The Writer's Writing Guide: Scene

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Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene is a discrete narrative block which exists to perform a specific, and unique, narrative function, and which, like a story, has its own beginning, middle, and end. The writer who is comfortable creating scenes, and who really understands what a scene is for, is the writer who will be able to maneuver around a story with skill, and perhaps even ease. Mastering the scene means you have a good sense of many of your macro issues, and hence that you're far more likely to be able to tell a strong story.

This all sounds quite lofty and ambitious, but sometimes writers get tripped up by not quite understanding what a scene is. It is perhaps easiest to understand what is meant by a scene if you think about a play, which, since staged dramas preceded novels by hundreds of years, is probably when the concept of scene first occurred. A scene in a play is a period of uninterrupted action in one location, such as a conversation between Josephine and her long-lost daughter in the parlor. When the characters exit the stage because the weeping daughter bangs out the front door, and Josephine, coolly pressing her bun back into place, strides out toward the guests waiting for her, off-stage, in the dining room, the scene is over. That's because the characters in that scene have now parted company, thus ending the action — and because they are also changing settings. But note that, if someone new came into the setting before Josephine and her long-lost daughter parted company, say, Josephine's arrogant, legitimate, class-climbing son Hodges, who mistakes his half-sister for a beggar and sends her on her way, the scene is considered to be ongoing until the three characters leave the room. Also, characters can change setting and still be in the same scene, if they move to an adjacent location, say, by stepping out onto the balcony during their ongoing conversation. The idea is that the action be continuous, in consecutive moments in time, even if there are new characters coming in, or the setting changes slightly.

When scene occurs in a piece of fiction, you have at least a few other things that can happen. You can weave other time periods into a single scene. Perhaps Josephine has a brief flashback in which she recalls falling for the dark-eyed ragman when she was on holiday in the city fifteen years ago. This could in fact be written as a scene within a scene, which, if very brief, would qualify as an embedded moment (see "Showing and Telling"), and otherwise would simply be called a flashback. Such a time interruption — which is more of a hiatus rather than a complete departure — does not end the scene, but makes it more sophisticated, and perhaps a little trickier to pull off. Or you could have the characters retreat from the action for a bit so they can try to make sense of it; the long-lost daughter might wince when Josephine says, "You may work in the kitchen, but I will never allow you to set foot in this parlor again," and then engage in an internal debate about whether she could tolerate the indignity before she actually responds in dialogue. Again, this is an interruption, but not the kind that brings a scene to an end; it's merely a brief shifting, within an existing character, away from the action, followed by a return to it.

So if you can shift time periods within a scene via flashback, speckle it with thought, introduce new characters, or even walk your characters from the kitchen to the bedroom, how can you really understand what a scene is?

Here is a further definition: A scene is a distinct event that is essential to the plot, in which something significant happens, something that has not happened before in the story and will not be happening again; it can be of any length; it is usually one in a sequence of distinct events that leads, like steps in a staircase, from the beginning through the middle to the end of your story; and each scene brings the story overall to a new place in the narrative.

There are a few parts of this definition that seem to perplex many apprentice writers. Let's look at them, and try to clarify, as well as elaborate.

Something significant happens: This is defined in terms of the story at hand. In the Josephine story, it might be very significant that the long-lost daughter (whose name is Meg), upon leaving the manor house, runs down to the stone bridge on the edge of town, where she pulls a large quilt from a hidden sack and begins to sew it. In another story, what a character does under a bridge might be utterly irreverent, as might be any sewing done at all. It could also be irreverent here, but the careful writer will put in only those scenes that are needed, and will leave out those that take the reader astray, or are there simply for entertainment. (In centuries past the latter part of this statement was less true, as fiction was one of the only ways that people could learn about such things as whaling, or travel to foreign lands, but this is no longer true.) However, a reader might not realize that Meg's quilt sewing is an essential scene until late in the story, when, say, Hodges presents his stinkingly rich new bride with this quilt — obtained earlier on from the quivering cook's helper (Meg, of course), after Hodges has, simply to be a bully, gotten her fired — only to have the bride discover a lump in the fabric, which turns out to be Josephine's locket, given to the ragman long ago, and which betrays Hodges' mother's disreputable past. If, however, the quilt never makes another appearance, nor does Meg's sewing talent prove significant to the story, the scene would probably be showing something insignificant, and so would be better left out.

