Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Second Scene

I am continuing to work my way through Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress in preparation for the Pacific Coast Children's Writer's Workshop this summer.

The first scene of a book gives us, as readers, an introduction to the main character or characters and the conflict that will propel the book forward.

The second scene will generally be less intense, slow the conflict down, vary the pace so that the story does not become monotonous.

There are three options for the second scene: backfill, flashback, or a continuation of the story line.

In Backfill, the author or the point-of-view character tells the reader who these people are and how they got in this mess in the first place. Backfill will slow the story down, but the Swimming Pool Theory says "that structuring fiction is like kicking off from the side of a swimming pool. The stronger and more forceful your initial kick, the longer you can glide through the water. The stronger and more forceful your opening scene, the less your reader will mind a 'glide' through nondramatized backfill."

In Marion Dane Bauer's Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, the first scene is startling to the main character and to the reader. Claire (though we don't know her name until scene two) is meandering along the edge of the woods in the back of her yard making up stories. Suddenly Dorinda, a black skinned girl in a yellow dress, leaps out of the woods right in front of her. When Claire finally manages to ask "Who are you?", Dorinda turns around a races away into the woods without a word.

The second scene is backfill in the voice of Claire. She explains that this is 1950, a mill town, a place where no African Americans live. She notes her family's recognition of the injustice done to blacks, but their reluctance to view it as their problem in any way. The scene works because we're as startled by the girl in the yellow sundress as Claire, and want to know who this is and where we are.

Flashbacks only work if they follow a stong opening scene that clearly shows us a character and his/her current situation. The flashback must be closely related to the first scene. Finally, it must be clear how long ago the flashback occurred. Flashbacks definitely remove the reader from the action of the story, but the Swimming Pool Theory applies here, too.

In A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park, the opening scene is very short. We meet the boy, Tree-ear, and Crane-man, the old man who is his companion. We immediately understand thier friendship and their poverty, and see that Tree-ear has just had an adventure that procured him a bag filled with rice.

The second scene is a flashback that shows how Tree-ear got the rice. It is clearly tied to the first scene and happened just the morning before this conversation between the friends.

The third option for scene two is to continue the action of the story. It is important here to remember to vary the level of the conflict.

In The Illyrian Adventure by Alexander Lloyd, the second scene continues the action. In scene one, we meet a vivid Vesper Holley, who is headed for adventure despite the fact that her father has just died. Vesper is meeting her father's friends and her new guardians; and she insists they move to her house and into her plans without any consideration for their sedate retired way of life.

The second scene continues the action as Vesper introduces her plan to visit Illyria, a dangerous country on the Adriatic sea that her father had wanted to visit before he died. Alexander has woven small bits exposition seamlessly into the two scenes, but scene two is an answer to the question: What happens next?

Look at the book you're reading. Does scene one introduce you to one or two main characters? Are they vivid, real, interesting, odd? Do you have a clear sense of what their present situation is like?

Now look at scene two. Is it backfill, flashback or a continuation of the action? How did the author make that transition? Did it work?


  1. Dori, this post reminds me of how little I know about writing a novel. :) So far I have just written by instinct... putting names to all these things is interesting to me. Maybe next go around I'll know better what I'm doing.

  2. I've taken a lot of creative writing courses and the terms are familiar to me, but I too approached my one novel by the seat of my pants, so to speak. Working through this book, and actually writing it out here, has really helped me see the concepts in children's novels off my shelf. And then looking at my manuscript, I see the many places I could edit it and make it better. It's been a good exercise for me.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Doraine! Very helpful.
    Congratulations on your new books - woo-hoo!
    Sounds like you have several wonderful projects in the works - blessings and best wishes for all of them.

  4. Thanks, Robyn. I am thrilled about the new books and all the new projects I have going on. I'm glad you found this helpful. Posting on the homework has helped me to absorb it, too.