Scenes: What are they?

Scenes! We’re finally doing them!

Okay, so, I don’t know yet how many posts this series is going to turn out to be, but so far it’s looking to be about twenty, and that’s not including any Wednesday posts. The plan is to order the posts from macro to micro, so this post here is pretty much just 2000+ words on the definition of scenes, and then the next posts will break down the different elements. Sound good?

Alrighty then . . .

What is a scene?

I found so many definitions. The craft masters come at the definition of a scene from many angles, so, to give the presentation more structure and to hopefully make it more interesting and useful, I grouped the definitions by those angles. Many of the definitions could fit into more than one group, so I just picked the group that seemed predominant (usually because it was mentioned first in the quote) or, if amenable, I broke the quotes into distinct pieces and slotted the pieces into the appropriate group. I also left whole any definitions too complex or too tightly stated to categorize or dismantle.

Here we go!

Defining Scenes: What scenes are

Will Dunne says, “Scenes are the steps of a dramatic journey.”

The scene “is where something happens,” says Syd Field, “where something specific happens.”

A scene is “a dramatized action, in a certain limited time frame, during which something changes,” says Cheryl B. Klein.

“A scene is . . . a microcosm of the larger story in which it appears,” says Larry Brooks. “A scene has a beginning, a middle, and an ending . . .”

Jack Bickham says, “The scene is the basic large building block of the structure of any long story.”

Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld echo this definition: “Scenes are microcosms of your larger plot.”

As does Darcy Pattison: “A scene is a contained stretch of action that has a beginning, middle and end.”

“Scenes are dramatic units that form a vital part of a plot’s construction,” says Deborah Chester. “They’re the basic building blocks of fiction. . . . Scenes and their aftermath . . . comprise your plot.”

“I use the term ‘scene’ to describe any dramatic beat in a story,” says Robert Kernen. “[T]he scene–a dramatic unit that takes place in a single location at a single, continuous moment in time–is the smallest unit in constructing a plot . . .”

It is the basic unit of what actually happens in the story, right now,” says John Truby, “as the audience experiences it.”

“At its most essential, a scene is a simulation of real moments that expand a story from one dimension into three in the minds of your readers,” says Jordan Rosenfeld. Scenes “are the locus of your protagonist’s conflicts and joys, and the places in which protagonists undergo the alchemy of transformation at the end of the story.” “So each scene is a crucial moment in the plot when your character sets out to do something that will bring forward momentum to your story.”

Defining Scenes: What Scenes Do For the Writer

Nancy Kress says scenes are the “way to keep control of your material.”

Karen S. Wiesner says every “scene has to meet three basic requirements: 1. Establish the three-dimensional characters (especially the POV character) . . . 2. Advance the plot. . . . 3. Construct the setting.”

“Every scene, from a writer’s perspective, is designed to remove the protagonist’s options, one by one, until the protagonist has no choice but to face the villain in the story’s climax,” says Ms. Chester.

“An action scene [as opposed to a sequel/reflective scene] is any scene where a character is trying to get somewhere, solve a problem, move forward in the story,” says James Scott Bell.

“The scene, you see, has conflict at its heart, but it is not static,” says Mr. Bickham, “It is a dynamic structural component with a definite internal pattern which forces the story to move forward as the scene plays–as a result of its ending.”

“A scene is where something happens,” says Stuart Horwitz, “and because something happens, something changes in a way that propels the narrative.”

“[T]he burden of scenes is to hold tension taut,” says Ms. Rosenfeld.

Scenes, “when written correctly,” says Ms. Chester, “push the story forward, reveal character, intensify story suspense, and raise stakes.”

Defining Scenes: What Scenes Do For the Reader

“Scenes are how dramatic information is received,” says Mr. Horwitz

“A scene is the vehicle for turning passive experience into real-time, energizing movement,” says Ms. Rosenfeld. “[Y]our scenes transform flat ideas into vivid experiences for the reader.”

“Scenes are those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action,” says Sandra Scofield

Laura Whitcomb agrees: “Scenes are those places where the plot slows down and happens in real time so the readers can see and hear the action as if it were happening in the same room with them. Those parts of the story are where characters reveal themselves and where things change.”

As does Ms. Pattison: “A scene is a section of a story in which action slows down and you give the reader a moment-by-moment experience. . . . a detailed blow-by-blow account of what is happening.”

