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Monday, October 2, 2017

On-Page or Off-Page? Discerning Significant Scenes

Like a lot of writers, you've probably, at some time, been at a point in your story where you wondered if an event needed to be a scene or not. Could it happen off-page and be referred to? Does it need its very own scene? Can it be shuffled into the beginning, end, or middle of another scene? Or you may have found yourself writing scenes about events that you later realized didn't really merit a scene.

Once in a while when editing, I come across stories where an important event of a viewpoint character happens off-page. Sometimes this is done simply to try to surprise the audience as to a character's decision. It might create false suspense. Other times it might be done to shorten a story. Some writers might do it because they don't want to write the scene or don't know how to.

In contrast, some writers may include every event of their viewpoint character on-page, which may lead to drawn-out pacing and inflated storytelling (and readers wondering, do I really need to know this?)

Of course, like all writing rules, what does and does not merit a scene can be somewhat subjective. That's why they are more like guidelines rather than rules. For organic stories, this may be even more true. In formulaic stories, especially if you are following a beat sheet, it's clearer what should have a scene and what shouldn't. In any case, there is some leeway, and of course, it depends on the story you are telling and effect you want on the reader.

Generally speaking, however, significant events in the story should happen on-page, in a scene. The exception to this is backstory. We don't need a flashback scene for all of your character's backstory. But in most stories, from the moment the story begins to its ending, significant events should happen on-page. The more significant the event, the more likely it should happen on-page. This means that if one of your plot lines deals with romance, and someone confesses they are in love with your protagonist, it should probably happen on-page. If the Grinch's heart grows two sizes, it should probably happen in a scene. If your protagonist battles an enemy, it should probably be on-page.

The less significant the event, the less likely it needs to be on-page. What your character ate for supper each night probably doesn't need to be in its own scenes (unless your story deals with cooking or worldbuilding, or magical creatures that eat a lot like Peregrin Took). A full-blown scene on the drive to work probably doesn't need to be in your manuscript.

But trying to explain all this is like trying to hold water in your palms. There are a lot of different stories, so what might merit a scene in one story might not merit one in another story. It's not black and white. For example, in a story that has a rich fantasy world, like Harry Potter, a scene about what Harry had for dinner during the sorting ceremony might be completely appropriate, as one of the main draws of the books is to transport the reader to Hogwarts.

So another important factor is why the audience is picking up the book. If you have an adventure story, you darn better include the biggest adventure moments of your character on-page. If you are writing fantasy, the moments that have the highest amount of wonder that your viewpoint character experiences, should probably be on-page. In a horror, the scariest moment of your protagonist should be on-page.

Moments that significantly affect your protagonist personally or moments that influence their character arc or alter their motives should probably be in a scene.

If these things don't happen on-page, the writer should have a valid reason for not including them. What you definitely don't want to do is leave your reader feeling cheated. If I pick up a romance story, I sure as heck better see the moment where the protagonist and love interest confess their love for one another and kiss.

Remember, the more significant the event, the more likely it needs to happen in scene.

Other times, you may have important events that the reader needs to know, but aren't significant enough for a scene. In these cases, you can put the information in summary. For example, if you are writing a story of an adventure, but there is a stretch of land where the characters have to get through a huge bog that is difficult (but rather boring) and only a couple of interesting things happen, then you would probably want to summarize the bog. Now some people may say you should replace the bog with something else or find a way to make it exciting. You can try that, but it depends on what your story is. My point is, in almost every story, there are parts that needs to be summarized.

I don't need to read full scenes about every one of Harry's Quidditch practices. I just need a summary to convey how hard the players are working, what their interactions are like, and the rivalries that are building up.

However, keep in mind, that summary still needs to be interesting, either in content, or in the way it's told (preferably both).

Almost all stories should have information or events that happen off-page. Why? Because it makes your story feel more real and authentic. It also makes the story "bigger than itself." Often this sort of thing best happens with backstory. Your characters don't exist in a void. They should feel like they were alive before the story began, even if it's in small ways, like your protagonist remembering in passing a time when she slept through church. Side characters should also have their own lives off the page, which should be alluded to.

In any case, here are some questions I've come up to help you discern if an event should happen on-page or off-page:

- How significant is this event?

- Does the event alter the storyline? How much?

- Does it alter an important character in a significant way? How much?

- Does it convey important information to the audience? How important?

- Is it a very thematic moment?

- Does it feed the audience's emotional needs? (for example, in a story about a traveler, chronicling what happens each day fulfills what the audience picked up the book for.)

As for writing scenes, you can find a lot of great information online. Ideally, scenes accomplish multiple things at once. So for example, if your protagonist tells his mom he lost the love of his life, and later tells his best friend the same thing, you might want to see if you can set-up a scene where he tells both of them at the same time. When looking at your theme, you might want to ask yourself if there is another scene you can fit into.

Some scenes are better left simple. Deeply personal moments or vulnerable moments might happen better in mostly their own scene (though you can still convey other things about character). You don't want to stack things inappropriately. For example, in some classic romances, it might be inappropriate to have your character confess his love when his sinking ship is being attacked by the undead. HOWEVER in an adventure story, it might be entirely appropriate for them to get married in that moment, like in Pirates of the Caribbean. 

Almost all scenes should show a change. In rare cases, the point of the scene might be to show how things stay the same. But 9/10 times, the scene needs to convey change. It can be external and part of the plot at hand, or it can be internal, about how a character changes. Some changes are very small. Some are big. But scene should almost always change the story in some way.

And with this topic, we could try to get very nit-picky, but storytelling doesn't always work that way. Often what is significant or not significant depends on how the story is set-up to the reader, so don't give yourself a headache trying to nail all this down like science. Many writers have a good internal sense of what should happen on-page. What should only happen off-page may be harder to discern for people. Take this article as a guideline to help you consider when to do which, and don't feel like you have to adhere to everything perfectly. There may be special cases where something very significant is much better in summary than scene, or off-page than on.

Thunderclap - Thank you to everyone who has helped my with my Thunderclap campaign for my new editing website, FawkesEditing.com. We now have 70 people who have pledged on it. Yay! But I still need 30 more! So if you haven't helped out yet, I would really appreciate it if you did. You can learn more and help here


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thank you, THANK YOU! I just realized all my significant scenes are in the flashbacks. So I'm starting at the wrong point, or simply have to build a different story. You just saved me so much trouble! :D


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