Thursday, April 5, 2012

But is it a Scene?

Stalking the Story- Scenes

On its most basic level a story is a series of scenes linked together to form a much larger entity .

1. scene/sēn/
Noun: 1. The place where an incident in real life or fiction occurs or occurred.
2. A place, with the people, objects, and events in it, regarded as having a particular character or making a particular impression.

Some writer gurus break scenes up into Scenes and Sequels, both are sort of the same in terms of being building blocks of a novel, but they have different elements.
For instance-

A Scene is Goal + Conflict = Disaster
A Sequel is Reaction + Dilemma = Decision

So for each scene you’d have a sequel following it (which technically is also a scene…sort of Scene-scene and Sequel-scene).

Screenwriting is a great place to try to understand what needs to be in a scene. Even though the average script is 110 pages, and most novels are 2-3 times that, the principle is the same, and sometimes easier to see in screenwriting.
David Trotter in The Screenwriter’s Bible has a very informative list for making great scenes. (The list is his, the statements after each are mine ;)).

1) Each scene should move the story forward- looking at your scenes- are they wonderful places of reflection and beauty? Now really look at them- no matter how pretty they are, if they don’t move the story forward- fix them or dump them.

2) Never tell what you can show-pretty standard, are you telling the reader he was a mean man, or are you showing him kick a dog and rip off a blind beggar?

3) Avoid talking heads- have folks doing something while talking breaks it up, also, the actions you choose can reinforce the emotional impact of the scene.

4) Every dramatic unit needs a beginning, middle, and end-use the same elements of crafting your plot to craft the plot of a scene.

5) Start the scene as close to the end as possible- cut the long build ups. Particularly true for screen writers who have to work much tighter than novelists, but it holds for us too. Give the reader enough to know who, where, and what- then jump into the scene.

6) Pace your scenes- an action scene will feel stronger if preceded by a dialogue/introspective scene (and vice versa) the roller coaster of scenes keeps them all fresh.

7) Scenes should culminate in something dramatic- you always need to give the reader a reason to keep reading! Think of these as mini-hooks. You don’t have to end with an explosion, or a literal cliff hanger, but something to make the reader an offer they can’t refuse (aka continuing your book).

8) Strive to create transition between scenes-yes, your scenes need to be different (see pacing above) but if they don’t have something linking them, your reader will start flipping around wondering what book they’re reading.

9) Each scene should contain a definite emotion or mood- what is your character feeling in the scene? What’s their goal? Are they mad? Scared? In love? Make that show in the scene.

10) Focus the scene on a well-motivated conflict- a conflict doesn’t have to be major, in fact if every scene in your book had a major conflict, your reader would probably get exhausted. But even little conflicts can add to a scene and pull it forward.

11) Each scene should have a definite purpose- is it to show your character as having a shady past? As being kind to animals? Make sure you know what that scene is doing there.

Not only is a list like this handy for crafting your scenes, it’s also useful to check and see if the scenes you have are doing their job. Scenes that fail to move the story, or add to your plot are worse than useless, they can suck the life right out of your story.

How do you define a scene? What criteria do you use to make sure your story is hitting the mark in each one?


  1. For me, every scene needs to hold its weight. Meaning my MC has to have a goal (which they usually fail at- everything always gets worse), there has to be conflict, tension, and the scene has to move the story forward. If it doesn't do that, I ask if it can be cut or combined with another scene. I'm revising a book right now and am asking that question each time I look at a scene.

    1. Thanks for coming by Janet :). That's great that you have a plan, and are working your way through the edits. I know for me one of the saddest edits is a scene I LOVE but just doesn't do anything to move things forward and has to be cut.

      I always save them for "something else" because I can't bear them "dying"! (so far none have ever been revived though ;))

  2. Being new at writing, the craft. I appreciate you sharing this with me.

    1. Thanks for coming by and commenting Mary! Welcome to the wonderful and crazy world of writing :).

  3. The hook at the end of the chapter tends to be my downfall. For some reason I want to wrap everything up so that I can move on to the next chapter and the next "problem". It's as if I want the chapter to stand on its own, which, of course, it can't.

    Currently I'm working on a book which switches from present to past in every other chapter. I want what happens in one time frame to mirror what is happening or the choices being made in the other time frame. I find myself concentrating so much on this mirroring aspect that I'm not sure I'm keeping my conflict level up.

    I think I suffer from that talking head problem, too. I try to tell myself that sometimes people "just talk" to solve problems or to plan future actions. However, "just talking" looks bad to me when I go back over the scene. Its like watching a tennis match. He said, then she said, then he said, then she said, with maybe a frown or a nod. How many times can you frown and nod in a conversation without that becoming just as repetitious as he said, she said? I know, just have the people doing something else while having their conversation. Well, what if what they do next depends on the outcome of this talking head scene?


    1. Lots of great points Sharon, thanks for coming by :). As for the mirroring (sounds wonderful BTW) maybe just get it all down so they mirrior, then do an editing round that has the soul purpose of "hooking"?

      I hear ya on the talking heads too- sadly many times I'll look at a section and realize no one DID anything for a page! SIGH.

  4. I love this list. I am copying and pasting to use not just myself but in the critiques I give to my critique group. For me the scene goal is key. If I don't have a strong scene goal that is moving the story forward I usually don't need the scene.

  5. Thanks Suzanne! Great point on the scene goal- and something easy for a writer to check :). "What's the goal of this?" no answer, it goes on the cutting block.

    Thanks for coming by and commenting :)