128. Crafting powerful scenes

Clint Eastwood

How do you know when a scene begins and ends, how many scenes make a book, and what the difference is between a scene, a beat, and a chapter? Never fear, all the answers are here.

What is a scene?

A scene is the basic unit of a story. It’s not just stuff happening—in a scene, something has to change. This may be a conflict, a discovery, a realisation. It’s like a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end. Tension rises, reaches a climax and then falls again.

These are the elements of a scene. Much of this comes from Ali Luke.

  • A change
  • Involves at least one character wanting something and taking action to achieve this (even if that action is largely internal such as thinking).
  • If you have more than one character, there should be interaction and/or dialogue between them. The dialogue should advance the action, reveal character, or ideally both.
  • An unbroken flow of action from incident to incident
  • A description of surroundings. Almost always, a scene will have a single location or small set of connected locations. If you switch location, you’re generally switching scenes
  • A definable duration, usually short. If you switch time, you’re generally switching scenes
  • A single point of view. If you switch point of view, you’re generally switching scenes.
  • Conflict or complications (even if the conflict is with something inanimate, like struggling through a rainstorm)
  • Rising emotion or tension.
  • A strong ending
  • A link to the next scene

Relationship with other story units

Other terms you’ll come across are beat, scene-sequence, chapter, act, and arc. The language here is not very precise and different people use the words differently and sometimes interchangeably. You may not find it useful to use any other concepts than scene and story.

change

The fundamental idea is to understand a story as a series of changes.

Beat Something that happens. For example, “John walked into the room”
Scene A unit of story in which a significant change occurs
Scene-sequence A  chain of scenes
Act A larger unit of story structure. For example, in a Three Act work, the Beginning, Middle, and End
Arc The overall “shape” of the ups and downs of the story or of a character’s change

Chapter is not quite like these units. All the rest are elements of the story structure, but a chapter is essentially a navigational device to break the words up into chunks for the reader’s convenience. It is, of course, possible for chapters to coincide with one of the other units. Some writers arrange each scene as a chapter. Others may end the chapter mid-scene to create a cliff-hanger.  Think about starting a new chapter when the character’s goal or direction of the story changes.

Beginning and ending scenes

How do you know when a scene begins and ends?

  • A scene begins with establishing what the character wants
  • Progresses through the attempt to achieve that goal
  • Ends with a critical point, usually a set-back but sometimes a triumph

Since a scene has the same characteristics (beginning, middle, and end) as a story, it has many similarities in the way you begin and end it. Much of this comes from the Now Novel blog.

  • “Hook” the reader’s interest at the beginning. You might do this with an explosive entry into action, or vivid description of the setting, or the posing of an intriguing question. The main characters should clearly want something.
  • End a scene
    • With a cliff-hanger, mid-action
    • With a character epiphany
    • With the discovery of a major obstacle
    • With the promise of more to come (turmoil, future revelations)

Scenes and sequels

One particular writing tradition is based on a distinction between scenes and sequels, which means essentially action followed by reaction. The originator of the tradition is Dwight Swain. Many writers would consider both action and reaction to be distinct scenes and many others consider them to be halves of a single scene.

A guide to editing scenes

When you edit, you’ll find that some of your scenes don’t work. In which case, they need to be either fixed or deleted. Here’s a 12-point checklist of questions you can ask about a scene, largely borrowed from Ali Luke.

Question Action
1.       What changes? If nothing changes, amend or cut it
2.       Does it advance the plot and/or reveal character? If you cut the scene, would the story still work? If the story would still work without it, you should probably cut the scene
3.       Is it clear? If not, clarify
4.       Does it start well but tail off? Prune the ending
5.       Does it take a long time to get started? Prune the beginning so you start in the middle of things
6.       Is the action over too quickly? Expand it so the reader isn’t rushed
7.       Does the action drag on too long? Condense it
8.       Is it a close repeat of a scene you’ve already written Amend or cut it
9.       Does the scene link to one before it and the one following? If not, introduce the links so you get a build-up of action towards the climax, or you make the most of the contrasts between characters and situations
10.   Is this scene in the right place in the story? Should it be earlier or later? Consider moving the scene if it’s in the wrong place
11.   Does the scene take place in the right location? Consider whether it might be more dramatic if you set It somewhere else
12.   Does it carry resonances to other themes and subplots? It needn’t, but a story may be more satisfying if you build-in these layers

 

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