Units of Fiction III: Attention and Focus (Scenes)

(This is the third post in a series about the craft consideration that goes into deciding where to put breaks between units of your story. Part I, Part II, Part IV.)

The second part of this series looked at the ideas of attention and focus, and how those apply to the structure of a paragraph. Now let’s turn those same lenses onto scenes.

First, the notion that a unit asks you to sustain your attention until its over. Scenes don’t require the same degree of concentration from the reader as a paragraph; if you put a book down in the middle of a scene to go refill your water glass, you probably won’t have to start over at the beginning because you don’t remember where you left off. But ideally, a scene should hold the reader’s attention without pause, and not let them up for air until it’s done.

One of the ways it can do this is through unity. We no longer hold to Aristotle’s classical unities as such, but in some ways the concept is still alive today at the scene level: we do generally expect unity of viewpoint, as I mentioned before, and we have a tendency to default to unity of location and time as well. When the characters shift location or a lot of time passes, we often insert a scene break to signal the transition and skip over the intervening gap.

But that isn’t the only way to handle those shifts. You can also use the narration itself to signal movement or the passage of time. How do you know which approach is better in a given situation?

As with some of the paragraph-level decisions, this is partly an aesthetic choice. I do find, though, that certain conditions encourage me to use narrative bridging rather than a scene break. If a character arrives in a location and then is made to wait, the arrival would be too short to qualify as a scene on its own — it’s really more just setting up the actual scene — so the waiting will be narrated (briefly) rather than skipped. And that can provide me with a useful opportunity for exposition, as illustrated here (again drawing from The Mask of Mirrors):

Renata advanced with the confidence of someone who believed she deserved to be at the head of the line. That got her halfway there; she made it another quarter on river rat instincts, finding gaps to ooze through, feet to “accidentally” step on. After that she had to shuffle slowly forward with everyone else, until she finally made it to the secretary and presented her license and her request.

At that point, her expensive-looking clothing and the Traementis name carried enough weight to get her out of the press of public advocates crowding the entry hall and into the antechamber for Fulvet. A bribe — originating in Vargo’s pocket, not Renata’s — moved her name up the list there, but Donaia was right; no one at the Charterhouse was eager to do House Traementis any favors. Renata settled in for a long wait.

She knew a little about the history of the Fulvet office from the days when it had been held by House Traementis. Letilia’s father, prior holder of that seat, was the man notorious for polluting half the Dežera. Not on purpose; no, it was just Nadežra’s usual graft and corruption, Crelitto Traementis pocketing so many of the funds for a bridge across the river at Floodwatch that the bridge later collapsed. Fifty-three people died, and the bulk of the wreckage washed into the West Channel, where it collided with the enormous prismatium framework of the cleansing numinat . . . and broke it.

It goes on a bit from there, and I won’t quote the whole thing because it would be too long. But the breathing space between Renata’s arrival and her meeting with Fulvet is a prime opportunity to fill in some relevant information about the situation she’s walking into. Likewise with a spatial transition:

As the bearers [of her sedan chair] headed for a narrow exit from the square, Renata drew the curtains shut. Traementis Manor was in the Pearls, a cluster of islets strung along the Upper Bank of the River Dežera. The river here ran pure and clear thanks to the numinat that protected the East Channel, and the narrow streets and bridges were clean; whichever families held the charters to keep the streets clear of refuse wouldn’t dream of letting it accumulate near the houses of the rich and powerful.

But the rocky wedge that broke the Dežera into east and west channels was a different matter. For all that it held two of Nadežra’s major institutions—the Charterhouse in Dawngate, which was the seat of government, and the Aerie in Duskgate, home to the Vigil that maintained order—the Old Island was also crowded with the poor and the shabby-genteel. Anyone riding in a sedan chair was just asking for beggars to crowd at their windows.

A scene break here, picking up when Renata arrives at her destination, would miss out on the chance to orient the reader in the geography and personality of the city. Especially since this takes place early in the book, using the travel time to fill in that context is very handy; later in the book, we’d be far more likely to skip over it to keep the action moving.

