Books are made up of scenes. “Scenes, like little stories,” says author Quinn Dalton, “have a beginning, middle and end.”
Each scene in a book, whether it is a picture book, middle grade, YA, or an adult novel, should be “…units of significant action that provide new information and advance a story.” They should “contain the following elements:
Setting: ..when and where the action is taking place and the main players involved.
News and/or action: New developments…something about our characters and their situation that we didn’t know before…
Conflict: The desires of the main character are being thwarted
Setup: The closing of the scene leaves us a little smarter but still wanting more.”*
So, unlike the ending of a novel, the ending of a scene does not equal a resolution. It leaves the reader hungry. Here’s an example of a scene from Larry Dane Brimner’s award winning book, Black and White: The Confrontation between Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth and Eugene “Bull” Connor. Notice how Brimner’s scene follows the points outlined by Dalton. I’ve color-coded the lines to match Dalton’s definition. See if you agree:
…On Thursday, December 20 , when the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate its buses was delivered to Montgomery, Fred sent a telegram to Birmingham’s commissioners. He gave them an ultimatum: comply with the new law and desegregate Birmingham’s busy by December 26 or Negroes would “rise” up if they didn’t.
Christmas night, deacon Charlie Robinson and his wife called upon the Shuttlesworths. While the women and children visited in one part f the house, Fred took the deacon into a front bedroom to discuss the protest action that was planned for the next day if Birmingham’s buses remained segregated. At about 9:40 p.m.—“Whoom!”—sixteen sticks of dynamite detonated outside the Shuttlesworth home, bringing down the front portion of the roof, shattering windows, and leaving much of the parsonage a smoking pile of splinters and rubble with only the Christmas-tree lights still burning. Fred had the Klan’s answer to his ultimatum.
Picture books follow the same rules. Here’s a scene from Sarah Marwil Lamstein’s Big Night for Salamanders:
“Rain tat-tatting on his hood, Evan runs from his school bus up the puddly driveway. He glances at the forested hill beyond his house and wonders, Will tonight be Big Night?”
In this scene, the setting is Evan’s house. The news is it’s raining—maybe raining just enough.
The conflict is the unstated question: What if it’s NOT raining enough? Enough for what? Enough for the setup: Big Night? What is Big Night? The reader doesn’t yet know, but turns the page to learn more.
As you revise your work, check the scenes you’ve written and determine if you have included the four rules Dalton recommends. Following them will make your scenes stronger.