last updated: 25 October 2018 (approximate reading time: 5 minutes; 986 words)
A scene is the basic unit of a story. It is a self-contained element of a story that can exist on its own and is the minimum viable self-contained unit of a story.
A novel is—in essence—a series of scenes.
However, you need the correct scenes, laid out in the correct order in order to make a coherent novel. In other words, you can have an otherwise perfect scene, but in the wrong context, it fails as a scene. Equally, you might have the right idea for the context, but if it fails as a scene, then it pulls the whole thing down.
Fundamentals of a Scene
Every scene requires certain fundamental elements:
- a beginning
- a middle, and
- an end
The events that occur within a scene must matter to a character who matters to the story.
Let’s look at these aspects in more detail.
Matters to a Significant Character
A scene must matter to a significant character.
The events don’t need to happen to the character—indeed, the character may not even be present in the scene and therefore may not be aware of the events when they are happening. However, to be a viable scene, the events must matter to a character who is significant within the context of the story.
Beginning and End
Each scene must be viewed in terms of the significant character for whom the events of the scene matter. Usually that character will be present in the scene, and for that significant character, something must change during the scene.
At the beginning, the character will, metaphorically, be in one place. By the end of the scene, the character will, metaphorically, be in a different place. During the scene, the character will, metaphorically, move from the first place to the second.
The key point is that something will change for a character. If there has been no change, then the story will not have moved forward. And if the story hasn’t moved forward, then you’re not telling a story…you’re just describing stuff.
Land of No Return
The change within the scene must be significant for the character who is affected by the events of the scene. The character must end the scene in a different place—and by the end of the scene, the character must be incapable of returning to the place where the scene started.
If the character can return to where they started, then there is no scene—there is no beginning and end to the scene, there is simply a beginning.
Whether there has been a change meaning that the character has reached a place from which they cannot return often depends on context and small details. Let me give you an example: a man walks into a diner, has breakfast, and leaves.
On these basic facts, there has been no change. All we have here is a dull everyday situation; we don’t have a scene here.
However, if the man went to a diner and ate breakfast, but that meal had been poisoned, then there would be a change—and a significant change (assuming we’re dealing with a character who matters in the context of the story).
With the addition of poison, we have a beginning and an end:
- at the beginning of the scene, the man is healthy, but
- at the end of the scene, the man has consumed poison.
In the context of this specific scene, what happens next is irrelevant. Whether he lives or dies, who poisoned him and why, are all irrelevant. All that matters is that something has changed and, more significantly, on a human level, the man is permanently changed. Our poisoning victim will now always be a man who someone tried to kill.
The middle of the scene is where the action happens. This is where the characters present in the scene act, and the consequences of that action move the significant character from the beginning of the scene to the end.
Usually, there will be some form of conflict within a scene. That conflict may be subtle—for instance, putting poison in a man’s breakfast—or it may be a more kinetic conflict (such as a gun fight). Whatever the conflict is, it is the process that moves the situation so that something changes for a character who is significant to the story.
Once the character affected by the events of the scene has moved from the beginning to the end—in other words, once the act that will change their situation has occurred—then the scene is at an end.
There is no need to continue the scene. Extending the scene past the change that affects the character will start to overcomplicate the scene and may begin to bore the reader.
And there’s no need to attempt to resolve any outstanding issues. Indeed, unresolved issues will keep readers turning the page to find what happens next.
Benefits of Thinking at the Scene Level
Of course, there can be more to a scene, but at a very fundamental level, all there is, is the beginning, middle, and end.
For the author, there are benefits to thinking at the scene level. Perhaps the most important reason for thinking at the scene level is that, since a scene is comparatively short and is a self-contained unit, it is a perfect “single meal” for a reader.
But looking to the writing process, a book will take weeks, maybe months. A scene can be written in a day. It is a manageable creative unit. It is also a manageable “perfect-able” unit—trying to perfect a whole book is hard, but perfecting a single scene is achievable.
But more than simply perfecting, working at the scene level allows great focus and allows you to play—you can just mess with a scene…the stakes for getting it wrong are pretty low.
When it comes to crafting scenes, I outline before I start writing. Click here to read more about my scene outlining.