Deciding whether to narrate through or skip over isn’t just about exposition, though; it goes back to the idea that a unit signals to the reader that there’s a relationship between its component parts. Take that first example, with Renata waiting in the antechamber: the overall concept for that scene is “Renata visits Fulvet’s office to propose that he grant House Traementis the new charter they desperately need.” Her arrival at the Charterhouse and time spent waiting for the actual meeting are part of that concept, therefore they fit naturally into a scene together. But if the flow of the narrative were that Renata gets into a shouting match with a rival in the foyer of the Charterhouse, then goes to Fulvet’s office to bargain for a new charter, we would almost certainly split that into two scenes. We might keep the exposition, but it would be part of the opening for the second scene (“Renata had been waiting nearly an hour . . .”), not a bridging element to graft two unrelated encounters together.

What about the question of focus? For scenes, it’s a little different from paragraphs. It’s fine for a paragraph to start off with something vital but end with no particular impact, but a scene structured that way would read a little oddly. At this level, there’s more expectation that the conclusion will pack some kind of punch. Said punch generally falls into one of two categories: either suspense, or resolution.

In its most overt form, the suspense approach is the classic cliffhanger ending. When I was on book tour and reading from Voyage of the Basilisk, I got a lot of very satisfying reactions because the scene I chose ended with the sentence, “And then I began to drown.” DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!!!! Naturally everyone wanted to know what happened next. This approach is excellent for propelling the reader onward into the next scene.

But if you do that all the time, it gets wearying. For a while the TV show Alias ran with a structure where every single episode consisted of the last quarter of the previous episode’s plot, followed by the first three quarters of this one’s plot, apparently just so they could constantly be ending on a cliffhanger. Doing that occasionally can be okay, but over and over again? I found it obnoxious.

Fortunately, suspense doesn’t always have to be at the level of DUN DUN DUNNNNNN!!!! Anything that evokes curiosity or apprehension in the reader falls under the header of suspense: what will the character choose? Where are they going? How can they solve this problem? What will the consequences of this event be? Think of it as a trail of breadcrumbs, leading the reader onward.

In the long run, though, the reader will also crave some resolutions here and there. This is especially true in longer books, or in stories that aren’t aiming for the feeling of a breakneck thriller — but frankly, even in the latter, I think quieter moments have their place. If everything is always crashing onward, the effect starts to grate.

Resolution endings are anything where the reader gets payoff for a thing they’ve been anticipating. This might be a problem solved, a conflict settled, a question answered, a secret revealed. Which may still have knock-on effects, of course; these two types of scene ending aren’t binary opposites, but rather flavors that may predominate to a greater or lesser degree. A character making a decision is a resolution, but one whose unknown consequences may leave the reader in suspense.

What this means for your structure and your breaks is that you want to order the flow of the scene such that there’s some kind of impact at the end, rather than it just tailing off until it stops. If there are multiple impacts in the scene — which is totally fine — then look at the shape they create, and ask yourself whether it’s a good shape. Are they building up from small to large? That’s often desirable, so the ending doesn’t feel like an anticlimax. But sometimes what the content actually requires will be a big impact up front, followed by its effects; then what you need is some feeling of closure at the end, or the introduction of a new element to provide some fresh momentum. Once you have that, you’re done.

Up to a point. Co-writing is a great way to force yourself to articulate things you’ve always done by unconscious reflex, and while Alyc and I were drafting The Mask of Mirrors, we had numerous discussions about “playing” characters on and off the metaphorical stage. Do you show a character arriving at a location, or start the scene with them already there? Do you show them concluding their business, or cut off on interesting line of dialogue?

Films and TV have, I think, really encouraged us in the direction of in medias res beginnings and endings to scenes — TV especially, because the constraints of broadcasting make for a very strict runtime, and they have to ensure that every minute counts. I think that approach has a place in prose fiction, but as with the question of whether you narrate or break past a shift in location or time, that place depends on where you are in the story. Early in a novel, playing a character on or off gives you more opportunity for context. Later in the story, or at other points of faster pace or higher tension, getting in and out fast keeps things moving.

(On the other hand, that does encourage one to end scenes on characters saying something scathing or dramatic, followed by the author skipping out on the effect of said line. In real life, we don’t poof away from a conversation after someone delivers a grand revelation or a biting insult — and sometimes your story is better served by making everybody stand there awkwardly, dealing with the fallout.)

With paragraphs and scenes addressed, our last part will return to where this whole pile of thinking started: chapters.