Personally, I believe that once a writer has a chapter written composed of several scenes, it is hard to break the scenes apart if they create a better result in a different order. That is more likely to happen when an author is still learning how to write and finding their own voice.
With enough practice and how-to reading, every author eventually learns to craft a scene in their own style and voice. At that point, every author has an opinion regarding the way to write the best scene — at least a way that works for that individual.
That’s what we’re all looking for, but it is a mistake not to try more than one approach during your learning period. If a beginner wants to speed up the learning curve, there are plenty of articles and books available on the subject. Most of them hit the same key points, although they often have different names for those points.
The scene is the building block of your work of fiction. One after the next, they create your story. Unfortunately, terminology can get in the way of understanding structuring a scene. I’ll attempt to avoid some of the confusion by describing what scenes should accomplish rather than focus on what the components are called.
Well, how many authors are there? Same answer. Let’s see what some writing experts say.
● Jane Friedman explains that a scene is “a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience. https://www.janefriedman.com/writing-scene/
● Jennie Nash says “a scene is the smallest unit of story. Characters come onto the “stage” in one time and place, and one action occurs. As soon as you switch location, time, or point of view, you are switching the scene.” https://jennienash.com/how-to-write-a-book-blog/2016/5/3/zlpxr3nrtmogsmbtfcanpnanwjf3fr
● Jordan E. Rosenfeld writes “Any story or novel is, in essence, a series of scenes strung together like beads on a wire, with narrative summary adding texture and color between. A work of fiction will comprise many scenes, and each one of these individual scenes must be built with a structure most easily described as having a beginning, middle and end.” https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/10-ways-to-launch-strong-scenes
● K. M. Weiland, author of Structuring your Novel, writes “there are two types of scenes: Scene (action) and Sequel (reaction). The Scene or action is where the conflict occurs. The Sequel is where the characters react to the action and get a little breathing space. The three active parts of the scene: goal, conflict, and disaster. The three active parts of the sequel: reaction, dilemma, and decision.”
● Livewritethrive.com, “A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action and/or dialogue. You can think of a scene as a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Usually, you'll start a new scene when you change the point of view character, the setting, or the time.” https://www.livewritethrive.com/2016/01/11/the-5-essential-components-of-scene-structure/
I told you! Together, all of these various definitions tell you what the scene in a novel should accomplish.
Every scene needs a beginning, middle, and ending – that fits with the three active parts of each type of scene – and should end with a hook which leads the reader to the next one. But the placement of the scene within the novel determines what kind of information should be there. The first scene of a novel has different information in it than a climactic scene, a darkest moment scene, a transitional scene, ad infinitum. Some scenes need to move faster or slower than others; some need to be longer, some shorter.
In other words, the first thing to think about is where in the novel the scene is placed. The type of novel or genre makes a difference on length, pace, and placement. The great thing is that scene placement is flexible and within reason can be moved around in the story to work properly, even if they are not sequential. Some authors put a summary of each scene on 3” x 5” cards and move them around on a big board.
All fiction writers know each scene needs a purpose, but there are two levels of consideration.
First, the purpose of the scene in the novel is usually expressed as follows:
▪ To advance the plot;
▪ To develop the characters or reveal something about them; and
▪ To develop the setting.
The scene should meet at least the first and second purposes, and preferably all three. Most important of all, it must be essential to the novel. If you could leave it out, then you should.
Second, there is a purpose for the scene in terms of the storyline [a fine distinction, but this is the way I see it]. My mentor, S. L. Stebel, always asked, “What happens? Where do you want the characters in the scene to be emotionally and physically at the end? What is the reaction to what happened? Where does it lead the characters?”
Author C. S. Lakin suggests writing a one sentence description of the purpose of the scene. Why does this scene need to be in the novel? What new information is revealed? Is this the right time for the reader to have this information? Who changes? If this scene needs to be in the novel, every element of the scene should address the purpose.
