Scene is defined as the action that occurs in one more or less continuous time or place in the course of the story. Ideally a scene is an event; one that significantly alters some aspect of the story, singly or in combination: the emotional tone, some part of a given character’s understanding, the direction of the action, the meaning of an event.
It’s easy to see the shift of scene if the location changes, or if we leave our characters watching nighttime TV, then the timeline skips to some part of the next day. But we can watch two characters walk down the street or move from room to room, and the scene hasn’t necessarily ended. A more extreme example can be seen in Back to the Future: it might be argued that the scene hasn’t quite ended even though there’s clearly a change of environment at each end of a time travel passage. We’re following that character from time to time, as well as place to place.
I think it’s worth looking at a picture book to see how this definition applies to the form.
Let's look at Saving Sweetness by Diane Stanley, illus. by Brian Karas. it's worthwhile to pick up the book at the library, but i think you can follow along without all the pictures.
Story line:The facing page gives us a brief background, or at least an explanation of the spread, in a monologue by someone other than the characters we’re shown, establishing the voice that will tell us this story. He tells us conditions at the orphanage are grim, and he finishes off by telling us, “Sweetness hit the road.”
First spread: the orphanage is pictured, it's a photo dimmed down with a watercolor wash, i think. Good choice, since a brightly colored illustration of even a rundown shack would have somehow made the place look halfway cute. This simply radiates depressing. There are colorwashed photos used in spots throughout the story. the orphans and Mrs. Sump look like they just stepped out of an Edward Gorey dream sequence.
Fifth spread: they have a dialogue about her returning to town, and she runs off and leaves him there. This is the same scene, although it’s a different page, because time and place are not different from the fourth spread.
Sixth spread: we’re in the same place, where she left the sheriff, but now night has fallen, and this is a new scene, with a new objective. The sheriff is cold and hungry. He falls asleep, only to wake to a campfire and toasted marshmallows. Guess who is taking care of him?
Seventh spread: same scene, another dialogue in which he tells her she has to come back to town. And she cries. He suggests she get herself adopted if she doesn’t like it at the orphanage.
Eighth spread: same scene, they’re at an impasse and Sweetness takes off again.
Ninth spread: new scene, it’s the next morning, and the sheriff is on the move, looking for Sweetness. But Coyote Pete sees him coming and gets the drop on him.
Tenth spread: the sheriff tries to reason with this varmint with no more success than he had with Sweetness. There is no scene change from spreads nine through twelve. (This is the part I love best: we see Sweetness’s skinny arms coming in off the edge of the page, about to drop a rock on C.P.)
Eleventh spread: the sheriff informs us that he scared C.P so bad he made a noise and fell over backwards, out cold. He gives some credit to Sweetness for tying up that varmint with her hair ribbons.
The second page of the spread renews the discussion about Sweetness coming back to town.
Twelfth spread: this spread settles matters between Sweetness and the sheriff, who gets the idea to adopt her. (At last! Woulda been too bad if she had to drop a rock on him.)
Thirteenth spread: together, they roll C.P. back to town. Fresh scene.
Fourteenth spread: signing the adoption papers. No spoiler here! Fresh scene.
End page finishes the story with a little business about how things finished up for Miss Sump and C.P.
By itself, taking a look at how scene shapes a story, even a picture book story, can seem like an exercise in “You don’t say.” But if you go through a lot of picture books, taking a look at how the first few pages are delivered as one scene or as several, you get a feel for how the story is set up to create a kind of suspense over three spreads (or a first page and two spreads) that might be termed a first act.
Some books will even start the story on the end pages, the title page, and the copyright page, using small spot illustrations to build tension. Of course, tension is relative in a picture book. They aren’t all Bootsie Barker Bites, which is one of my all time favorites, and it’s worth looking at those spot illustrations in that book. No, some stories don’t deliver tension so much as other story information in those spots. Say, quick pix of a lost dog in a story where children will find that dog and eventually rescue him. If not tension, then story information.
You’ll find a lot of picture books have a fourth spread ‘save,’ where the build of story tension eases momentarily. Right before a bigger story movement is revealed.
In Sweetness you’re being introduced to the series of exchanges between the orphan and the sheriff that carry the middle or the second act of the book. Even though C.P. might be considered an event outside that range, he’s really an interruption of the main story line.
The final two and a half spreads tie up threads of the story, finishing the third act.
Here's the "scene" at my house these days. I'm working on a book on writing, still untitled, and sitting just close enough to the wood fire to keep the pages from getting singed. Hope you're all having a lovely winter. Signed, Audrey Couloumbis
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