How can you determine if an event is significant? A scene, ideally, should advance two of these three things: narrative, character, and theme. You can judge whether your idea for a scene is on track by making sure that it moves the story forward (narrative), deepens our understanding of character, or develops more of the theme — two of these three. In the case of the quilting under the bridge, it would be moving the story forward, even if we don't know that until later. It would also be deepening our sense of character, since, before this, Meg seemed like a tearful, powerless waif, but here she shows herself to be resourceful, and perhaps, depending on the motives that are developed through the story, spiteful. Again, what that event shows about her character might not be immediately apparent, though if the author chooses, it could be. So that takes care of narrative and character. In addition, if the locket in the blanket seems symbolic of the larger meaning of the story — say, that you can try to bury your past, but it will never go away, especially, since quilts are used for sleeping, in your unconscious — then the scene would work on the thematic level as well.

Notice what I mentioned as legitimate reasons for a scene: advancing narrative, character, and theme. There are two things I did not mention, which the apprentice writer sometimes mistakes as reasons for scenes: delivering exposition, and communicating transition, esp. the kind in which a character drives, walks, flies, or in some other way travels from one location to another. Although both exposition and transition are important in a story, they are lame reasons for an entire scene, since both can be handled smoothly and efficiently within existing scenes, and neither, on its own, is terribly interesting to read. In addition, most of the time when an apprentice writer misuses a scene for exposition or transition, s/he does so by having a solo act, which, as I say in "Common Traps," is very difficult to write without being dull, since interaction is the root of drama and character development, and a character just dwelling in her/his own mind is not interacting (nor, for that matter, dramatizing his/her story). Indeed, solo acts are problematic because they are almost always exposition-based scenes, or even stories. So the careful writer finds other ways to communicate exposition (say, that Meg has previous experience as a kitchen helper), and transition (getting Meg from the bridge back to the manor house), without resorting to using whole scenes for those purposes. Remember to keep your story flowing and interesting. Exposition- and transition-based scenes are an under-utilization of the concept of scene, and so make the story sag, hence making it less interesting.

Something that has not happened before in the story and will not be happening again: Each scene serves a specific, unique function in a story. If we see a character behaving in a cruel way toward underlings — maybe when we note Hodges stealing the last piece of bread from the servants' kitchen despite their obvious hunger, then throwing it to the birds outside as he laughs — we don't need to have another scene that shows his cruelty. An additional scene might elaborate on his cruelty — where it comes from, or who he'd never direct it toward, or some such — but a mere repetition of this character trait does not a new scene make. This sounds easy, but can get difficult, especially with a more complex plot (which our current example decidedly does not possess). It is therefore important for the writer to make note of what role s/he wants the scene to play in the development of narrative, character, and theme, and to make sure that it's not repeating a development of narrative, character, or theme that has come before. For instance, let's say that, initially, Scene #1 communicates, He's mean. Scene #2 communicates, He's really mean. Scene #3 communicates, He's really, really mean. But this is not a development of character, nor, of course, narrative or theme. If, upon revision, Scene #1 can show, He's mean, Scene #2 can show Josephine treating him in such a way that we understand the origins of his cruelty, and Scene #3 can show that all his cruelty is a cover for his Oedipal insecurities toward his mother, then we have a much more interesting use of these three scenes. If, however, the writer doesn't wish to develop this level of complexity, then s/he might want to consider collapsing the three scenes into one, so as not to waste the opportunity of a scene, and leave open valuable real estate for other, more significant developments.

But, apprentice writers often ask, how can I know, the function of a scene as I write the first draft? There's no simple answer to this, short of saying that, with experience, one gets more adept at figuring out the function of a scene in a first draft, the way chess players, with experience, become more adept in understanding the repercussions of each move, not only on the next move, but on every move to come. Chess players do not begin their careers knowing this; they acquire the skill through practice, assuming they allow that practice to increase their mental agility. Writers do the same. Until one develops this level of skill, though, what can one do? I recommend that, if you don't see a scene's function early on in a draft, just get the piece written, and then go back — with a very critical eye — and analyze each scene. As you do so, ask yourself the following:

1. What is the purpose of this scene? This can be discerned by viewing the entire story as a whole, and understanding that this scene is accomplishing a specific task to support that whole. What's that task? If it's only to introduce a character or deliver information about the character's background (both being exposition), or to convey the character from the house down the path to the gazebo (transition), then the scene isn't yet justifying itself. Incidentally, just because exposition is communicated via dialogue doesn't mean it's justified any more than a plain old exposition-based scene. ("Ay, Meg, me mam said you were back in these parts," called out the young man on the alehouse steps, face blackened with coal dust. "Where you been all this time?" "Larking about," Meg said. "But if you really want to know, I've had seven situations in seven years. The first was as an apprentice to a florist, plucking and wrapping the flowers, but then she passed on, consumption, you know, and she had a cousin who came to the funeral, and he saw I was hurting and brought me to his mum to learn housekeeping. And after that I...") Such "scenes" can be merged with another scene, cut, tightened, and/or deepened.