Once you know the purpose of the scene, it will need the following components. This is the order in which the writer thinks about the scene, not necessarily the order in which the components appear on the page.
● The Climactic Moment
This is the high point of the scene where the bomb is dropped; a piece of information, a clue, a revelation about the one of the characters, something that complicates things. It can be a big bomb or a little rocket, but it should fill the reader with new questions? These are usually the hooks for the next scene, where the reader sucks in a breath or shouts “O.M.G! What happens?” This reveal is often something unexpected and should encapsulate the purpose of the scene.
● The Action
Action is how your characters arrive at the climactic moment. Start in the middle of the interesting and significant action without explanation. Leave out the boring parts which would be necessary to get to the action. It’s okay for the reader to wonder what happened before? If what happened is important, feed it in a little at a time.
● Timing and setting
Scenes can be a continuation of what came immediately before, or can begin somewhere else at another time — just like chapters. It is important to let the reader know where and when the scene is taking place close to the beginning of the scene (but no need to repeat if it is self-evident). Show the location through the viewpoint character’s eyes rather than describing it as an omniscient narrator.
Continuation of the previous scene is relatively simple, particularly if it begins with a reaction to what just happened. Be careful with changes to other times and places, and particularly with flashback or backstory. My own rule is to always include a trigger, something that makes the viewpoint character remember the prior event or flashback. Thinking about what so-and-so just said, or seeing or hearing something that reminds the character of the past. This also serves as a clue for the readers. It is always disturbing to the reader if they can’t quite figure out if the action is happening now or previously, and when and where previously occurred.
● View Point Character
All scenes have a viewpoint character. If your novel has only one view point or only one person in the scene, then you don’t have as much work to do. Otherwise, most of the authors suggest using the character with the most to lose as the VP character in the scene. Be sure it’s clear to the reader what the viewpoint character wants in this particular scene.
Lakin recommends asking yourself:
▪ “Who will react strongest emotionally?”
▪ “Who will change the most?”
▪ “Whose reaction would most impact the plot?”
I’d throw in a fourth question: “Which characters will show their reaction and which ones will try to hide it?”
● Conflict or Tension
All scenes need an element of conflict, and if you go with Weiked’s approach, it is the scene. The majority of scenes will most likely have two or more characters in them, and each of them has an agenda … a goal within the scene which is not necessarily the character’s overall goal in the novel. Conflict occurs when those goals work at cross purposes. The conflict can be internal, external, or both.
The characters’ scene goals and story goals should be related. Otherwise, the author may end up writing a wonderful scene that has no place in the context of the storyline. Oops! Into the shredder.
The structural components of the scene are not the only ones to consider, but I’m not sure there is a term for what I’m talking about — other than good writing. Because fiction storytelling is presented in scenes, these are considerations for every scene.
Every scene should begin and end with a hook. I know this is repetitive, but it’s important.
● Mood of the Scene
Every scene takes place somewhere, but it is not just the location that matters to the reader. The setting should convey the mood of the scene. Weather and lighting are key factors in setting the mood. Meeting in a park on a bright sunny day, with children playing all around, sets a different tone than meeting in a cemetery on a dark cloudy day with the wind whipping around your ankles. Leave this out, and you’ve lost an opportunity to show rather than tell.
● Mood of the VP Character
The filter through which the characters view the setting as they enter the scene, can establish the mood of the character. A sad character who is walking or driving down a street to deliver bad news may notice, for the first time, how dingy the neighborhood looks, with peeling paint, broken shutters, and weedy lawns.
The writer shouldn’t overload scenes with too much visual detail, which tends to get boring, but many writers overlook using the all the senses, other than sight, in their writing. You can bring your scenes to life by engaging several of the senses, and you can contribute to setting the mood of the scene and the characters by which senses you employ. Note: Using all five senses at once may be a bit overwhelming.
