Architecture Without Thought

Mountains and blue sky are enough description to tell you where you are, don't you think?

So it turns out that I’ve never really thought about how I construct a scene. That’s made blogging about what I do to set scenes in my stories very difficult. That doesn’t mean I don’t have thoughts that echo what my fellow Confabulators have written about here, it just means that I don’t know exactly how I’ve done it in the past. So let’s examine what I think I do and we’ll see if it’s rubbish or not:


Can a scene be written where there are no characters? Sure. I have. Boring. Awful. Pages of description of trees, pictures, buildings and nothing’s happening! Garbage. There needs to be action. Something has to happen. People, animals, machines, robots, anything that can move or can move things must be inserted into the description. So, I have to determine who is in the scene. Do I need to tell you what that person looks like, what race or ethnicity? Or do you only need to know their names and where they came from? Will that tell you enough to get into the story? I try to give you only enough to enjoy the story. If I were drawing, I would be using only enough lines to show the general shape of the characters, allowing the reader to fill in the rest. 


Each scene has to accomplish something, some small change in the lives of the characters that moves them toward the end of the book. Remembering that, like the story, there’s a beginning, middle and end to every scene has been something that I often don’t do. There’s a natural arc to every scene, just like the story the scene is in, has a beginning, middle and end. By the end of the scene, things have to change. I need to know what the goal of the scene is as I begin to write it. This determines the action.


Something that I learned from making comic books (don’t worry, you can’t find them, they were self-published and really only circulated around town) is that you don’t have to draw the background in each panel. One does, however, have to describe the setting enough for the reader to be able to envision the physical place the players are inhabiting. The room they’re in, the vehicle, the house, the glade in the forest, wherever the characters are has to be described. Details are up to the individual writer to provide and I will give my reader fewer than others, but more than some. 


Day or night? Morning, afternoon or evening? April? September? January? 20th century or 14th? Perhaps the 33rd? It’s usual for a story to have a ‘ticking time bomb’ or at least a time element that’s working against the characters. If a main character is a nightowl then dropping her into a scene during full daylight certainly creates tension. These are things I consider.


Everything has to move forward. If it’s not moving, there’s not really a story being told. If the writer hasn’t developed a compelling reason for telling the story over the course of the scenes he’s written, he’s not written a good story. So, everything must advance and each scene must move things forward. Even scenes of people talking about what they’re going to do – though sometimes boring – can be essential. As long as the characters are somehow changed at the end of the scene, the story advances.

So, to sum up here, my thoughts on the subject are indeed rubbish. Perhaps you can mine some nugget from this ramble, perhaps not. It has, however, given me an insight to what my process is and how I can improve it. Once I get there, I’ll let you in on how I did.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

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