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 scene structuring, and I’m going to try to avoid some of the confusion by describing what scenes do vs. what they are called.
● What is a Scene?
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.” “A scene is a section of your novel where a character or characters engage in action 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.”
I told you! Together, all of these various definitions tell you what a scene in a novel is.
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 in 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, and the type of novel [genre] makes a difference on length, pace, and placement. The great thing is that they are flexible and within reason can be moved around in the story. 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 scenes 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 asks: “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? 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 one, 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
This 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. It is important to let the reader know where and when the scene is taking place close to the beginning of the scene. 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.
● 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. Be sure it is clear to the reader what the view point character wants in this that particular scene.
Writing the scene in the view point of a character who can’t articulate their thoughts and reactions (a child, an invalid,) might be the best choice to show their thoughts and reactions the other characters can’t decipher. 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 character will show their reaction and which 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 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. 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 mood 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.
● 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 of a 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 most of us overlook using the senses, other than sight, in our writing. You can bring your scenes to life by engaging all the senses, and you can contribute to setting the mood of the scene and the characters by which senses you employ.
When you do use visual details, be selective. The reader should see the setting through the eyes of the viewpoint character, and they 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 a picture to help your reader see the scene as if on the big screen.
● Accent Character Changes
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 call 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!] Your hook should be a startling or unexpected action. Rosenfeld says. “The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything.”
● 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 emotion like fear.
▪ Second, and almost immediately, a verbal exclamation. A gasp, scream, or so on.
▪ Third, and only then, can a human react rationally, act, think, and speak.
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 if 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
▪ 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 the 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, 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 [ https://www.livewritethrive.com/ ], offers a downloadable checklist for this purpose at https://www.livewritethrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/8-Step-Scene-Building-Worksheet.pdf.
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.