Born in England but living now in Scotland, I.J. Parnham has written more than 30 Westerns for the Black Horse Western series and the Avalon western series. His next novel Beyond Redemption will be available in hardback in August and his earlier Dead by Sundown and The Gallows Gang are now available as ebooks. You can meet him at his blog the Culbin Trail.
So you’ve outlined the story you intend to write, or perhaps you’ve finished the first draft, depending on how you work. This is an ideal time to ask the fundamental question: are my scenes actually scenes? Of course my scenes are scenes you may say. They have action, scenery, chatter, apostrophes, purplish prose, action, witty asides, proof I’ve done my research, big words, an inflatable gopher, and yet more action.
But the thing is, stuff happening does not make a scene.
Consider the following scene:
Clint Callahan is riding across the wild frontier in search of the man who shot his pa. He rides into the lawless frontier town of Dead Dog looking to get a shot of rotgut and a mess of beans. Clint squeaks open the batwings in the Dog Pie Saloon. Dirty varmints loiter in every corner. The piano player stops playing. Cold eyes turn to him. They narrow. Fingers itch. Clint still orders a whiskey, in a dirty glass. Then disaster strikes. Rock Hardman takes exception to Clint.
“You’re a long-legged son of a dead man,” Rock says while smiling to avoid the obvious retort.
Clint sips his whiskey. “Is that how you greet strangers in Dead Dog?”
Rock sneers. “Only strangers I don’t know.”
Anyhow, after that authentic tough guy talk, a fight erupts. Chairs break. Tables tip over. The piano player’s head goes through the piano. An old-timer knocks back the unguarded drinks. Then Rock pulls a knife on Clint, but a saloon-girl knocks him out with a convenient bottle. Clint tips his hat to the saloon-girl and rides out of town to resume his search for the man who shot his pa.
Now, this scene may be ten pages long, contain evocative and realistic descriptions of a frontier town and frontier folk, and it’s all held together with some mighty fine western action, but it isn’t a scene. Before explaining why, consider some more scenes detailing Clint’s search for the man who shot his pa:
A big bear attacks Clint. Clint hides up a bigger tree.
Bandits attack Clint. Clint shoots them.
Clint falls in the creek and nearly drowns. Clint swims away…
Unfortunately, no matter how well-written and action-packed these scenes are, they aren’t scenes because to be a scene, something must not only happen, something must change.
So in the first scene, Clint rode into town looking for the man who shot his pa and at the end he rode out of town still looking for the man who shot his pa. Nothing changed and so you could delete the scene and the story would be the same, albeit shorter. The same is true of the other scenes involving bears, bandits, and creeks in which something happened, but nothing changed.
Faced with this story, the reader will notice the rhythm in which a problem arises and Clint solves it. Before long Clint will encounter another problem and the reader will skip the resolution to see what happens when he finds the man who shot his pa. This can be avoided not by deleting the scene and starting again, but by changing something.
So, with the saloon brawl, perhaps Clint rides into town not to search for whiskey and beans, but to search for someone who knows about the man who shot his pa. Rock takes exception to Clint because he asked the bartender a question and the scene closes with Rock following Clint. Now Clint hoped to get information, and he got some answers, but only at the cost of getting another bad guy on his tail, so his position has changed. Even better, it worsened.
You can make changes to the other scenes, too. Clint meets a bear and the bear chews his leg off. Bandits attack and he hops away while the bandits eat his horse. He falls in the creek and a fish eats his gun. So now he has no gun, no horse, a spare boot, Rock on his tail, and he still has to find the man who shot his pa… which is starting to sound like a better story than the first draft.
In a scene, something changes. When you want to rack up the tension, something worsens. When you want to give your hero a break, something improves. But you never limit yourself to, something happens.