Scene Elements: The Scene’s Purpose

According to the craft masters, scenes should have a purpose (also called a mission, intention, focus, point, or function). In other words, it needs a reason for being in your story.

This isn’t the character’s reason for entering the scene. (We’ll get to that later.) This is your, the author’s, reason for including the scene in your story.

Every scene needs a purpose

Don’t believe me? Then listen to these guys:

Every “scene has a point,” says Donald Maass.

“Every scene you write should have a valid reason for being in the story,” says Deborah Chester.

In fact, “[a] good scene is multipurpose and does several . . . things,” says Laura Whitcomb.

Not only that but, as Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld say, “The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose . . .”

“There is a reason the passage is rendered in detail rather than summarized,” says Sandra Scofield, “There is a reason why it appears where it does in the sequence of events. It accomplishes something for the story.”

You need to know why this scene exists,” says Chuck Wendig, “You have to know what the scene does and how it earns its place. Defend it. Identify not why it must happen but rather why the audience needs to see it.”

“Every scene has a mission to accomplish,” says Larry Brooks. “Your scene won’t work until you are crystal clear about its mission. A scene should never wander around in search of meaning and mission…you need to know. And when you do–only when you do–can you then craft a delivery that allows the reader to linger and tease as you please.”

So what exactly is a scene purpose?

The craft masters list many things that can be a scene’s purpose, but I think only one of the craft masters listed here states it best. Still, we’ll wade through the other offerings too. They’re still relevant if not entirely on point just yet.

James Scott Bell says, “Your scenes must do one or more of the following:

  • move the story through action
  • characterize through reaction
  • set up essential scenes to come
  • sprinkle in some spice” which he doesn’t define, but is anything that elevates the scene, such as mixing opposites, creating tension, juxtaposing elements, etc.

Raymond Obstfeld says, “A scene usually focuses on a specific purpose:

  • to give the reader information necessary to further the plot
  • to show the conflict between characters
  • to develop a particular character by highlighting a specific trait or action
  • to create suspense

The best scenes do a combination of the above, sometimes all of the above. What’s important is that the writer (1) knows why that scene exists and (2) justifies its existence by making it memorable.”

Debra Dixon says, “Here’s a list of some common reasons to include a scene in a book:

  • introduce suspect
  • discover clues
  • sexual tension
  • comic relief
  • foreshadowing
  • reveal secrets
  • speed the pacing
  • establish trust between characters
  • betray trust between characters
  • the list goes on…and on…”

Further, Ms. Dixon says, “A scene should do at least one of the following:

  1. Dramatically illustrate a character’s progress toward the goal or provide an experience which changes the character’s goal.
  2. Bring a character into conflict with opposing forces.
  3. Provide a character with an experience that strengthens his motivation or changes his motivation.

A scene can do all three of those things simultaneously, but a scene should accomplish at least one of the above.”

But, as mentioned above, and although most of the craft masters included this in their lists, I think only one craft master nails exactly what a scene’s purpose is:

The purpose of the scene is to move the story forward,” says Syd Field. “Your story always moves forward, step by step, scene by scene, toward resolution.”

Mr. Wendig expands on this. He says “plotting a story . . . is the act of moving the story forward, step by step and scene by scene. It is, loosely, the act of determining the sequence of events as it is revealed to the audience. Not just what happens when, but the arrangement of those events and how the revelations stack up. An outline becomes this is revealed, then that, then this other thing, now the end.”

How does a scene move the story forward?

“How does a scene move your story forward?” asks Dwight Swain, “It changes your character’s situation; and while change doesn’t always constitute progress, progress always involves change.”

So how does a scene change the character’s situation? By providing new information. (New information might also be called exposition. Post on that coming.)

“New information is the ‘who, what, where, when, and why’ moment the scene is building up to, and it’s a wide category that includes events, discussions, discoveries, epiphanies, and more,” says Jordan Rosenfeld. “This information should advance your story and deepen characters, usually as consequences of prior scenes so that scenes weave together.”

In other words, a scene moves the story forward for the reader by providing new information in a way that changes things for the character, thus giving character something (further) to act on. They may or may not act on it right away, in the immediately following scene, but nevertheless they (and we) have received the scene’s clue, its piece of the puzzle.

