We all recognize a scene when we’re watching television or a movie. It’s a discrete unit of action that has an unmistakable starting and ending point. Whether it’s a car chase or a romantic interlude, we know it when we see it. As writers, we use scenes in our storytelling as well. As we begin to examine the basics of scene building, let’s first consider the purpose of a scene within the structure of a novel.
A scene moves the story forward.
As structural units, scenes provide the meat of the story, while other connective prose serves to fill in the gaps, like side dishes. As the scenes progress, so does your plot action and story arc. A scene creates the narrative structure which propels the story forward in a cohesive and logical way.
A scene can be used to introduce a goal, conflict, or a disaster.
In the Harry Potter series, Harry’s relationship with Draco Malfoy is set up early in the book, before they even arrive at Hogwarts. In that scene, Draco invites Harry to become part of his group, but Harry refuses, already recognizing Draco’s nasty nature. This scene introduces conflict between the boys that will last into their adult years.
Scenes provide an opportunity to explore cause and effect.
Decisions and actions have consequences for our characters. We can explore this through our scenes. Sometimes an action in one scene will have consequences later. Other times, the consequence of an action happens immediately. Either way, scenes reveal information about our characters and their evolution over time. This is especially evident when a character makes a mistake or a questionable decision. The readers need to see fallout from that poor choice, and hopefully, later, growth.
Luke Skywalker disregards Yoda’s warning and goes after Han and Leia, despite his unfinished training. This leads to a devastating battle scene where he learns that Vader is his father, Han is taken by the bounty hunter, and Luke loses his hand. The fallout from his understandable, yet immature decision lasts well into the future.
Scenes can be used to optimize pacing.
We may be racing toward a climactic ending, where the stakes are high, the tension palpable, and the action exciting. But we can’t feed our readers only this high stress diet. We need to find the quiet places to explore relationships, lighten things up with witty dialogue, and perhaps find time for a kiss or two. Strategic use of different types of scenes in our story can help with pacing, allowing for moments of pulse-pounding action, nail-biting suspense, but also the deeper moments which allow us to see into our characters souls.
Keeping all this in mind, here are a few questions I ask myself before I dive into writing a scene:
- How will I launch the scene?
- Where are my characters now?
- What are my characters’ goals in this scene?
- Will their goals be achieved or not?
- Is something revealed?
- How will I end the scene?
By considering these questions, I’m able to stay focused on my purpose for that scene and not tumble down a rabbit hole of interesting side-stories. Over the next few articles, I’ll share some more tips on scene building strategies, and launching and ending scenes. Stay tuned!