2. Is the purpose unique? That is, is it there to give a narrative, character, or thematic development that is already clear? This isn't always easy to see immediately, so it helps, with this question, if you scribble in the margins what you want this scene to be accomplishing. Try to do this in a way that pulls back a step from the story, so that you are able to detect whether you are essentially repeating yourself, even if you have slight nuances. For instance, if you are showing a child's growing awareness of the world around her — say, Meg's flashbacks about venturing forth for the first time from her ragman-father's hovel to see the big city street they live on — then you wouldn't need a second scene that shows Meg's second trip onto this street, or her further investigations of the park beyond the street, since they will essentially be accomplishing the same task: Meg encounters the world, and discovers it's big, or nasty, or class-conscious, or whatever. You could thus collapse all these into one scene. To do this, you could extract the discoveries she makes in the second trip and park scenes, and combine them with her discoveries in the first-trip-to-the-big-street scene. In short, be careful not to fall into the trap of having increments of development that are too small, or too similar to those that have come before, to merit a new scene.

3. Now that I understand what the scene is supposed to be accomplishing, and I know it's the only scene to accomplish that, have I found the most effective and efficient way of doing this? Maybe the function of the scene is to show Josephine wanting to receive Meg, at last, into the family, but deciding that doing so would prove too damaging to her social standing. There are many, many ways to turn this function into a scene, with some being confusing or vague (ineffective), or lumbering and clumsy (inefficient) in how they get there, and others being clear and succinct. Generally speaking, the more one relies on the solo act, the less effective and efficient a scene tends to be, but since each situation is unique, that means that there are many ineffective or inefficient ways to perform a necessary function that use devices other than the solo act, so it is best to ask yourself this anew each time. What I try to do is force myself to take every scene and try to lift it up at least a notch — with each draft. That is, I assume that each scene could be more effective and efficient, and I proceed from there. This approach has helped me create much better pieces than I'd thought possible when I finished the first draft. It works every time.

4. How can I make the scene accomplish all the more? This is the question that more experienced writers ask once they have answered the above — or, in some cases, while they are answering the above — since they have learned that each scene can not only accomplish a unique function, but multiple unique functions. The easy way to think of this is that each scene can do at least double duty. So back to Josephine deciding that she can't let Meg into her life in an open way. One possibility for this scene might be to set it with Josephine standing in the kitchen doorway, gazing warmly at Meg, who just went out of her way to rescue Josephine's favorite dog from getting "accidentally" trampled by Hodges' horse — while, just behind Josephine, the annual meeting of the local garden club, for which she has prepared the house for weeks, is coming to order. In the scene, Josephine might gaze at Meg, even exchanging a few words with her, saying, "I should tell them that you made the floral arrangements. Indeed, I will have you come out, and we can tell them together," then look behind her to the gardening club, catching the flinty glare of her snooty rival for the position of chair. Then, after a long and strained hesitation, she closes the kitchen door and proceeds to the garden club, telling them she purchased the floral arrangement from the most expensive florist in town, while balling up her handkerchief, her sweating palms wetting it more silently than tears. This would be one way of handling the scene that's fairly effective and efficient. However, if you incorporated into the scene that Josephine realizes that her dog did not happen to get locked in the stall with Hodges' horse, but was instead put there, and if she hints that she recognizes that Hodges did this, then the scene would be showing both her understanding of her son's true malevolence, yet also showing her inability, even in the face of that, to step beyond the boundaries of class. If you did this, the scene would be showing double duty. Ideally, I think all scenes should do double duty, and perhaps even triple duty (such as: the rival for the chair is Hodges' fiancé's mother, though we don't learn that's who she is until Meg's gift of the quilt arrives in the final, vengeful scene). But this means really layering your story, and understanding what needs to be done, and where to put it for maximum effect. It might take many drafts, or several years of writing, before you can do double duty with ease. Once you get the hang of it, though, you'll always strive to do it.

A scene can be any length: Now that, in addition to plays, we have novels, stories, and film, scenes can be found of any length, because the writer doesn't need to push chairs and lamps onto a stage, nor allow time for costume changes, before the scene can get underway. In fact, a scene can be as quick as a sentence (or, on the screen, a split second). This is because, as I discuss in the chapter "Showing and Telling," a scene in a piece of writing can be highly compressed (a summary); fully drawn out, with minute attention to detail, dialogue, and a slowing down of the authorial eye; or somewhere in between. As a result, "scene" doesn't mean any uniform length. Some stories are one scene only, such as Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." Others might have a new scene in each paragraph, or even sentence. You can determine how long, and detailed, a scene needs to be by determining how important it is in the story overall. In general, the more important the scene, the more space it should take up, proportionately, in the story. There are always exceptions, though, and with practice you'll get more comfortable with assessing the proper length for each scene.