New information can be Plot Exposition, Characterizing Exposition, or Other Exposition, such as stuff that establishes the reader-character bond, setups to be paid off later, and all the other stuff listed by the craft gurus in the previous section (before we got to the real purpose of a scene).

How do I know if my scene is fulfilling its purpose?

Mr. Wendig suggests asking of the scene: “Is it telling us something about the characters? Is it moving events forward with a necessary tentpole moment?  Is it delivering a key piece of information to the audience–and to the characters, as well?”

For many of the craft masters, a scene is fulfilling its purpose if it . . .

“. . . is developing or introducing one or more characters, providing new information, developing the theme, creating a mood, or creating or sustaining dramatic tension.” (Laura Whitcomb)

“. . . deepens character, drives the story forward, and ends in such a way that [Reader] just has to know what happens next.” (Marha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld)

“. . . has a goal it strives to execute, a single piece of narrative contribution to story exposition, rendered within the parameters of the characters and settings the author has established.” (Larry Brooks)

“. . . deliver[s] a piece of story information, also known as exposition,” that moves the story forward. (Larry Brooks)

“. . . is selling the reader one of the following products: character, plot or theme. . . . the best scenes will offer some of each.” (Raymond Obstfeld)

It changes something. It makes now different from the past.” (Sandra Scofield)

How do I figure out what exactly my scene’s purpose is?

Sadly, the craft masters don’t provide much help here.

Steven James says, “As you shape your scene, ask, ‘How will this result in pain?’ When you know the answer, you’ll know what the scene is primarily about.”

Mr. Brooks says, “It boils down to this: For each and every scene in your story, ask ‘What’s the primary, singular, expositional mission of this scene?‘ If you have trouble answering, or you have more than one answer, then odds are the scene is in trouble. . . . When you ask this question–and properly answer it–before you write the scene, it’s like filing a flight plan for it, and your odds of success go up exponentially.”

Mr. Maass says, “[L]ook away from the page and look toward what is really happening. What change takes place?” That’s the point of the scene.

Ms. Rosenfeld says, “The new information is often something that builds upon the information from a prior scene. Each scene is another block in the stack that leads to completion.”

How do I make sure the scene’s purpose is clear to the reader?

Again, the craft masters are a little vague.

“Though every scene has a purpose or focus, the best scenes achieve this subtlety through misdirection,” says Mr. Obstfeld. “This is especially important if the scene exists merely to deliver information.”

Mr. Brooks says, “Once you know the mission for each scene, the next step is to conceive a creative treatment (approach) for the scene, using the power of story physics to drive it home. This treatment should make the scene as effective–scary, dramatic, multifaceted, mysterious, impactful, sexy, or whatever it needs to be–to best fulfill its mission. This, too, is the art of writing…an intuitive feel for the type of creative treatment that is indeed optimal. The more you understand the Big Picture of your story and the principles that prop it up, the quicker and closer you’ll come to that intuitive creative solution.”

Ms. Rosenfeld says, “When you begin your scene, you should have an idea of what new piece of information you will be revealing to the reader and through what sort of means.”

The means of reveal could be:

  • Dialogue, including eavesdropping and ammunition as exposition
  • Action, including fighting, racing, and discovery through exploration or accident
  • Thought, such as epiphanies triggered by setting or dialogue
  • Coincidence, such as an anonymous tip
  • Etc.

How many purposes?

Good question. The craft masters don’t quite agree.

One purpose

Mr. Brooks says, “[H]ere’s the golden little secret that is rarely spoken aloud, and just as rarely broken: Optimally, each scene should contain only one such piece of exposition. The mission of each scene is to deliver a single, salient, important piece of story to the reader.”

Two purposes

Don McNair says, “If writers made sure every scene did at least two things instead of one, they would have a more powerful manuscript. . . . All the scenes in your manuscript provide information to the reader. That’s the first [purpose]. The second [purpose] should be to move the story along.”

Nancy Kress says, “A scene should both advance the plot and deepen our understanding of character. If any of your scenes is doing only one of these things, consider changing it.”

