I hope I’m not alone when I say this, but I used to think of written scenes like scenes in a play. Every time there would be a change of place, the scene would have to change with it. Honestly, I think it stems from my time in the drama club in high school. For as long as I can remember, I have always thought that about scenes. Scenes are far more complex that just a change in scenery. They are mini-stories in and of themselves used to connect the next scene until the entire story is complete.
So then what is a scene? A written scene is the basic building block of a novel or short story. The scene actually has three parts and is vital to making it work. You have the protagonist struggling to get through to his immediate goal, but there is something in the way. It progresses until the struggle is over and there is a disaster. Often, there is actually a change in scenery, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
A scene has a twin called a sequel. It is basically the follow-up to the action in a scene. Its job is to tidy up the loose ends that the scene has left lying about. This is where the main character reacts to the disaster in the scene and has a dilemma to resolve with a decision to make. The decision usually ties into the actions of the next scene.
Typically, in my writing I use the following template to build my scenes:
Date of Scene: Time
The scene actually has three parts and is vital to making it work.
First and foremost, the main character of the scene must have a goal. Without it, the scene is pointless and will make the reader feel like they are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness that is your book. This goal should be something that the main scene character wants to be able to move forward. It doesn’t have to be something that he may be able to get in that scene. In fact, I would think that it would be something that he cannot get in that scene.
Every scene has conflict. Yes, you heard me. Every scene. Conflict can be defined as something getting in the way of the main character obtaining his goal. There is no exception. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a scene. Period. Conflict creates tension. Tension keeps the reader engaged so without it, you might lose your reader. It’s as simple as that.
A good scene will end in some kind of disaster. This is something that goes totally wrong for the scene’s main character. Horribly wrong. It must leave the reader wondering how the main character will ever achieve his goal. Talk about ratcheting up the tension. What better way than to have it blow up in his face. That’s not to say that the disaster must be earth shatter or someone has to die or get horribly maimed–although not a bad start. I mean that the outcome is less than desirable. See below for examples of this and more.
A scene has a twin called a sequel. It is basically the follow-up to the action in a scene.
Not every part of a scene–because I think of scene and sequel as part of the overall scene–needs to keep the reader on edge. The reader needs to be able to relax a bit. Even if it’s just a paragraph. That’s where the sequel comes in. It shows the scene’s main character’s reaction to the disaster and how he copes. It also poses a dilemma where there are only bad choices to choose from. From there the scene’s main character must make a decision that propels them into the next scene.
As the name implies, the scene’s main character will have some kind of response to what just happened. There is a multitude of reactions that he could have, but only a specific one that would lead him to the next scene. Does he give up in despair or does he plow through and keep trying? Does he get angry and overdo everything, thus breaking more than he’s trying to fix or does he take a step back, reassess the situation and move forward. Those are the hard decision, you dear writer, are going to have to make. At any rate, this is just how the scene’s main character reacts to the disaster.
Dilemmas are interesting. You, the writer, have to make it to where there is no right answer to how this scene plays out. Only a less wrong one will do. That’s what a dilemma is. The scene’s main character and his companions now have their lives on a teeter and the decisions the main character makes could offset the balance. We cannot, as writers, let our characters get away with anything easily. They must fight for it tooth and nail. Whatever the disaster, the dilemma must be something that is good for not good for everyone, or even no one.
Now a decision needs to be made. Given the choices left by the dilemma, the scene’s main character perhaps along with his cohorts, must make some kind of decision to move the plot forward. It must be something the guides them to the finish, but at the very least they need to get to the next scene. This decision provides the framework for it.
So now that we have the scene parts down, you can now see how each part works in harmony to keep the reader engaged and the pages turning. Earlier I said that scenes do not necessarily have to be set in different places. In fact, some scenes are in the same place as other scenes. It just differs by the disasters and decisions of the others. For example, I have a scene where my protagonist, Kalan Laurelbane, has escaped the inn where he was staying because he was being hunted down by hobgoblins. He runs into the dark forest at night–one fraught with its own dangers–only to run into the legendary Nyar Winterhold, a dangerous man who leaves behind few witnesses. Once the decision is made to not move and see what the man will do, the scene changes because a decision was made. Kalan is still in the forest confronted by the dangerous man, but we have moved on to the next scene.
Notice how I included the dilemma. It was implied, but it is a dilemma, nonetheless. What could happen? He could run, but with dangerous men like Nyar, he might see it as a challenge and give chase. He could stay, but that might provoke him and Kalan could get pulverized. See there are no easy decisions to make here. The point is, Kalan must do something. Nyar is a hulk of a man, easily towering over seven feet tall. Kalan is only 6 feet tall and thin by comparison. Nyar is Veoldian, meaning he is of a warrior clan. He knows how to fight and could probably take Kalan apart without even taking an extra breath. So fighting is completely out. Kalan would lose. So his only two choices is to run or to stay.
Want more examples?
We all remember that famous scene from Zootopia where Nick takes Judy to the department of motor vehicles to check a license plate number after they interview Mr. Otterton’s Yoga instructor.
Judy’s goal at the beginning of this scene is to find out who owns the car with the license plate she obtained. Notice that there is a single goal. That is the purpose of the scene. Each scene should have one and only one goal. Although Nick has his own goal, trying to get the carrot back so he can go about his business.
Where isn’t there conflict in this scene? Nick wants to give as little information as possible because he really doesn’t want to be caught helping a cop. All the workers in the DMV just happen to be sloths, possibly the worst thing to have around when you’re in a hurry. Nick isn’t making it any easier throughout the entire scene.
What a disaster it is, too. Judy only had 48 hours to figure out who was kidnapping the mammals and Nick just wasted almost half of it with his little stunt. Now she doesn’t have much more time to do what she needs to do.
She is really frustrated and scared that she’s going to lose her job. Talk about ratcheting tension. She’s angry that she had no choice but to go to the DMV. She’s angry at the position she’s been put in to solve a two-week old case that even the best have yet to crack. She’s frustrated that Nick is push against her at every level.
She has some choices. They all suck for her. She can give up and let Nick go. That would be bad since she would lose every possible chance of even coming close to succeeding. The other choice is to keep Nick, but her sense of what is right would get in the way. She promised that if Nick helped her, she would give him the recorder back. She couldn’t go back on her word.
Well, if you watched the movie, then you would know that the scene didn’t end in the same place it started. She hadn’t made the decision that propels her into the next scene until they found the car that belonged to the license plate. What’s more, she didn’t make the decision until the opportunity fell into her lap. When she tossed the recorder over the fence, she made the decision that Nick was still going to help her. It was the least bad of the choices she had, but she turned into something she could live with. Now, Nick still has to help her and she moves into the next scene with the cars.
With the above examples, you can see how each scene is a little story that links to the next little story. With the proper structure, you can make scene pack the punch you want them to and keep the reader wanting to turn those pages.
As always, happy writing. If you have questions, just leave them in the comment section or send me an email. I’d be happy to answer them.