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Scenes Matter Most

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We’re so happy that multi-published novelist Matthew Norman has joined the team here at Writer Unboxed! 

Matthew Norman is the author of three novels. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore, Maryland and holds an MFA from George Mason University. His debut novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. We’re All Damaged was an Amazon bestseller. And Last Couple Standing was named one of the best books of 2020 by Esquire. His latest novel, All Together Now, will be published in June by Ballantine Books.

Welcome, Matt!

Scenes Matter Most

I’ve been working on a theory about storytelling for the last 15 years or so. To support this, please allow a moment for some hastily thrown together historical context.

There was a time long ago when books were really the only game in town. Sure, plays were a thing, and so, too, were tales told by mouths next to campfires. But, if we’re speaking in generalities, our most important stories as humans were bound and read. After all, there wasn’t much else to do, especially in winter.

Then movies came along. And, wow, we loved those things. Our imaginations were thoroughly captured, and our most widely celebrated, most culturally influential stories came to be told through moving pictures of unreasonably attractive actors and actresses on enormous screens.

And then something equally as revolutionary got into the mix: prestige television.

Forgive me. My research gets fuzzy here. I’m not sure exactly what came first or who influenced whom, however, right around the time The Sopranos hit HBO, the film industry was starting to figure out that large, tent-pole movies and franchises were much safer financial bets than more daring, esoteric Oscar hopefuls. Consequently, screenwriters with stories to tell beyond Transformers and Faster Furiouser car chases found themselves turning to TV.

Fast-forward to today. We still love movies, of course, but the stories that are really shaking things up—that we discuss most with our friends while drinking either alcohol or caffeine—are shown episodically on TVs or streamed on smart devices.

What Does This Have to Do With Books?

The answer: a lot! The explosion of prestige television matters to us, the book- and story-writing community, because our readers watch these shows, too. And, if we’re being honest with ourselves, they’re probably watching more of them then they are reading our books. That’s not a knock on us. It’s just a time issue—the sheer logistics of the forms.

I hold myself up as Exhibit A. I love to read as much as I love doing anything. However, in the time it takes me to read a novel, particularly a long one, I may stream ten episodes of fantastically written, produced, and acted television.

I would argue that the storytelling shift that began with movies and continues on to the last show you binged on Netflix has fundamentally changed the way people want to be entertained. When a reader sits down with a book or an e-reader in hand, whether they realize it or not, they’re looking for the same energy and visual tapestry that they get from their favorite shows.

What Should We Do?

First off, we shouldn’t despair. Let’s think about some of the reasons people love prestige television. There’s character development, of course. Long story arcs. Pacing that isn’t so rushed. Lengthy flashbacks with intricate backstories. Tony Soprano’s weird dreams. Expertly woven storylines.

Do these things sounds familiar? Well, they should, because novelists invented them hundreds of years ago! The difference, though, is that screenwriters are forced to tell their stories entirely with scenes. Again, the logistics of the form. And scenes are, simply put, the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal.

To compete for relevance and to keep thriving, I’m proposing that we focus on scene-writing in our work more than we ever have. I believe the days of lengthy exposition are behind us. The era of telling—even eloquently telling—has come and gone. The idea that readers will patiently sit through dense blocks of dialogue-free paragraphs for pages and pages has become wishful thinking.

Focus on Reader Engagement

Think of the last book you stopped reading without finishing. I’m willing to bet pretend internet money that you didn’t put that book down for the last time during a scene. You likely didn’t give up once and for all right in the middle of interesting dialogue. No, you probably quit during…well, during a bunch of blah blah.

Readers are at their most engaged—they are most interested in your story—when your characters are interacting with one another. You could tell me that this has always been the case and that I’m not saying anything new. Hemingway and Chekhov wrote plenty of scenes, right? Yes. However, the scene-based storytelling found in films and prestige television has made readers’ patience for anything that isn’t dramatic action more limited than it has ever been.

When In Doubt, Write In Scene

Many, many things matter when you’re writing a story or a novel. The quality of your prose. The sharpness of your wit and intellect. The relatability of your characters and the stakes of your plot. In 2021 and beyond, though, scenes matter most.

So, next time you find yourself telling something through exposition, consider having one of your characters say it in dialogue. Next time you’re eluding to a character’s experience in the past, try showing us with a fully fleshed-out scene in flashback, complete with feelings, sights, smells, and sounds. Next time you spy a lengthy bit of prose in your work that seems to go on and on, think about a way to break it up with a conversation or some dramatic action. This won’t always work, nor should it. Exposition can be a powerful weapon, too. However, more often than not, relying on scenes to drive your work will serve you well.

After all, the most important screens in the world are the imaginary ones in our readers’ heads. If we fill those screens with great scenes, they’ll want to keep watching forever.

Over to you: Is the advice here as simple as that old rule “show don’t tell,” or is it more complicated than that? In your own work, do you think in scenes first, or do you naturally find yourself starting with exposition? Who are some of the best scene writers working today? When you think about your favorite novels, do the scenes stand out most in your mind, or is it something else? Do you have a favorite scene of all time?


About Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman (he/him) is the author of three novels. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Baltimore, Maryland and holds an MFA from George Mason University. His debut novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated in the Best Humor Category at the 2011 Goodreads Choice Awards. We're All Damaged was an Amazon bestseller. And Last Couple Standing was named one of the best books of 2020 by Esquire. His latest novel, All Together Now, will be published in June by Ballantine Books.


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