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The Three W’s of Scene Orientation


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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

I suspect we all know people who will walk in a room and say something like, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me.” I’m married to one of them.

It’s obvious there is conflict, so this might end up being a good story, but right now the comment is floating in space. I’ll need more words to understand it. Who is this woman? Where did he see her? When did this happen—ten minutes ago? Is he still chewing on something from his youth? Or is this a future action that worries him?

One thing is for sure: to assume that I can read his mind is a sweet yet preposterous overestimate of my editorial prowess. I suppose that’s what happens after you’ve been married a few decades.

But judging from the manuscripts I see, it can also be what happens when you are on your umpteenth draft of a novel and can no longer remember which version of which facts are on the page. For that reason, it can be helpful if at some point, before sending your manuscript to beta readers or developmental editors, you take one pass to make sure that you’ve set each scene appropriately.

Although reportage is different than story-building (for more on this you can check my previous post on paragraphing), borrowing the journalist’s 5 W’s can inspire a set of useful questions that will ensure that the scene you’re building is also giving the reader the information she needs.

Who took action, and who did it affect?

What happened, exactly?

Where did it take place?

When did it take place?

Why did it happen, and why does it matter to this particular story and this particular protagonist?

 

Wait—didn’t you say 3 W’s?

The bare minimum we need at the outset of a scene is the who, when, and where. With that information, “I still can’t believe she’d quit on me” gains context:

It’s been ten years and Simone’s clothes still hang in the back of my closet. I still can’t believe she quit on me.

~or~

I still can’t believe what just happened at the office—Joanna up and walked out on our partnership.

~or~

I backslid at Ed’s retirement lunch; I couldn’t resist the shrimp scampi. I still can’t believe Cleo warned me to stop eating garlic or she’d quit training me at the gym.

I was thinking about this topic after a question was posed on a Facebook page about how to cleverly fold in these details without being as pedestrian as, say, “Meanwhile, back at the ranch, his brother…” The thing is, though, those seven “pedestrian” words perfectly orient us to who, when, and where.

When it comes to setting your scene, clarity—not cleverness—should be your first priority. Let’s look at how that’s done.

 

Examples from a Master

As it happened, on the day that question was posted, I had just finished reading The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s the story of two siblings who cannot overcome a past symbolized by the grandiose home that their father had bought—fully furnished by its previous Dutch occupants—for their unappreciative mother, who then left the family. Patchett is an author at the top of her game, and she had plenty of game to start with. Among this bestselling title’s many accolades, it was a 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

More importantly, to me, this exceptional and accessible work of literary fiction healed me of my pandemic-inspired reading ennui, which for more than a year had me setting down more novels than I finished. It had many chances to lose me, for the telling isn’t simple—the story, which moves between settings in Pennsylvania and New York, also flips back and forth through time with gaps that allow it to span some five decades—yet I was never lost once because Patchett made a priority of orienting her reader to where her characters were in place and time.

For examples, I had to cherry-pick from among her 20 chapter openings to avoid spoilers and meet fair use guidelines, but trust me, this sample is representative of what Patchett did at the top of every chapter. If you’re too busy to study them closely, I’ve used color-coding so you can see what she did at a glance: red = who, blue = where, green = when.

Chapter 1. The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs.

Chapter 2. After her first appearance at the Dutch House, Andrea lingered like a virus.

Chapter 3. Nearly two years into her irregular tenure, Andrea walked in the house one Saturday afternoon with two small girls.

Chapter 4. Six weeks after she left for her freshman year at Barnard, Maeve was summoned back to Elkins Park for the wedding.

Chapter 6. Maeve came home after she graduated, but there was never any talk of her moving back into the house.

Chapter 7. Lawyer Gooch—that was what we always called him—was our father’s contemporary and his friend, and it was as a friend he agreed to see Maeve the next day on her lunch hour. (Place understood: Gooche’s office.)

Chapter 14. I sold the building we’d lived in when we were first married for a good price, and I sold those first two brownstones, and with the profit I bought a mixed-use building on Broadway six blocks from where we lived.

Chapter 16. “If Maeve gets sick then you’re the one who has to do the thinking,” Jocelyn told me in the little apartment where Maeve and I lived after our father died.

Chapter 17. “Do you remember when we lived in the little house, and Mrs. Henderson next door got a whole box of oranges from her son in California?” our mother would begin, sitting there beside the hospital bed in the private room where Maeve had been moved to.

(Bonus insights: Did you note how many of these openings reinforce the theme of house and home, and how the early chapters set up and reinforce Andrea as an antagonist?)

Call these chapter openings pedestrian if you will, but the New York Times lauded her prose for being “confident, unfussy and unadorned.” She reserved her cleverness for her dialogue and her treatment of her premise, which Publisher’s Weekly called, in its starred review, Patchett’s “…thoughtful, compassionate exploration of obsession and forgiveness, what people acquire, keep, lose, or give away, and what they leave behind.”

 

A word about time and place tags

If you’re relying upon tags at the top of the chapter to do this work for you, I can vouch for the fact that this alone can backfire.

Let’s say Chapter Five is tagged “November, 1985.” Thus begins a parlor game that I rarely win. What month/year was it in the last chapter, and why didn’t I memorize it? I pause my reading to flip back to the beginning of the last chapter, a clunky process on an e-reader. Oh—there’s no time tag there. I guess it was in the same time frame as the chapter before that. More clunky page turning. When I find the previous tag, and discover if this was one month or five years that had passed, I then have to make my way back to the chapter I’d been reading. Or, maybe, go have a snack.

If you’re writing dual timelines or multiple points of view, your reader will be even more challenged, as you might not be strictly alternating chapters. For reasons of the storytelling, time might be moving in leaps and bounds for one character and crawling for another—which is a cool way to tell a story, but not if you lose your reader.

It boils down to this: our scene openings should raise the kinds of questions that pull the reader deeper into the story, not the kind that that confound the person who kindly purchased your book and is now diligently seeking orientation to each scene. Give your reader what she needs and she’ll keep turning pages, eager to know what comes next.

Have you given careful thought about how to orient your reader to each scene? Do you take one pass to check for these basics, so we have a sense of the story’s movement through time and place? As a reader, what approaches work for you?

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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