Why Expand a Scene?
Way back in our episode on Wasted Words we talked about pacing, and how it’s impacted by word count. Essentially you want a new plot point every 300 words or so; however if the plot points come too quickly it can also feel rushed.
One of the reasons you expand a scene is to slow pacing, or to let the reader indulge in a dramatic moment. You can use it to heighten tension, to draw out a an action scene. One place done the most is the climax of a book, because the reader is not waiting for anything anymore, this is moment they have waited for, if it’s over too quickly it can be disappointing.
Also if a major plot point or twist comes too quickly or is too short a reader can miss it or be confused.
All of these are reason to expand a scene.
How to Expand and Working Example
Example: Jay shot Alvero in the stomach. (note: expand)
The first rule of expansion is know your genre. How you expand, and what scenes you’ll want to expand will depend on the genre you’re writing in.
The Five Senses:
This, of course, refers to sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
So if we look at our example let’s leave the first line for now.
Jay shot Alvero in the stomach. Blood sprayed out over the floor, where it hit the walls, it now dripped, sticky, wet, but moving. The scent of gunpowder stung his nostrils, and the weapon felt lighter in his hand. Doctors say blood has a smell, something most people aren’t familiar with. It takes lot before you notice it. Jay could smell it now, in the dark basement.. He took a few steps towards the dying man. This was the bitter sweet taste of vengeance.
In visual descriptions I’ve used sight as a major part of the expansion, the word dripped infers sounds, scent of course is smell. The scene itself doesn’t allow for a lot of taste or variety of it so I used a simile. The simile is also weak because I have wrestled those emotions in the characters, so it’s just cliche, but you can see where I’m going with this, and we’ll address metaphors and similies next.
Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors and similes are a great way to expand a scene, but genre and current scene become very important here, because they are also about mood.
Mood determines how a character and reader reacts to a scene. If they are lonely, the way they see the world feels lonely and that is manifest in color choice, descriptions, and metaphors. Let’s look at an example. We won’t change the setting, but we will rewrite it to better fit the mood.
Scene: A character is injured in a horse riding accident and fears her olympic dreams are over.
“Original scene: I lay in bed the cast wrapped around my body. Through the window, I could see the leaves drifting down from the trees. The bright sun catching and lighting their colors as they fell, a collidescape of colors.”
The scene is well written, but the mood is at odds with what the scene wants to be, rather the direction of the drama.The girl has just had her dreams crushed.
“I lay in bed a cast wrapped around me, the tomb of my hopes, holding me down, holding them back. Outside the window the fall sun burns bright like it’s summer, baking the life from the leaves until they are brittle. A gentle breeze knocks them loose. They fall. They shatter. Like me.”
The setting remains the same, but through the use of mood by way of description and perspective. It’s a little purple, but you can see where I’m going with it.
The 6th Sense: Visceral & Body Language
As discussed in past episodes the visceral is the internal reaction of the body, it portrays emotions, while body language manifests those emotions.
Let’s return our example.
Jay shot Alvero in the stomach. It was different than target practice. The explosion of the round, the crip impact against the mat, but flesh was wet and sloppy. The sound turned Jay’s stomach like vomit splashing on the floor. Then came the smell, blood, bile and half digested food. He fell to his knees. It was not like the movies. Not like the tv shows. Vengeance was disgusting, not triumphant.
Interiority & Verbatim Thought
This is about the characters internal thoughts and emotions. How they process the world. The difference between the two can be confusing for new writing, and honestly it’s not a big deal if you confuse the terms for them. The one things you need to know is that verbatim thought is in italics, interitority is not.
Jay shot Alvero in the stomach. It didn’t feel like he expected. There was no thrill. He’d run races, won races, felt the sense of triumph, but there was none of that now. His body felt weak as the adrenaline from the fight faded. He approached the dying man. In his mind Jay had practiced a thousand different quips for the moment, but not all he could think was to ask himself: was it worth it? But at least it was finished. Even if the hunger for vengeance wasn’t satisfied, there was nothing left for it to eat. (This would be a good place for the bitter-sweet taste line from the previous example)
Here we see the character thinking about the events, comparing them to previous experiences and trying to understand them. All of it is his thoughts, but at one point there a verbatim specific thought, the question he asks himself. That is in italics. As I wrote the scene I mention his feelings, but it’s not about his feelings, but rather his emotional reaction to his feelings.
Break down physical steps
This is a technique used a lot in action novels, climaxes and even movies through multiple shots cut together. Recently, when my novella was in it’s beta phase J sent back a note that said he wanted me to slow an action scene down. This is the approach I used to deal with that step.
You break down the action into its smaller pieces. Usually, you’ll want to the sentences short and tight as it gives the section the feel of a faster pace. In the example, I will not use the opening sentence as that is very sentence I’m going to break down.
The gun was heavy in Jay’s hand. The weight tugging at the at muscles in his shoulders. He held it extended out. Part weapon. Part accusation. It pointed at the man he’d been hunting for five years. Under his finger, the tension of the trigger strained. The slick steel under the soft pads of his hand. Jay met Alvero's eyes, then shifted back to the man’s stomach. That’s where the bullet would go. Then he squeezed. His whole hand gripped tight. The gun kicked back at him and bullet exploded out ripping into Alvero's stomach.
What is best and when?
Choosing a technique to expand a scene is partly about the genre, but also about the scene itself. What is the scene about? What’s most important?
If it’s the action then breaking it down into steps is a good way to expand the scene while keeping it focused.
But if the action is second had to what’s happening then that’s not where you need to expand. Think of the climax of the Star Wars a New Hope. There is a lot of action and several scenes focus on the action. But when Luke is going for the final attempt and hears Obi-Wan through the force, that scene is not about action. It’s about what Luke thinks and feels, a focus on visceral and interiority is a better way to expand it while keeping it in focus.
The specifics will always come down to the authors. You know your story. You know what your scene is about, make sure when you expand you use the technique that keeps the goal of the scene in focus.