Stories are best told through scenes…but, exactly what is a scene? Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of different definitions. Because it can become so confusing, I’m going to start today by sharing my thoughts on what a scene involves.
First, though, let’s briefly look at that much-talked-about concept of “scene and sequel”. Many creative writing teachers would have you believe that fiction is merely a process of putting scenes together with sequels in between. The usual explanation is that scenes are where things happen in a story, and sequels are those moments when things aren’t happening — exactly. Sequels are times when characters reflect on what’s happened, consider choices, and make decisions before moving on to the next big scene.
Well, yes. And, no. In some respects, it is as simple as “scene and sequel”, yet in others, it’s a lot more complicated. Successful writers understand that scene and sequel are inextricably linked. They’re two sides of the same storytelling coin. We need both, and in good fiction it’s as impossible to separate them as it would be to see both sides of a coin at once. When you learn to write strong, purposeful scenes, your sequels will naturally fall into place.
So, today’s let’s focus on making a scene.
Before we talk about the important elements of a scene — things like setting, purpose, and sensory details — we need to look first at the many different types of scenes writers can use in telling stories. Not all scenes are created equal, you see, and the best writers know how to use scene variety to add interest to a story.
There are, of course, BIG scenes and LITTLE scenes — but, wait! We still haven’t defined what a scene actually is. Here’s my working definition of a scene:
A scene is a point in fiction where conflict occurs and the life of a character changes as a result. Please note that there are two very important parts.
If there’s no conflict taking place, there’s no need for a scene. If no change occurs, there’s no need for a scene.
You’ve probably heard it said that scenes should “advance the plot” or “move the story forward”. True, and the way it happens is by ensuring that change occurs in every scene you write. It’s not always a big change. Sometimes it’s very small, such as a character overhearing a bit of information. Whatever it is, though, it’s significant for the character. The changes drive the story ahead in a cause-and-effect manner.
But, back to scenes. Big scenes pit two or more characters against each other in a situation of major conflict. A little scene deals with smaller — but still significant — conflicts and changes. The general rule of thumb is that the bigger the conflict, the bigger the scene. That makes sense, don’t you think?
Still, we need to look at the different types of scenes you can use in telling stories. Whether they’re big scenes, or little ones, the scenes you write will serve different purposes. Oh, but wait! We haven’t talked about another important scene-writing factor: internal versus external conflict.
No doubt by now, you’re seeing how complex and complicated the whole scene-writing process can be. But the good news is that once you’ve got a good grasp of the basic principles, writing the scenes of a story can be a fairly simple, straight-forward process.
External scenes involve external conflict. In other words, when a character encounters conflict from outside of himself or herself, that conflict is external. If the problems and conflicts occur from within himself or herself, the conflict is internal. Sometimes we solve problems by changing something in the world around us; other times, we seek solutions by changing ourselves.
Now, once more, back to scenes. Big scenes, little scenes, external scenes, internal scenes…all of these can vary depending on what conflict is involved and what changes occur.
Action scenes are ones that involve physical actions. Makes sense, right? If your main character gets into a fight with a rival, you’ll want to show the blow-by-blow action and let the reader experience that punch to the gut. Don’t get me wrong here. Not all action scenes involve fights. Action scenes could be used for a firefighter battling a blaze, a sports figure competing in a game, or any event where a character uses physical actions to deal with a problem.
TIP: When writing action scenes, start in media res. That’s a Latin term meaning “in the middle”. Start with the action to catch a reader’s attention, then work in pertinent details to show other scene elements.
These are “talkie” scenes. Again, it makes sense, right? Now, just because your characters are sitting around talking, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a scene. Your characters must be experiencing a conflict — which doesn’t mean arguing — and the conversation must lead to a change in the character’s life.
One of the biggest mistakes writers make is with dialogue scenes. Some writers want to include every bit of “dinner table talk” — which does nothing to advance the story. All it does is bore the reader. Dialogue must matter.
The other huge mistake writers make with dialogue scenes is in thinking that “conflict” means argument. Sure, an argument is a sign of conflict, but there are others forms, too. Conflict really means wanting something you don’t have, or having something you don’t want. If your character wants to go out on a date with that someone special but then a sick friend calls and needs help, that’s a conflict. It’s not likely to erupt into an argument, however.
TIP: Keep your dialogue meaningful and explore subtle conflicts. Remember, too, to show your characters as they’re speaking. What are their facial expressions? What is their body language saying? How do your characters talk? Do they interrupt one another? Do they listen intently?
These scenes can be a mix of action and dialogue, but whatever they are, they’re crucial to the storyline. These are those “oh, my gosh!” moments of a story, moments when lives are irrevocably changed, moments that become unforgettable in a reader’s mind. They often mark significant “turning points” in a story.
TIP: Use dramatic scenes to their full power, but be careful not to over-do it and slip into the realm of the melodramatic. Always be sure your characters’ actions are well-motivated and that their response to any situation is appropriate. Don’t exaggerate merely for the sake of trying to make a scene more dramatic. Drama comes from the conflicts involved, not from over-the-top actions of the characters.
Using flashback in a story can be tricky, and I won’t say much about it here. It’s generally handled by working it in to a real-time scene as a brief memory or fleeting thought about the past. If you choose to actually go back in time and dramatize a scene from the past, be sure you clearly indicate where the flashback begins and where it ends.
TIP: Don’t write a complete flashback scene unless the events involved represented important conflicts and significant changes in your character’s life.
If you’re writing a love story, you’ll be writing love scenes, and they can range from innocent hand-holding to explosive sexual scenes. Where’s the conflict? It’s generally subtle and often involves internal questions. Your young fellow might be mentally agonizing over whether or not he should kiss the girl he’s with, or maybe your young lady is worried that she’s not worldly enough to please a man. Even while you’re focused on the romance happening, don’t neglect the two essential elements of a good scene: conflict and change.
TIP: Write love scenes that you’re comfortable with. If you blush at the sight of lovers kissing on the street corner, don’t jump in and try to write erotic scenes. On the other hand, if writing hot, hotter, and hottest comes naturally to you, don’t think you can “tone it down” and make it convincing. When it comes to love and sex in fiction, write at your own “heat” level.
Narrative or Summary Scenes
I’m adding these in together and including them here even though these aren’t full-fledged scenes. Sometimes over the course of a story, we have changes occurring that aren’t riddled with conflict. Seasons change, weeks pass, and although nothing major has happened to the characters, we need to let readers know that certain things are now different. A short narrative or a little vignette that introduces the changes and sets the stage going forward can be useful.
TIP: Keep narrative and summary to a minimum. Use these only when necessary to fill in information the reader must know.
So, there you have a quick look at some of the different scene types used in good fiction. As you’re writing, keep in mind what sort of scene will work best for your purpose, and when you’re watching films, make note of how different scenes are handled.
Always look for those two essential elements: conflict and change. Learning to recognize these — even in their subtlest forms — will help you weave these elements skillfully into your own stories.
COMING SOON: The Essential Elements of Successful Scenes