The Fascinating Neuroscience of Scene

Susan DeFCreative WritingLeave a Comment

There are two fundamental modes in fictional storytelling: summary and scene.

Summary is the storyteller’s voice—the one that leads us skillfully through the story, collapsing and condensing time as necessary in order leave out the irrelevant bits, and tell us what we need to know, in terms of background info on the story.

Scene is the story itself, unfolding in real time. In scene, we’re not listening as someone tells us a story, narrating a series of events—we’re actually living the events of that story for ourselves.

Summary is important, and it’s a tool that hearkens back to the very roots of storytelling. But to my mind, scene is where the real magic happens in fiction.

Scene is important first because it operates on the body of the reader, convincing them on a subconscious level that they’re actually there, in the world of the story, with all of their senses engaged. To my mind, this is what novelist John Gardner was talking about when he said that effective fiction creates a “vivid and continuous dream” in the reader’s mind.

And second, scene is important because it is the most memorable way to share information with your reader. This makes it a critical tool for establishing backstory, revealing character, establishing and advancing conflict, and revealing critical information about the plot.

Skillful storytellers often seem to grasp this intuitively. But why, exactly, does scene work this way? The answer appears to lie in the study of neuroscience. Read the full post I wrote for Jane Friedman on this topic, here.

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