Scene Craft 1: The Essentials of Scenes

Sat Jul 28 2018

One of the stock pieces of advice I give clients is to "write scenes, not summaries." And yet, turning one's summary plot ideas into real scenes that also fulfill their functional duties can be challenging. To help with that, this article begins a three-part series on scene craft.

Today, we'll be covering the essential qualities that define a scene. In part two, we'll look at techniques for smoothly transitioning from one scene to the next. Concluding the series, part three will unwrap the dual mental processes writers engage in when actually writing scenes.

What is a Scene?

At its heart, a scene is:

That's it. Three elements. We'll take each in turn.

A Scene is a Deal

First, giving credit where credit is due, this idea is not mine but comes from Christopher Vogler, who in turn learned it from Migs Levy during his time as a Hollywood script writer. (Side note: Ms. Levy is one of those people who seems to have left almost no traces of herself online. I could find only one obscure reference to her anywhere.)

The idea is simple yet powerful: a scene is, at heart, a negotiation between characters leading up to some kind of exchange. It's a transaction. And when the deal is done, the scene should end.

The negotiation may take place in whatever manner fits your story. It could be a literal negotiation around a conference room table. It could be a courtroom trial, where the negotiation takes place through formal arguments by lawyers, judge, and jury. It could be a fight, in which the negotiation takes place through force.

The outcome is some kind of exchange between the participants. Perhaps around the conference room table, the particpants are sorting out how to exchange money for ownership of a corporation. Lawyers, judge, and jury must decide how (or whether) to exchange freedom for justice. Fights exchange power or life for the right to impose the winner's ideas or agenda.

Ultimately, a scene results in some kind of shift in the relationship between the characters. Any scene in your story that doesn't change the status quo is thus not doing its job and should probably be cut or revised.

Even scenes involving only one character can do this. In my most recent writing project, my main character spends most of the book alone, lost in the wilderness. In the scene where she becomes lost, the shift in relationship is from being with her family to being separated from them. Subsequent scenes show her negotiating with the wilderness over her survival.

A scene is bounded in place and time

If a scene is a deal, then it follows that the deal must occur at some particular place within your story's world and at some particular time.

Place and time are important because they often directly affect how the negotiation may take place.

A business deal being negotiated in a cool, comfortable room will proceed much differently than one in a hot, stuffy room that sets everyone's tempers on edge.

A fight in a boxing ring is very different than a fight in an abandoned warehouse that's filled with old mechanical bits and bobs.

A man coming up to a woman in a park to ask directions will feel very different in broad daylight with crowds around than at midnight under a moonless sky when the park is deserted.

All such things affect everything from the characters' moods to what physical actions are available to them. For readers to properly visualize your scenes and invest in them, they need to understand the place and time where the deal goes down.

They also need to know for the pragmatic reason of keeping straight what order events happen in. Scenes often begin after a change of time and/or place, and thus readers need to know the time and place merely to keep track of what's going on. More on this in next week's installment.

A scene has a clear participant structure

Participant structure is the set of characters in the scene, plus knowledge of how they relate, who the major vs. minor players are, and so forth.

Since scenes result in a shift in the relationship between the characters, it's critical that readers understand which characters are present to witness and participate in the scene.

The negotiation part of the scene often involves dialogue, and thus an exchange of information. That information will be heard by whatever characters are present. And thus for readers to keep track of who knows what, we need to know who is there.

Physically, if a grenade goes off and sprays the room with shrapnel, we need to know who just got killed or injured.

If characters enter or leave the scene, that changes the participant structure. Again, readers need to know.

Keep your eye on the essentials

The essentials of deal, place and time, and participants may seem simple and obvious to the point of being trivial. Yet they are not.

Too often I find scenes in client manuscripts that don't change anything between the characters. Or I find scenes that have only a vague sense of place and time, which leaves the whole thing feeling uncertain and hard to buy into. Or I find scenes where, halfway through, some character who hadn't been mentioned suddenly delivers a line of dialogue, thus revealing that that the participant structure delivered at the beginning was incomplete.

When you find a scene that isn't working well, or your beta readers point one out, focus on the three essentials. Clarify what the deal is and how the status quo changes by the end of the scene. Note that this may require you to figure out what you wanted the deal to be in the first place.

If the negotiation feels loose and uncertain, focus on tightening up the sense of time and place, as those factors will constrain the negotiation to something much more certain. And please, make sure we know from the beginning who is there to participate.

Check out part two on the mechanics of how scenes work and connect together, and part 3 on how to go from knowledge of what should be in your scene to actual words on the page.