“A scene happens when an important aspect of a story is altered,” says Steven James. “Scenes are not about events, locations, or discussions. They are about things being altered.”

What’s more,” says Paula Munier, “they don’t tell us about the characters; they show us very clearly what they’re thinking and feeling.”

“Each scene unfolds in a place,” says Mr. Brooks, “An environment, both micro and macro. . . . In addition to setting and place, each scene is an opportunity–an an obligation–to illuminate character.”

Each scene . . . takes us into a crucial moment of your characters’ story and should engage both our emotions and our minds by creating real-time momentum or action,” says Ms. Alderson and Ms. Rosenfeld. “The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward, and ends in such a way that he just has to know what happens next.”

Defining Scenes: What Scenes Contain

“What is a scene?” asks Mr. Bickham, “It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’  It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.”

“What exactly constitutes a scene?” asks Renni Browne and Dave King, “For one thing it takes place in real time. . . . Scenes usually have settings as well, specific locations that the readers can picture. . . . Scenes also have some action, something that happens. . . . More often than not, what happens is dialogue between one or more characters. Though even in dialogue scenes it’s a good idea to include a little physical action from time to time–what we call ‘beats‘–to remind your readers of where your characters are and what you’re doing.”

“Ideally, each scene centers on one main event that reveals the new information about the characters, changes the world of the story, and brings the dramatic journey closer to its destination,” says Mr. Dunne.

“Scenes cover a short amount of time and are marked by the level of detail: you have zoomed in on the action to tell it with sensory details, great verbs, and a big emotional impact,” says Ms. Pattison. “Notice that it is action: character must do something in a scene; it can’t be all internal. Of course, the thoughts are there, too, but the focus of a scene is on the small actions. Somewhere in the scene, there is a pivot point where the actions and emotions spin off in a new direction. It is the fulcrum or balance point for the scene and can come at any point.”

“A scene must present a dramatic scenario, with something at stake,” says Mr. Brooks, “[A] scene should have an outcome, and that outcome is a carefully conceived and designed evolution of the story moving toward a higher, further goal. And yet, it is capable of delivering its own punch and vicarious ride.”

“A scene is action,” says Debra Dixon. “A scene happens. It is not a lengthy explanation of what happened. Or what will happen. Or even a big stretch of internal dialogue. It’s not wonderfully evocative description or exposition or backstory.”

Ms. Munier agrees: “A scene is defined by its continuous action. . . . units of continuous action that move the story forward–and pack an emotional punch.”

As does Elizabeth Lyon: scenes are “character-driven action toward a goal that occurs in a particular time and place.”

And Mr. Truby: “A scene is generally one action in one time and place.”

And Ms. Rosenfeld: “A scene is a capsule, or unit, of action, information, and time in which characters set and chase their goals.

And Alicia Rasley: “A scene is a unit of action and interaction taking place more or less in real time and centering on some essential event of plot development.”

And Ansen Dibell: “A scene is one connected and sequential action, together with its embedded description and background material. It seems to happen just as if a reader were watching and listening to it happen. It’s built on talk and action. It’s dramatized, shown, rather than being summarized or talked about.”

And Les Edgerton: “A scene is simply a unit of dramatic action. That means people doing things–speaking, interacting, performing actions. And it means conflict. Always conflict.”

“A scene is a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader,” says Dwight Swain.  “To repeat: A scene is a unit of conflict, of struggle, lived through by character and reader. It’s a blow-by-blow account of somebody’s time-unified effort to attain an immediate goal despite face-to-face opposition.”

Ms. Chester says, “Scenes can be defined as confrontation between at least two characters in disagreement over a specific objective.”

“A scene is a collection of beats held together by a relatively consistent setting (meaning, it doesn’t tend to leave the setting),” says Chuck Wendig. “A scene tends to have a common purpose in that it advances the story in one direction and does not cut away from that setting, cast, or purpose.”

Ms. Alderson and Ms. Rosenfeld say, “If you’ve never thought much about the shape of a scene, consider it a self-contained ministory with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience. “

“When you think of a scene, don’t think of location or events or chapters,” says Mr. James. “Think of unmet goals that result in recalculation.”

Mr. Bell says, “An action scene is found when you have an objective, obstacles, and an outcome.”