Mr. Wendig says, “A scene needn’t merely have one purpose, either. It can pull double duty. It can say something about theme as well as move the plot forward. It can give us a crucial character moment while also reinforcing mood.”

At least three purposes

Mr. Obstfeld says scene must include “character, plot or theme. . . . the best scenes will offer some of each.”

Ms. Dixon says, “[A]ny scene should have at least three reasons for being in your book.  As already established one of those three reasons has to be goal, motivation or confict. The other two reasons for the scene can be anything you want.”

Verdict: One+ Purpose

Altogether the craft masters seem to be saying that your scene should anchor the setting and establish mood and develop character and create tension and all that other good stuff. But as for moving the story forward, the scene should reveal one and only one new piece of plot information/exposition that propels us into another scene.

James Bonnet, though taking his time to do so, says it best: “In real life, certain actions and ideas are more essential to a solution than others. In story, we see this revealed by the structure of the scenes, which isolate the essential steps (the core elements) and illuminate them. The core element becomes the center or fascination of the scene. It is what the scene is about. It links the scene to the passage and story focus and governs the actions around which the scene is built. And in a great story the scene will often only have this one objective. And when this is true, then everything in that scene–the actions, the characters, the atmosphere, the mood, the setting, etc., can serve that one objective and create a powerful artistic statement. . . . The simpler the scenes, the richer they are: the clearer their meaning, and the stronger their impact emotionally.”

Stated another way, Ms. Rosenfeld says, “You can balance all the scene elements perfectly, but if you don’t have this one key element [new information that moves the story forward], you’re going to lack plot tension.”

And Mr. Brooks says, “A scene that is just characterization, with nothing added to the exposition, is not good. Not optimized. When you add a piece of narrative exposition to that characterization, the scene has a mission. When you add a second or third mission to a single scene, you risk compromising power and clarity.”

In other words, if a story is a puzzle, then a scene should give us just one more piece of the puzzle that points us toward where to find the next piece of the puzzle.

Are you sure every scene needs a purpose?

Here the craft masters are clear: If your beloved tangential scene lacks a mission (I’ve decided I like this word best), it needs to go.

“If the scene doesn’t have a clear purpose in progressing the story, it needs to be questioned,” says Karen S. Wiesner.

Mr. James says, “Does the scene move the story in a new direction by showing how the struggle has deepened? If not, why is it in [the] book?”

“If a scene doesn’t change the protagonist’s situation, however slightly, or if it has no impact on later story development, cut it,” says Ms. Chester.

And Ms. Rosenfeld agrees: “Sorry to be the plot police, but here’s the cold truth: Every scene in your narrative must pertain to your plot. Every single one.”

That said, lots of stories have scenes that don’t seem to move the story forward. I’m thinking of the ones where the main character takes (and gives us) a respite with their friends or family. Don’t feel like you should cut out all of these kinds of scenes. As Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers say, bestselling writers always includes scenes “about human closeness and connection . . . moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds.” These scenes often don’t propel the story forward, but they do reinforce the reader-character bond while giving the reader a breather.

Last Tip

“[N]othing says you can’t make two scenes from one setup,” says Larry Brooks, “especially if there are two important pieces of storytelling at hand.”

Jim Butcher does this a lot. He’ll send Harry to a white council meeting or a vampire party and all sorts of scenes (each with story-propelling information) will happen while he’s there.

To Sum Up

A scene’s purpose is to insert new information that changes things for the character in a way that moves the story forward for the reader, and everything else in the scene–setting, character development, conflict, action, tension, etc.–is best presented when it, too, supports that mission.

Best books on Scene Purpose

Honestly, none of the craft masters are stellar on purpose, but these are the books that helped me most with this post.

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Up Next

About single-mission-driven scenes, Larry Brooks says, “James Patterson has mastered this, and it has become the accepted model of effective scene writing today: One mission per scene.” So I’m thinking I’m going to hunt down a current James Patterson book and see if I can figure out each scene’s mission. I wonder which book is shortest . . .

See you Wednesday! (Might be this Wednesday or next, depending on how fast I can get this book read . . .)

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