The Elements of a Successful Scene
We all want to write strong, powerful scenes that will stand out in a reader’s mind, and good writers begin with a solid understanding of the elements a successful scene requires. It doesn’t matter if we’re writing a fast-paced action scene or a poignant moment in a love story, all well-written scenes share some common elements.
The first two are essential. Without them, you don’t really have a scene.
Think of these as the foundational building blocks for every scene you write. All else — the dialogue, the setting details, the characters’ movements — is built upon these two fundamentals.
Good scenes are filled with conflict, but keep in mind that conflict doesn’t always mean argument. It means making your characters uncomfortable, thwarting their desires, and creating problem situations for them. A simple way to look at conflict is this:
Conflict means wanting something we don’t have,
or having something we don’t want.
Two women wanting the same man is one illustration of conflict.
In other words, your characters either want to get something or get rid of something. This becomes a story goal, and your characters will be striving throughout the story to accomplish it. As the story progresses, many different goals will come into play. Some will be long-range objectives while others will be short-term steps in the overall direction. Goals may be stated directly or they may be implied through characterization. Either way, knowing a character’s goals is a starting point for writing a strong scene.
Why? Because we need conflict, and the surest way to create it is by making it difficult — or impossible — for your character to achieve what he or she wants and needs.
As a scene begins, we show what the “point-of-view” character wants. In the middle parts of a scene, we bring in the opposition. We upset the apple cart, throw in unexpected changes, and thereby create conflicts for the character. At the end of the scene, our character must deal with these changes by taking specific actions or making new decisions.
Conflict creates change. Change then leads to a new conflict. This is how plots are driven.
What all this means is that as you sit down to write the next scene in a story, you’ll want to consider the conflicts and changes your character will face.
- What does my character want here?
- What changes occur to thwart the character?
- How will the character deal with it?
Keeping those basic principles of conflict and change uppermost in your mind as you write will help you develop riveting scenes that hold the reader’s attention.
But change and conflict are only the beginning. There’s a lot more to include in a good scene, and the key to all of it comes from your point of view character and what he or she wants. A point of view character, of course, is the central character in the scene. We’re showing the scene through that character’s eyes which is why we refer to it as “point of view” — or POV for short.
We’re also revealing the scene through the character’s other senses as well. Everything the reader experiences in the scene — including thoughts and feelings — emanates from this central POV character. We are putting the reader inside the character’s head. That’s a powerful place to be as a reader, and this is what makes scenes come alive. The reader is no longer detached from what’s happening but is living through the story as if it were real.
A little checklist of essential scene elements, therefore, looks like this:
- Central POV character
- A specific goal — direct or implied — for the POV character to accomplish
- A source of conflict that thwarts the goal and introduces change
- A new decision or a plan of action in response to the change
That’s the general outline for what should take place in a scene. Let’s look at how these ideas work.
Suppose our POV character is a young man named Daniel. His long-range goal is to win the heart of a woman he loves, but in order to impress her, he needs to make more money. If he could get a promotion at the office, he’ll solve his problem. As we begin a scene in our story, we see Daniel talking to his boss.
We have our POV character — Daniel — and we know his specific goal — ask for, and hopefully get — a promotion. Aha! Did you catch that word? Daniel wants to get something. He wants something he doesn’t have, you see.
Now, we throw in a change. We upset all of Daniel’s plans with a bit of conflict. It’s not enough for his boss to turn down his request. Let’s create a bigger problem. The boss might say, “Well, actually, sales have been off. I’m forced to cut back on staff, Daniel, and I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to let you go.”
Wham! Bam! Daniel’s been thrown for a loop, and he’s got bigger problems to deal with now. How will he handle this? Maybe he’ll take action and punch his boss in the face…uh, no? Well, depending on Daniel’s personality, that might be exactly what he’d do. Or maybe he’ll quickly decide that it’s time for him to start a business of his own. Either way, the story will move forward, and the next scene might show Daniel in jail on assault and battery charges or it might show him turning his garage into a workshop for that new business he’s starting.
- POV character
- A specific goal
- A change that creates conflict
- A decision or plan of action
See how those elements work together to keep a story moving forward? If you always keep these principles in mind, your scenes will develop naturally. Your characters will become real as readers experience events along with them and share their thoughts and feelings.
But our scene is only beginning. We have a structure for it, and next, we’ll be setting the stage.
COMING SOON: Lights, Action, Camera