Posted in Travel Writing

Purpose of Scenes in a Novel

Cicadas are a favorite sound of late summer for me. They are noisy this time of year. My love of them is the reason I placed them in two scenes of my recently released novel, Song of Herself, and is the inspiration of this post.

Scenes are the life blood of story building. They have three primary purposes, which generate savory stories.

  1. They keep the story moving forward:  Passages keep us engaged, asking, “what will happen next and next?”
  2. Scenes set up problems or conflict: For example, if a character shows up unprepared for a trip, then there will be consequences, often negative ones.
  3. They reveal consequences in action and reaction: For example, if ill-prepared then the character may have insufficient supplies, food, water or equipment. Then how do these situations make the character feel and react?

Scenes divide a story into smaller units of actions, events, and reactions. They allow the writer to release information to the reader as it serves the narrative.  

As the late August heat here in Central Texas blazes, the cicadas sing their hearts out. The dead one I found outside our back patio door was whole and complete, available for my close inspection.

It reminded my of one of two scenes in which the protagonist of my newly published novel, Song of Herself, Fiona is sailing alone with only the help of the company man, Jacob, who serves as her go-between with the sailors on ship. So I decided to share this scene. In part because I it illustrates the purposes of scenes and because of the cicada I found.

When writers craft their words in Deep Point of View (POV), it allows the characters feelings and reactions to surface. I wrote of Fiona Weston and her loneliness (wishing for the sound of cicada from home) in this scene from my novel, Song of Herself.

SCENE from Song of Herself

That evening before Jacob could introduce her to the men at supper, two fair-haired chaps looking like twins, stood behind Fiona in line, while Jacob left her to talk to another sailor. “Hello. I’m Lars and this is my brother, Leo.” He rolled the letter “r” when he spoke. His voice ended higher at the end of each phrase. It was English but nothing like she had heard before.

Setting down her cup, she extended a hand to Lars, as any man would. “Hi, I’m Fiona Weston.” She suspected his hesitation came from women not shaking hands; instead, ladies offered a hand to be kissed. After pausing to look at her outstretched hand, he shook it loosely. She reached beyond Lars with his clear blue eyes and offered her hand to Leo, who had green ones, both deep-set. Their full lips smiled broadly.

Having had time to think and react, Leo shook her hand firmly.

“Are you twins or just brothers?”

Leo with green eyes said, “No, not true twins.” He rolled the “r” sound too and pronounced “twins” quite strangely, with the “w” as a “v” sound. She tried not to laugh.

Lars chimed in. “Irish twins. Some call us Catholic twins. But we are Norwegian.”

Fiona said, “What does that mean?”

They laughed, looked at each other and back to Fiona. “Irish twins are siblings born within a year of one another. It’s a nod to people, usually Irish, who are Catholic and do not use—what do you say?—precautions.” Fiona blushed.

Leo said, “Why don’t you join us for supper?”

She had to listen carefully to understand them. That was part of their charm. She was not accustomed to gallantry from any man, much less this much attention from two men. “I would be happy to, but—.”

Lars said, “Let’s go up on deck—it is nice tonight, away from the earthquakes’ smoke and dust still moving away from San Francisco.” He smiled at Leo.

Leo said, “We’ll find a place for you—other than the floor of the deck.”

Fiona laughed, “That’s okay. I can find a spot for myself.” She had always found her own place in the world, whether a chair or the prairie.

When the cook, Paddy, served her, he caught her eyes, and shook his head. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “What?” Paddy looked across the mess hall and motioned to Jacob to “come here.”

Jacob was already on his way. While she waited with her plate and cup in hand for Lars and Leo to be served, he appeared. He steered her from the line to a separate table.

Lars said, “Hey, you, we just asked her to eat dinner with us.”

Jacob took her tray from her, ignoring the comment, and said to Fiona, “Follow me.”

Leo, cocky and offended, said, “She’s our date. We can offer what no one else can.” Lars chimed in. “You bet, two for one. Doesn’t get any better than that.”

Fiona now realized her dilemma, which she had not detected, until rescued. She said to them, “I think I’ll keep my regular date. Thank you, gentlemen.”

Jacob hissed at her, “Those gentlemen would have had their way with your innocence. You will not dinner-date with those two yahoos—not on my watch.”

“But—” She tucked her chin in indignation.

Jacob spit words. “Why did they want supper on deck away from the rest of us?”

“To visit?” Fiona was holding on to her right to be with them.

“No, to have their way—without eyes on you.”

“I just wanted to meet someone new, see upper deck. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Not thinking at all, I’d say,” he said in a huff. She stood, hesitant to sit with him after he embarrassed her. Jacob clasped her wrist. “Sit, eat,” lowering his voice, “I’m trying to keep you safe.”

She sank down in front of her dinner tray. “Guess I should be grateful to you.” It was her proud way of apologizing.

Jacob sat with his head over his plate shoving supper down. While chewing, he hissed, “Your radar was not working. Sailors are not your friend.” He looked up at her softening his eyes, swallowed his food, and laid his hands on the table’s railing. “Sailors will never be your friends.”

After supper at the entry to her quarters, Jacob tried to repair his harsh words. “I’m sorry. Sorry I was harsh. They could have hurt you.” He placed each word in front of her, as well as the tenderness of caring for her safety. 

She could only mouth, “Thank you.”

He reached for the same wrist he had grabbed earlier and inspected it. “I hope I didn’t hurt you or leave marks.” He held her arm in both of his hands and then grinned. She could see his smile even in the shadows. He said, “I’ll be more of a gentleman next time.” He lightly squeezed her hand and said, “Good night.”

When he dropped it and stepped away, she wanted to say, “No, don’t leave.”

Fiona lit the candle on the wall and readied herself for bed. In the makeshift bunk, she wished for her bedroom at home, the soft music of the cicadas singing in the trees, better yet the silence of fireflies. Tonight, Fiona was homesick and knew she would be, even if her brother, Will, had been there. The memories of waking up together in the same house with Will, whether to play when they were little or to work when they got older, deepened the hole in her heart from having lost him in the earthquake.

Her uncle Louis had read from Leaves of Grass to Fiona since she was little and gave her her own copy when she turned thirteen. Turning to the comfort of Walt Whitman’s book, her burning eyes scanned the pages. Tonight the bard’s words spoke directly.

Fiona argued with Whitman’s optimism. Will’s death had no beautiful results, nor was it a perfect miracle, as he suggested. The only marvel at work she knew of was now Jacob’s care and tenderness, not only to the mares she accompanied, but also and especially toward her. She had prayed for an escape from Spirit Lake for years, then when her uncle offered this trip, she had imagined new feats, new chances in unknown territory. Instead, the constant clinking and clanking of the rigging of the ship began to wear on her nerves in her bunk below.

Now you see why this scene came to mind. Can you find the three elements or purposes of a scene in this one? Does this chapter from my novel give you an example of how it works? Let me know what you think of this scene building idea? Let me hear from you!

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Wiley-Jones, fiercely committed for thirty years to guiding travelers toward supercharged writing benefits to unlock transformative travel, will unpack journal-writing methods with which you can experiment. Wiley-Jones is an accomplished writer and award-winning travel writer with 1) a coming-of-age travel memoir, and 2) an historical travel adventure novel; as well as multiple publications in national anthologies and local lifestyle magazines. She can facilitate techniques for you to write stories for yourself, your family, and/or for publication.

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