A scene is usually one in a sequence of distinct events that leads, like steps in a staircase, from the beginning through the middle to the end of your story: Once you understand each scene's function, and have made each scene have a unique function, your story might well progress quite naturally from the beginning to the middle to the end. (See "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends" for more on this.) If you find yourself stuck, though, it might be because you have not thought of your scenes as being part of a chain, connected to and causing each other. If one link in a chain is missing, of course the chain will not work. If one link in a story is missing, a crucial development will be lost, and so something will not make sense, thus rendering the story unsuccessful. Each scene is a link, and relates to those that came before and those that will come after in a cause-and-effect way. That is, Scene #1 (Meg's arrival) causes Scene #2 (Hodges' confrontation with Meg in the gazebo), which causes Scene #3 (Meg's racing to the bridge to stitch the locket into the quilt), etc. It's possible that one scene might be followed by another that does not result directly from it (maybe Scene #2 concerns Hodges' cruelty to the kitchen staff — which does not result from Meg's arrival — and not until Scene #3 does he confront Meg), but still cause future necessary scenes to develop, and as such are a vital part of the whole. A scene which does not follow a clear cause-and-effect sequence tends to happen early on in a story, not later, and, although its cause might not be apparent, its effect always becomes apparent, whether in the very next scene, or a scene further down the road.

This is true whether or not your story has a chronological structure. The accumulation of our understanding will come from how you have handled your scenes in all the above ways, including cause-and-effect, not from how Tuesday progressed into Wednesday and into Thursday. If you've put them together so that cause and effect is revealed — even if you have an anti-chronological structure, or bounce around from 2001 to 1954 to 1827 to 2001 — the piece will stand a very good chance of working.

A scene brings the story overall to a new place in the narrative. It is helpful to think of each scene as being a lock in a canal; once you've gotten the reader through the development that is unique to that scene, it is done, and the story needs to move on from there. If it slides back and forth (Hodges is cruel; well, maybe he's not; oh yes he is; well then again...), then you're going to baffle your readers, prompt them to wonder on some level if you as the writer ever made up your mind about the character (i.e., did your job), and perhaps put them in a state of such frustration that they set the story down. Of course, characters can think they've achieved something, only to discover that they hadn't made the progress they'd hoped — Josephine thinks she has taken Meg into her heart, only to feel overpowered by the lure of her pre-Meg life. But, if the writer handles this with both clarity and a sense of forward momentum, the reader will feel more satisfied, since things will have indeed advanced. Thus, Josephine's choice of a return to her old life wouldn't be presented as simply a return to where we started, but as a new level of denial, quite distinct from her initial denial, because she's now denying an individual for whom she's come to have feelings, and so is consciously choosing to harden herself despite the pain it might cause her, rather than painlessly, callously denying the inconvenient consequence of her own sexual mistake. Josephine therefore ends the story as someone who has grown inside herself, which is evident because a previously easy decision is now difficult to make — even though she still makes the same decision she made before. The outward signs might be the same, but what makes this feel satisfying (if sad) to the reader is that the internal life has been altered, which means that the writer has made sure that the scenes have taken the character through locks in the canal.

Needless to say, this doesn't mean that internal change cannot trigger external change. One of the most famous stories about change — Dickens' "Christmas Carol" — has Scrooge, in reliving his life, feel remorseful, and alter his actions at the end of the story. The internal change causes an external change. (Incidentally, this is also an excellent example of a story that uses a succession of scenes that could have been repetitive in the hands of a less experienced writer — the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come — but were not. Each ghost, and each scene, serves a unique purpose, and builds up incrementally to the climactic internal, and, in this case, external, change.)

However, the concept of locks in the canal need not be viewed in isolation. If you've done your work with thinking through the function of each scene, and if you've thought through your scenes in terms of cause and effect, this matter will most likely take care of itself.

Okay, so you understand everything about scene now. But how do you go about implementing any of it? Basically, just relax and write, and let this information sink in over time. The more you write, the clearer all this will become, and the easier it will get to rework first draft scenes, and, eventually, to write first draft scenes that are much closer to what you really need. The key, as with everything, is to have infinite patience with the process, and to be willing to set your ego aside. In this way, you'll be more able to become flexible about how you're presenting a story, and so more able to craft a scene to do just what you need it to do — and no less.

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