When you do use visual details, be selective. The reader should see the setting through the eyes of the viewpoint character, and what they see reflects that character’s values, interests, and to some extent what they are like. Detail also tells the reader what’s important, although it won’t be until later in the novel that the significance of some details pay off. Strive to paint enough of a picture to help your reader see the scene as if on the big screen.
If the character(s) has changed or is changing, show it in the scene.
I learned from Jordan Rosenfeld’s Writer’s Digest article that a scene break is called a “soft hiatus” [indicated by four blank lines or a symbol(s) such as an asterisk] and, contrary to popular belief, does not have to indicate a break in location or time. A new scene can pick up “in the middle of action or continue where others left off.” This is the reason for using the term “launching a scene” rather than “the beginning of a scene.” It is an invitation to the reader to come along.
● Start with a Hook
[Yes, again!] Rosenfeld says. “The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything.”
Some authors indicate that hooks should be startling or unexpected action. While that's great advice for each chapter, my experience is that it's not necessary to come up with something startling at the beginning and ending of each scene. The point is the you want the reader to continue reading; make the hook intriguing if not earth-shaking.
● Action First, Then Reaction
According to Margie Lawson, human reactions occur in the following sequence.
▪ First, an instinctive visceral reaction from the inside; a reflex action that comes very quickly. An uncontrollable emotion like fear. A shiver running down the spine. Taking a step back.
▪ Second, and almost simultaneously, a verbal exclamation. A gasp, scream, shudder, and so on. "Hey!", "Stop it", "Oh my god!"
▪ Third, and only then, can a human react rationally, act, think, and speak rationally. The important part of this is showing in your characters all three of these steps in consecutive order. Showing them out of sequence makes the reader feel something is wrong, and the scene will seem unrealistic.
Randy Ingermanson gives a very good example in his article, which I have paraphrased below.
“The tiger dropped out of the tree and sprang toward Jack.
This is objective, sharp and clean. No indication we’re in Jack’s view point.
A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins. He jerked his rifle to his shoulder, sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. “Die, you bastard!”
Note the three parts of the Reaction:
• Feeling: “A bolt of raw adrenaline shot through Jack’s veins.” You show this first, because it happens almost instantly.
• Reflex: “He jerked his rifle to his shoulder… “ You show this second, as a result of the fear. An instinctive result that requires no conscious thought.
• Rational Action and Speech: “… sighted on the tiger’s heart, and squeezed the trigger. ‘Die, you bastard!'” You put this last, when Jack has had time to think and act in a rational way. He pulls the trigger, a rational response to the danger. He speaks, a rational expression of his intense emotional reaction.
It is legitimate to leave out one or two of these three parts. (You can’t leave out all three or you have no Reaction.) But there is one critical rule to follow in leaving parts out: Whatever parts you keep in must be in the correct order.”
Always be sure both the instinctive and thought-out actions are true to character.
● Avoid Too Much Narrative Summary
Stay away from using a lot of narrative or back story to launch a scene. It can work if you keep it short. The urge to use narrative summary and back story is more likely in the first and second chapters of the novel.
Because the launch of a scene needs to move quickly, it is sometimes appropriate to summarize the necessary information to move into the action. In fact, the following example used by Jordan E. Rosenfeld in his article made me realize that sometime a summarization can be your hook. “My mother was dead before I arrived.”
The number of things to think about when writing is overwhelming, which leads most writers to this conclusion: Forget the rules/hints/tips/suggestions and write the darn scene.
To do that is procrastinating, yes, -- in a way, but necessary at the beginning. The work catches up with you when you edit. Using a checklist for all the things you want in a scene [or in your writing in general] and use that when editing. Author C.J. Lakin offers a downloadable checklist for this purpose.
The good news is, the more you write and edit, the more all these rules/ hints/tips/suggestions become second nature and you begin to do them automatically until, voila, you don’t have to think of them consciously anymore. But you still have to edit, and that is another skill unto itself.