Condensing Scenes

carsSomething a lot of authors miss when writing are the opportunities to collapse two or more scenes into a single scene. This means that whatever they’re writing is longer than it needs to be, and also might contain static, one-dimensional scenes – scenes that singularly exist to deliver their point and nothing else.

Let’s say we’re writing a first-person story about a relationship. The narrator lives alone and we want to establish the domesticity of their life. Of course, being in a relationship, the narrator talks regularly with their partner. Obviously, these are very broad strokes, but we need only a general scenario to set up our examples.

Okay, next, let’s consider two scenes – the first is a conversation between the couple. It might begin like this:

       I was driving home when the phone rang. I pulled over to the side of the road to answer it.
       ‘Hi, honey.’
       ‘What’s up?’
       ‘I wanted to talk about tonight.’

Now imagine this conversation goes on for a page or so as they talk about something to establish the rapport of their relationship. For the sake of this example, the specifics aren’t important.

In the second scene, we’ll deal with the narrator coming home. This follows directly after the conversation …

       I hung up and swung the car back onto the road, contending with peak-hour traffic. It was dark by the time I got home. I pulled into the drive and hauled the shopping out of the boot. There was so much I should’ve made two trips, but instead slipped my hand through the handles of all the plastic bags until they cut into my palms, then started for the front door.

From here, the narrator goes inside and puts the shopping away. The point of this second scene might be to establish the narrator’s domesticity so that we see their everyday routine – they’re busy, like to do things all at once, buy plenty of shopping to tide them over rather than just shop for the day, etc. It’s part of the world and character building of this piece.

So what we have are two scenes that deliver different pieces of necessary information, (or for the sake of this blog, let’s imagine they’re necessary for whatever story they’re part of).

There exists, however, the opportunity to collapse these scenes into one another. After all, visualise this as if it was a movie playing out in your mind. How exciting a scene is a narrator sitting in a car on the side of the road having a conversation, or the protagonist lifting the shopping out of their car and then putting it away?

Imagine we do it like this, though:

       It was just getting on dark when I pulled the car into the drive. I opened the boot and stared at the shopping. There was so much I should’ve made two trips, but slipped my hands through the handles of all the plastic bags until they cut into my palms, then started for the front door. That’s when my phone rang.
       I lowered the bags in my right hand on the doorstep and wrestled my phone out of my pocket. A orange rolled out of one of the bags. I nudged at it with my foot while I patted myself down to find my keys, only to realise they were clenched between my teeth.
       I flipped open the phone. ‘Hey.’
       ‘Hi, honey, it’s me.’
       ‘What’s up?’
       ‘You sound puffed. What’s wrong?’

And so it would go on, the narrator juggling the conversation as they goes inside their house, wrestle with all their shopping bags, and put their shopping away.

By merging these scenes we’ve layered what’s happening. The narrator is no longer just sitting on the side of the road talking with their partner. And the domestic scene is no longer just a tour of the narrator’s life, but becomes integrated with a conversation that has to happen.

This also helps in another regard – actions interspersed through dialogue. So often, I see something like this:

       ‘What’s going to happen tonight?’
       ‘I’m still thinking about.’ I run my hand through my hair. ‘What do you think?’
       ‘I’m not sure.’
       I bite my lip. ‘How about a movie?’

Authors constantly feel the need to break up their dialogue with action, but are the actions of the character running their hand through their hair and biting their lip essential, or just something for the character to be doing? Often, they exist simply for the sake of existing. Using our example of the protagonist putting away their shopping whilst holding a conversation, everything that happens is needing to happen.

Moreover, presenting the situation like this – and let’s remember, this is the most basic example – actually contextualises the scene in a new light. Sitting on the side of the road having a phone conversation, there’s no emotional resonance, other than what the narrator brings in. Here, the narrator might be frustrated because they’re interrupted, they might be harried, the phone call might be the picker-upper they need, etc. The story drives what’s happening. And in trying to juggle everything, not only do things happen, but we’re challenged with new opportunities.

When writing scenes, question if you’re getting everything out of them, and/or whether you can merge them with other scenes.

It’s a simple technique, but it can help unfold your story in a whole new world.


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