This post first ran on October 11, 2008.
When I pursued my MFA degree a few years ago, my fiction professor/mentor discussed the concept of Camping and Marching.
He began by stating that many writers, for fear of losing readers or of leaving readers “in the dark”, will overwrite, overstate, and overdevelop every scene so that readers are in on EVERYTHING. That's how you will definitely lose a reader! When you're in a scene, you have to ask yourself, "Is this scene vital to the understanding of the story?" This, in essence, is the camping and marching question. If a scene is important to your story and readers will be lost if you do not put it in, then you want to "camp" in that scene for a while and show the reader what he or she needs to continue with the story. If the scene is not vital, then you want to "march" right through it, giving the reader exactly what he or she needs and then moving on to the next scene of your story.
Camping and marching are extremely important when one discusses developing scenes, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's take a step back and discuss scenes.
What is a scene? Well, it takes place in one setting -- though if there are flashbacks, a scene could conceivably have more than one setting. It involves one or more characters. It has a beginning, middle, and ending. And most importantly - it MOVES a story FORWARD. Think about some of your favorite TV shows. Imagine a scene from one of those shows. As you visualize it, think about how the scene starts. Typically, we are "placed" somewhere (setting). People are revealed to us (characters). Some idea, point, purpose, situation is presented to us (beginning). There is interaction amongst the characters (middle), and the scene concludes in a way that propels the story forward and makes us want to know what happens next (ending).
EACH SCENE in your novel should work toward doing all of these things, too, and a scene's purpose determines how developed the scene will be. Sometimes, there will be scenes that do not move the story's conflict(s) along. In these types of scenes, writers should MARCH; they should give the reader exactly what he/she needs and move on to the next scene.
Most of your scenes should, however, develop your story's conflict(s) and move the story's purpose toward its conclusion. These are the scenes that writers should "camp" in. How does the setting affect the story? How do the characters' internal thoughts affect the story? How do the characters' facial movements, actions, words affect the story? In these scenes, you will want to make the atmosphere literally jump off the page so that the reader can visualize the scene and understand its importance to the story - if not right then, then surely by the end of the story.
Now, it's always important to preface any advice by saying that as you're writing your first draft, you should solely focus on getting out a draft. Do not think about if each word is perfect or if every scene begins or ends wonderfully. It's in the revision stage that you should consider scene development as one of your ISSUES to develop and fine tune.
Shon Bacon is better known online as ChickLitGurrl. An author, editor, and educator, Shon's biggest joys are writing and helping others develop their craft. She has published both creatively and academically; she interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING, and you can learn more about Shon's writings, editorial services, and thoughts at her blog The World According to ChickLitGurrl.