“When you add together complex characterization, dialogue that resembles actual human conversation rather than exposition or explanation, a tactile feel of setting and place, and rich sensory detail, what you have is scene. . . . specific human beings, in a particular place, surrounded by particular objects, moving through time,” says Dinty W. Moore. “Usually, though not always, the human beings are interacting in some way. Most likely they are talking.”

Defining Scenes: Complex Definitions

“What is a scene?” asks Jack M. Bickham. “It’s a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented on stage in the story ‘now.’ It is not something that goes on inside of characters head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.”

Robert McKee says, “A scene is a story in miniature–an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life.”

Jim Mercurio says, “A scene is a small unit of story, unified by time and space, which encapsulates a single action and culminates in a change. The change should involve both the story and the character.”

Adam Skelter says, “A scene is a story unit where an event takes place that changes the character’s emotional state.”

“A scene is a unit of dramatic action caused by a character who wants something, has an important reason to pursue it here and now, and must deal with whatever problems stand in the way,” says Mr. Dunne. “The action typically takes place in one setting in real time, and adds up to a dramatic event. For example, something is begun or ended. Or, something is accomplished or fails to be accomplished. Whether positive or negative, the main event of the scene changes the world of the story in a significant way, and moves the character closer to, or further from, completing the quest.”

A scene is “a component of the story that plays out in the story now, from a single viewpoint, told moment by moment, with no summary, and in a way so that what the characters does has downstream impact on the course of the rest of the story,” says Mr. Bickham.

“Scenes are the essential DNA of story: They are the individual ‘cells’ of information that shape the essence of the story in which sympathetic characters undertake significant actions in a vivid and memorable way on the journey toward a compelling plot goal,” says Ms. Rosenfeld. “When strung together, individual scenes add up to build fully developed plots and storylines.”

Why should I care about writing scenes well?

When added together, these little units create your plot,” says Ms. Rosenfeld.

“By thinking in scenes,” says Peter Rubie and Gary Provost, “you are focusing on the nitty-gritty of the emotional drama that is pulling along your story’s plot, infusing it, through the depiction of conflict and character development, with emotional power.”

So, how many scenes do I need?

“For your first draft, you should aim for at least sixty scenes,” says Ms. Munier. 

That breaks down to 15 for the story’s Beginning, 30 for its Middle, and 15 for the End.

Going Forward and A Bit of Trivia

In reading all these books about scenes I learned something interesting. It seems the major scene craft gurus all hail from one place: the University of Oklahoma. Yup. At UofO, Dwight Swain taught Jack Bickham, who taught Deborah Chester, who famously taught Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files.

This post won’t have any Story Master Wednesday post following it, but in future Wednesday posts, I’ll be mining examples from Jim Butcher books, specifically Storm Front (his first one, written in Deborah Chester’s class) and Ghost Story (thirteenth in the series). I’m using these because I think the JB books will reliably demonstrate whatever scene aspect we’re learning. I’ll probably also mine whatever I happen to be reading at the time and whatever on my shelves comes to mind as a good or terrible example, but if you want to follow along and do the work with me, there you go…

My favorite books on scenes (plus those Jim Butcher books)

Despite the plethora of stuff written about scenes, there are only a few books that actually show you how to write one (and most of those are written by Jack Bickham). If scenes are something you’re trying to improve (and they should be), start with these two books: Scene and Structure will help you nail the fundamentals, and The Craft of Scene Writing will help you take your command of the fundamentals to the next level.

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

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Up Next

Scene Prompt #16 and then an overview of scene elements. . . . at least I think that’s what the next scene post will be. Either way, I’ll figure it out by next Monday. See you then!

2 thoughts on “Scenes: What are they?

  1. Hey Megan,
    Brilliant deep-dive into the topic as always.
    Where can I find the pdf version of the Scene Mastertool?
    Many thanks,
    Val

    Like

    1. Hi Val! Glad the posts are helpful. You never know, so it’s nice to hear. =)
      The PDF should be at the bottom of the newsletter that was sent out on 4.26.21.
      If you don’t get the newsletter, you can get it here. The PDF should be at the bottom of the welcome email, along with the character development workbook. (Check your spam.)
      And if none of that works, email me at writeswithtools (at) gmail (dot) com, and I’ll send it to you.

      Like

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