The Beauty of Scenes

When I first contemplated writing novels, I comforted myself by concentrating on scenes. Scenes are units of a story. They're bite-sized nuggets, easily digestible. A scene can be a chapter. Chapters can be a number of scenes, but a scene is an identifiable moment.

One of my favorite tools in my writing kit is the scene list. It's quite easy. When you're dreaming up a project, make a list of all the moments that you think you'd like to have in the story. They don't have to be in order. Some can be even generic. For example, as spelled out in The Story Grid, genres have obligatory scenes. So you already know certain scenes that you will need to have in your book.

I'm currently writing a first draft, and I'm thinking a lot about how to make scenes interesting. Then I witnessed an example the other night while Mike and I watched Midsomer Murders, a British procedural densely populated with eccentrics, festivals, and killings. This particular evening, we watched “Down Among the Dead Men” (Season 9, Episode 4).

Late in the show, DCI Barnaby (John Nettles) believes they have closed a case. The killer is in custody. But then DC Jones (Jason Hughes) asks several questions that make it clear that they have apprehended the wrong man. They know who the murderer is, and he is still out on the loose.

This scene could have taken place anywhere—in their office, in the car, at the pub. However, the writers placed these characters on a British beach. In this story, several people of interest lived at the seaside. DCI Barnaby chose to interview them himself, while he assigned DC Jones more mundane duties at home. Now, with the case closed, both men are at the shore. The usually formal Barnaby celebrates by shucking his suit jacket, rolling up his trousers, and venturing into the sea. But Jones stays up on the rocks. He expresses his doubts by asking his superior questions about the case that lead Barnaby to head back to the beach, yelling to Jones to pick up Barnaby's phone and jacket, as they race to catch the killer. In this way, the writers have taken an obligatory scene and added humor. They have placed it in an interesting locale. We see a side of Barnaby that we don't see often. It's a scene that will stick in my memory.

Watching that moment inspired me to keep looking at my scenes. Are they funny enough? Are they surprising? Do they let readers know all sorts of things while still advancing the story? Can I make them better? Writers face these challenges every day.