The French Scene: How to Break Your Fiction Into Smaller Bites

No. A french scene is not when one character sticks their tongue into another character’s mouth during the scene. It was a term we used in the theater department to break a play into more manageable parts. Allow me to explain.

Having been a theater major in college as opposed to an English major, has given me a different outlook on writing fiction. I’m not sure what all goes on in those fiction-writing classes but I’ve never heard an English major (or any other writer for that matter) talk about French Scenes. Nor have I heard them mention Triggers, Heaps and Beats but that is another blog post! Studying fiction from an acting and directing perspective, has broadened my understanding of storytelling. In the end, I think English majors could learn a thing or two from us theater folk especially when it comes to writing dialogue.

Now I’m not a master of the craft (who is?) But I’ve noticed that when writing a first draft or editing later drafts that larger chunks of work can be overwhelming. It’s daunting – looking at a 7,000 word chapter and knowing you need to break that shit down. So I’d like to introduce to you the concept of a French Scene.

What is a French Scene?

By definition, “A “French scene” is a scene in which the beginning and end are marked by a change in the presence of characters onstage, rather than by the lights going up or down or the set being changed.-Wikipedia

So basically, anytime a character enters or leaves a scene. You may have some french scenes which consist of three lines of dialogue, and some which last more than a page. Granted, this doesn’t work for every work of fiction. In Emma Donoghue’s Room, a large part of the story consists of dialogue between Ma and Jack. The french scenes for this work would be very long. However, there are other ways to break up chunks of fiction.

Some elect to edit page by page or even break their editing up into paragraph by paragraph. I find that when I edit this way, my fiction is clunkier and doesn’t flow as well. Instead, treat each new thought or topic of conversation as a character entering or leaving the scene. This way, you’d still be utilizing the french scene method.

What is the Function of a French Scene?

I first came across the term during a Stage Management class during my sophomore year of college. It was one of the most fascinating and influential classes I took during my college career. The stage manager, much like the author of a novel, is the god of the play’s production. They keep track of EVERYTHING for that production from the stage lighting cues in the script to each actor’s audition papers.

There is even a specific short-hand language and way of writing that we had to learn so that should something happen to the stage manager during a production, someone else can easily replace them. Seriously, we had an entire assignment on the quickest way to hand write (with instructions on how to write every letter of the alphabet, capitalized and lower case) in the least amount of pen strokes.

Please let me know in the comments below how you break down your fiction. You never know when your pearl of wisdom just might help the next greatest writer tackle their work.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about stage production, Angela Mitchell has a fantastic series of blog posts on the topic. I highly recommend checking out her work.

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Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.

2 thoughts on “The French Scene: How to Break Your Fiction Into Smaller Bites”

  1. I like the idea of breaking down editing into a “French Scene”. It so makes sense. I think that is a major problem being overwhelmed by what is on the page and/or chapter.

  2. It really is. I’m dealing with that right now looking at the stack of chapters I need to edit for one of my current projects. Sometimes reminding yourself “baby steps” or in this case “french scenes” is easier said than done. However, I know that once I break them down, the editing milestones become that much easier to hit. Getting started is half the battle.

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