Making a Scene, by Phil Latham

photo by Jay Lawler

Some, all or none of the below may or may not be fact or fiction. Or both. Phil Latham takes no responsibility for anyone believing what he says to be true or helpful or entertaining. Ever. Unfortunately, no Microsoft Word developers were strangled during the creation of this blog.



For me, the scene in a short story (or novel) is a self-contained unit in a specific time and place with one purpose. Therefore, for it to propel my story forwards along the superhighway of engagement, I ask myself what must happen in it (not what could happen, what must).

Starting is difficult, but I consider earlier scenes and think about doing something different. If I began the last three with dialogue, maybe I’ll begin the next with description. If I began with description, perhaps I’ll introduce the scene with action or with characters in the middle of an argument. I try to start scenes with variation designed to keep the reader awake.

My next step is to write the scene, or to feel so exhausted with the idea that I open a beer. Never procrastinate tomorrow what you can procrastinate today. I use Word and write directly onto the screen (if I think of anything interesting away from the keyboard I scribble it in a notepad). I create the scene structure first, as several lines on the screen in the form of ‘Character A does x’, ‘Character B says y’ etc. These are my ‘structural lines’, my loose framework of sub-headings or actions in the scene. Writing is easier once I’m happy with the structure. I work on these lines for maybe an hour, shunting them around to see what makes sense. I often create the structure to reflect a decision making process; formulating decisions reveals character and provides scope for disagreement, which creates opportunities for tension. Tension is often one character wanting to do something or go somewhere that another character doesn’t, ie different motives. As the characters argue their case, I want my dialogue to convey this tension to provide an interesting read (for five marks, define ‘Interesting’).

As I play with the structural lines, I’ll write fragments underneath: phrases, dialogue snippets, descriptions that show emotion. Anything that seems reasonable. Once I have a loose structure and a few fragments, I write longer snatches of dialogue as the foundation of the scene (most of my scenes grow from dialogue; it feels right that way). My screen builds into lines and paragraphs and I imagine what that character would be thinking and feeling. What would they say? Which words would they use? Not use? What would the characters say first? Last? Would they sit in silence? What emotional state are they in and how would they react to what other characters are saying/doing? Can I show this emotion physically, not verbally? I play around, trying to create a flow that seems logical, believable, engaging. I often stitch dialogue fragments together and read them out. Since I’ve already thought about the structure, I know what the scene is about, what must happen and so have an idea about who will say what; my dialogue exists for a reason. I assemble it as I would an essay, layering and deleting as I deliberate over different aspects. If I think of anything useful but not relevant to this scene, I move it into my ‘misc’ section at the back of Word, into my sandpit area of thoughts, dialogue, descriptions and feline excrement. If something isn’t working I delete it or highlight it for re-working. I also insert description and narrative to create the sensory world for the reader and for separating different lines of conversation or revealing the emotional state of a character.

I consider how the scene will end. I try to end with impact (joke, threat, question) that keeps the reader awake. How can I make the ending more interesting: funnier, scarier, happier, other words ending in ‘ier’? How can I make the ending so brilliant the reader must turn over the page and not watch EastEnders instead? All writers compete for time with family, work, computer games, theatre, porn, TV, holidays, blogs, sex, other writers (grrr), friends, funerals, sport, alcohol, DVDs, sunsets, marriages, thinking about sex, reader laziness, the Internet, takeaways, the summer, films and – of course – Life™. So if at the end of your scenes you don’t create reasons why your reader should continue reading, they won’t. Fail. Since my scenes have one purpose, if there’s too much going on (more than one purpose), I move those structural lines (dialogue/description) onto a new page as the basis for a future scene. Recycling is good for the planet. After finishing a scene, I consider deleting the first and last paragraph to reduce any creeping introductions or plodding conclusions and to devote maximum space to the core of the scene. I don’t have characters telling others what they or the reader already know. Characters walking into a room or getting dressed or having breakfast or anything like that I delete, unless of course a character is about to die from breakfast poisoning or wearing the wrong trousers (Gromit). Readers infer such details.

