Scene by scene or over-arching theme?

I’ve been reading several Big Fat Fantasy books over the past couple of weeks and I’ve noticed that they tend to fall into one of three camps: the writer who does individual scenes well, the writer who writes mostly on a book-long theme, and the rare writer that can integrate both well. So, it’s made me ask: Which kind of writer am I?

George R.R. Martin can write a mean scene. Really, he’s done individual scenes that are immensely powerful and well-timed. I’m thinking specifically of something like The Red Viper’s duel with The Mountain that Rides in “Storm of Swords.” Wow, by the end of that scene, I was nibbling my fingernails in worry. He’s not afraid to raise the stakes in any individual scene and he builds the tension like a master. Anyone who’s read “A Feast for Crows” or “A Dance with Dragons”, though, knows that Martin’s over-all cohesion in his novels is not nearly as well done. Sometimes it feels like his novels are just a series of scenes strung together instead of a tightly-knit piece.

I’ve been reading Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings” this week as well, and I think that he tends to have the opposite problem. Sanderson’s individual scenes run very long at times and their pacing isn’t nearly as tight as Martin’s. One scene in particular seemed to be a battle scene and it felt like it should end with the resolution of the battle. Instead, it kept running on for several more pages and turned into a discussion of history and loyalties. It was vital information, sure, but it seemed like the scene was pressed past its natural ending point just to relate information for the overall theme. Some of his scenes run short, some run long, but he doggedly keeps pressing on with his backstory and his worldbuilding. It’s easy to tell that those things mean more to him than any one individual scene.

As far as writers who do both well, it’s a fairly exclusive club. I tend to think about Robin Hobb’s The Tawny Man series as an example. The individual scenes are well crafted with good pacing (at least, if you can empathize with the more-than-slightly emo Fitz) but the overall theme keeps getting pushed forwards. Each book, too, is an individual work with its own story arc. “Golden Fool” is probably my favorite, although “Fool’s Fate” makes me weep every time. It’s a tough thing to do, though, you have to admit.

As far as where I am in the continuum? Probably closer to Martin than I’d like. I write scene by scene and try to get them to work together into a novel shape. I plot things out in scenes “First we need a scene where he does this, then a scene where he talks to so-and-so, and then a scene where they ALL DIE.” Well, you know what I mean. Sometimes scenes insist on being in there and I have to figure out a reason for them to stay (sometimes it doesn’t exist and it needs to go away, but they’re tenacious.) I think I can take some good notes from all of those writers and try to remember to keep the over-arching theme present, somehow, in each scene. I have to make sure that the scene accomplishes something that’s needed for the plot, basically.

No mindless sex scenes, you say? Duhhh. I’m not writing fan fiction. 😉

So where do you fall on the continuum? Are your scenes more important individually than your overall theme? Or have you found that elusive balance?

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About endurancemom

Writer of fantasy and historical fantasy fiction, mother of 6, former nurse, Catholic convert, wife of 25 years, and general all-around geek. Warning: Do not attempt this at home. View all posts by endurancemom

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