Scenes of Splendor
Scenes are the basic building blocks of fiction. Your inciting incident, your climax, your final confrontation will all happen “in scene”. Most stories are made of nothing but carefully assembled scenes, working together to form a whole text. Sometimes, exposition or time elapse devices will be applied between scenes, like mortar, to fill in the gaps and hold the structure together. But a story is strongest when no extra material is needed, when the scenes fit neatly together, supporting and bracing each other. To help you get that elegantly crafted effect, today we’re talking about strong scenes - how they work, and how they’re made!
Elements of a Scene
Let’s start with the basics. Every scene needs:
A purpose. Every scene needs a compelling reason to exist. Building a whole scene just to introduce a set piece or drop a single piece of exposition usually just clutters up the story. Where does this scene fit in your novel’s big picture? It helps to think about the impact you’re having on the reader. What do you want them to get out of this chunk of text, what do you want them to wonder, to know, and to feel during it, or after it? How will this scene achieve that? What ideas, events, or language is most likely to hook a reader into that experience? Purpose can also include how a scene relates to your story’s theme or themes, if that’s an aspect of your project that’s important to you!
A setting. Even if your scene is taking place in a literal void, you have to build that void and know what it is like there.
Description. You may dispense with introductory description, either because you’ve set a scene here earlier in the story, or because you’re making a stylistic or strategic choice for the interests of your story, but you’ll still need to include enough description to establish or remind your reader of the basics. Try to engage some of the under-utilized senses - talk about ambient smells and textures, the taste of the air. If you’re going to use weather, don’t forget to think about humidity and the perceptible aspects of air pressure.
Action. Something’s got to actually happen in your scene!
Conflict is the engine of mainstream genre fiction, but it’s okay if some important scenes aren’t framed around conflict. That’s because conflict actually refers to two different aspects of storytelling: at the scene level, conflict is a form of action. Some scenes won’t have any fighting, or even any real struggle against the environment or between characters. They could be framed around people forming alliances, eating, building relationships, traveling through a peaceful landscape, or kissing. Many of these scenes will still be colored by conflict, even though conflict isn’t their action. Because the other form of conflict is a kind of context, the knowledge either on the part of the characters or the part of the reader that not everything is right or resolved in the story world. This can be personal, with one or more characters experiencing emotional turmoil, or it can be external - for instance, the knowledge that even while your characters are pausing for a meal, their enemies are on the march.
Change. A scene can read beautifully, be packed full of fun dialogue and deadly stakes, and still be a frustrating stumbling block for readers. All that energy and emotion has to mean something. We’re not talking about themes, or allegory. We’re talking about outcomes. What impact does the scene have on the world of the story, on the characters, on the outcomes of the plot? How will the scene affect everything that comes after it?
Solid Structure. We’re used to think about structure on the novel scale, mapping the whole arc of our project onto our preferred plot diagram, act by act. We’ll dip down to look at the internal structure of an act or a chapter, but most of the time, we don’t think much about how are scenes hold together. On the whole, instinct and a skill with language and story mean that scenes turn out just fine. But why settle for “just fine”? Let’s zoom in and look at the skeleton of a scene!
Nesting Dolls - Story Structure is Chapter Structure is Scene Structure
The secret to writing a well-structured scene is exactly as simple and as complicated as writing a well-structured story - that’s because when you break your story down into pieces, whether they’re acts, chapters, or scenes, each piece should have its own complete story structure. There are writers who claim that this functions on the paragraph level, too. Here at Crit & Pen, we’re inclined to think that pursuing perfectly plotted paragraphs is a little quixotic, especially given how different paragraphs can be in length, shape, and purpose. But hey, don’t let us stop you! If structural precision is where your ambitions, or your talents, lie, then shoot for the stars - or the Microverse, as the case may be.
What do we mean when we say that a scene should be structured like a story? There’s no trick to it! A scene has a beginning, middle, and an end. A scene has an inciting incident that catalyzes its action, builds to a climax, and then winds down towards their conclusion. (There are, of course, other ways to order the events of a story, and there are other ways to organize the action of a scene, but most mainstream western storytelling is going to follow this format.) Depending on the length of your scenes, and how intricate you like your plotting, you may be able to map your scenes onto every beat and turning point in your favorite plot structure!
Once you start analyzing and purposefully crafting the structure of your scene, you can experiment with mixing things up. Purposefully crafting crowded five act scenes between sparser three act scenes will affect your story’s pacing. Building scenes with unusual structures - climactic cliffhangers, averted climaxes, interrupted action, can give your story dynamism and life. Remember that a scene should be structured less like a stand-alone story, and more like part of a carefully plotted series - it should follow from and lead into the scenes around it.
Scenes of Splendor: Putting it All Together
In the end, the process of writing a good scene is like the process of writing a good story.
You do some pre-writing: marshaling your characters, checking your story plan for information about the setting, the plot, and you sketch out your structure. You sit down and knock out a draft.
At some point, you’re going to revise!
You can use this article as a checklist, or follow your own revision process (for insight and guidance into revising your whole project, get yourself on the Fiction reVision waiting list! Let skilled professionals guide you through the wilder-lands of your current draft, master a method you can use for the rest of your career, start building connections with fellow writers, and get tons of resources to support your writing!):
Do you feel like your scene achieves its purpose? Have you done everything you can to get your readers asking themselves the questions and considering the ideas you intended?
Have you got the right amount of description, and are the specific details you picked right for the scene? Does your description add to the atmosphere, contextualize the action, and bolster the themes of your scene?
How does your action read? Does the scene feel cluttered? Or does it feel like simple events are being stretched into too many words? Does everything that happens make sense?
Is the scene setting up the rest of the story? Have you set up clear connections to let you carry the outcomes of the action through the rest of your story?
Check how far you strayed from your planned structure. Is the scene you wrote is better or worse than the plan? Either way, tighten up the sloppy beats and tweak the action and language so they’re tightly plotted.