I try to write the scene over a few days and then polish it. Re-write. Mash it up for the 4077th time. I’ve written scenes where the final draft is 95% of the first draft. But not many; what appears to be scintillating prose five minutes after I’ve written it usually isn’t. So all my scenes change, by going on a diet a supermodel would cry for. I delete the word ‘that’ whenever I can and scan for inappropriate metaphors, similes, tautologies and internal monologues (turning it into dialogue often works). Can I convey the same ideas and emotions using fewer words, letting the reader make the connections? Can I foreshadow anything significant in a clever way? Create contrasts with serious points using humour? I want to make dialogue as interesting as I can while ensuring it remains relevant to the scene and authentic for that character; straightforward question-and-answer chatter is as predictable as England losing against Germany (football, not wars). I re-check the words each character uses to ensure they fit with their emotional level in the scene, with their knowledge of what has happened so far and with their personality, education and vocabulary. I consider pacing: is the scene hectic action or navel reflection? How do I re-write the scene to be more believable and less like the ramblings of a guy hunched over a keyboard making it all up? I shove paragraphs around until the flow matches that in my head. I try to cut as much as possible, so what remains is only what needs to remain. I check it for rhyme. Polish it. Cut. Check again for reason. Read it out aloud, to see how it sounds and to ensure none of it features unintended alliteration or rhyme (or reason). Cut. Polish again until I’m bloody sick to death of Poland. Am I wasting my time? Maybe. Does it improve my scene? Definitely maybe. But it’s a story, morning glory.

Even though I think it’s finished, a few weeks later I’ll (again) return to that scene. The elapsed time generates a veneer of freshness, as if someone else wrote it, so I spot my countless errors more easily. I often wince at how inelegant my writing is. Occasionally the re-reading will make me think of better ways to start or end the scene, or more interesting or concise ways to say things. Cut, cut, cut. Or I’ll just realise that, four scenes later, I don’t need that scene . . . and then I rip off my shirt and turn green with anger like the Hulk. I also read the scenes immediately before the one I’m evaluating to comprehend if they flow smoothly, if I can link them in a stronger fashion or if I have neglected some vital point or mentioned the same fact twice (idiot).

Writing one small scene of five hundred words might take me four hours from first to final draft, although that often includes coffee preparation and drinking time (4.75 hours). A more typical scene of three thousand words might take thirty hours, including time to structure it as well time as to think, edit, re-draft and polish. Am I slow, or a perfectionist? Or just rubbish? Writing in stolen part-time fragments (since I have a full-time job) definitely increases the overall duration because of the stops and the starts. And the coffee.

If all drafts are merely postcards by the author, how do I know when the scene is finished?

(Deep breath)

I never do.

But if I read the scene and it says what it needs to without containing flab . . . and has a certain density . . . a certain buzz and pop that satisfies me on levels of subtlety, humour, cleverness and ‘differentness’ . . . then I think ‘This will have to bloody do’ (the swearing is most important) and that’s when I forget the scene and foxtrot over to the next.

And relax . . .

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2 thoughts on “Making a Scene, by Phil Latham

  1. I’ve never tried changing the font colour, but that I will get that a go!

    If I write directly on the screen then I find printing scenes or chapters helps me spot errors more easily. Another tip when printing is to change the font and also the margins, so your brain is tricked into seeing the same old material you are sick of in a new(er) light. Plus, of course, reading material out loud helps with the pace and structure.

    But the best way to re-edit my material (other than someone else reading it of course) is to leave it for a while. Three months is great, but a week can still help. Just take a break and do something else and when you re-read you will catch things you previously missed.

  2. Thank you! You’ve brilliantly captured the angst and decision-making that goes into our story-making; how our visions of the world are translated to pen and paper only to have them crumble when we read them back a couple of hours later. What helps me achieve that “authoritorial” distance after writing anything that sounds just right, is changing font color. I read this tip on one of the many short stories sites I visit. This also helps the print cartridge last longer not to mention the environment. Most of the times I tell myself “what was I thinking!” This is definitely an improvement from when I couldn’t even spot the weak or entirely off-the-wall bits of dialogue and description.

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