy Tale in progress (in which the scenes were fine until I realized the need to add another antagonist in the second chapter!).

  2. I’m really enjoying reading your thoughts on revision. It’s fun to see what works for you and what doesn’t, and you always have something intriguing to add.

    Chesterton’s cheerful outlook on life and difficulty always makes me smile. I want to be more like him in that.

  3. “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly”… I was just thinking of this quote a few days ago, as I began the process of finishing undergrad. 🙂 I really can appreciate and affirm Chesterton’s observations about artists… This explains so much, actually! My fear of imperfection in my music has been preventing me from even trying to write something new, which adds another assortment of frustrations. Thankfully, I haven’t had much time to be moody (thanks to Moody, ironically enough… but this too shall pass, come next Saturday, I happily regret).

    Mr. Pond (can I be personal?), I’m missing you and your better half (and your darling multiplication, upon whom I feel compelled to lavish lots of auntie love). I hope it won’t be too long before we see you again…

  4. Welcome, Carrie. We’re missing yous, too! Fear of imperfection (however subtle) is, I think, a goad to greater levels of artistic expression, a sting across the imagination that drives us to re-create and keeps the sub-creative urge alive and alert. Don’t let it discourage you–let it do what it’s meant to!

    Jenna, I very much appreciate GKC’s outlook on a lot of things. I too could be happy if I could live out his whimsical reckless delight of being.

    Eric, read the other five/six steps if you do. And let us know how it goes.

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