Scenes are the unit of storytelling. Each scene in your story should have a definitive purpose by either moving the plot forward or your character’s development forward. A strong scene that pulls its weight in moving the story forward has specific elements and components. In this article, I talk about how to craft a scene with purpose so that it builds on what came before and leads into what’s about to happen next within the framework of your story.
Let’s hop to it!
The Main Elements of a Scene
-A scene must “turn.” This means that from beginning to end, something critical to the story has to be different. Think of it in terms of cause and effect. Something happens in the scene, and there is a response that follows.
-A scene must have tension. Even happy scenes need to bring forth some tension.
-A scene should be one of many links that make up the chain of your story, which means it needs to build up on what came before it, and lead to what comes next.
-A scene must contain emotional aspects, which are directly related to your character’s reaction to anything that has happened.
A Bird’s Eye View of a Scene
ACTION (FIRST HALF OF SCENE)
Every scene must have a POV character who wants something but goes about achieving it the wrong way (meaning he allows his Flawed Belief to steer him in the wrong direction).
Because the POV character isn’t sure how to pursue his goal (he hasn’t fully understood his Flawed Belief is the reason he’s failing), he hits obstacles.
When he fails to reach his goal, he has a setback which is detrimental to his journey. He has a chance to learn from his mistakes. Depending on where the scene takes place in your book will determine how efficiently he learns from his mistakes.
REACTION (SECOND HALF OF SCENE)
Upon this opportunity to learn, your POV character now needs to react to what just happened. This is where the majority of your character development will take place. Again, depending on where the scene falls in your book will determine the level and depth of his awareness—he gradually understands his Flawed Belief is creating the problems here. Because we want the story to keep moving, your character needs to assess his predicament.
He’s just failed, and his reaction is X. Now what? That’s exactly where he’s at in his scene cycle. He needs to figure out his next move. Sometimes this will involve asking himself why he failed before (this helps prevent him from making the same mistake twice, which is good for you as the author, because we don’t want repetition in our stories).
Then he needs to make a decision. If he’s on a positive arc, he’ll come up with a new goal that keeps pushing him toward his ultimate story goal and he’ll learn something about his Truth along the way. If he’s on a negative arc, he’ll come up with a new goal that will further support his Flawed Belief.
PUTTING EVERYTHING TOGETHER
Take a minute to think about how humans react to events, news, surprises, or even mundane happenings. We always react after the event, right? And before we react, we usually have a thought or a feeling—this is what sets up our reaction. We don’t react, and then think about the event, in other words.
You need to construct your scenes like that.
Joshua slammed the brakes to avoid hitting the child. Joshua was shocked. Was that a kid? In the road?
As you can see, the above example doesn’t make a lot of sense. We see Joshua’s reaction before his emotion and thought. Logically, this wouldn’t happen.
Shock shot through Joshua’s chest. Was that a kid? In the road? He slammed the brakes.
The second version works much better because we’re not jumping ahead in the moment, getting the information in the wrong order.
When you go about constructing your scenes, pay attention to the order in which your characters are thinking, feeling, and reacting. You can break down the reaction portion of your scene cycle in this order:
- Action (the action can also be on the microscale, like heart hammering or clenching fists)
- Dialogue or inner monologue
This order is the logical way humans process things. Thought and feeling can overlap, and sometimes we might get one or the other, instead of both. Depends on your scene—but there has to be some inner stuff going on before your character can react physically. Also, depending on your character and the event, you may not need all components as mentioned above. Dialogue, for example, may be all that’s called for.
The length of your scenes will determine the pacing of your book. Short, action-filled scenes mean a faster read while longer scenes heavy with detail will slow down the pace. Scenes can span chapters, or you can clump several into a single chapter.
There is no set length to each component of a scene. While the action portion might happen quickly, your characters could either spend a lot of time reacting (grief) or they might deal with their feelings rashly and move on (revenge). This could happen all in a page or across several pages.
It helps to know how you want to set the pace for your book so that you can construct your scenes accordingly. Manipulating your overall story’s pace through scenework is a trick that can be used in the revision stage.
Because there are so many different ways a scene can unfold, the guidelines here aren’t set in stone—but they are truly helpful in navigating the craft. Your main goal is to be logical and clear so your readers aren’t confused. Every story is different and will have different needs. You, as its writer, take on the responsibility to know what’s best for your story.
KEEPING THINGS MISERABLE FOR YOUR CHARACTERS
One of our jobs as authors is to keep our characters miserable. When they have failed a scene goal and are in Decision mode to choose a new goal–it’s got to be something they aren’t crazy about. If it’s a goal that your MC has no problem trying to achieve, he’d have gone after it already.
You want to make sure that all goals your MC goes after carry consequences, are difficult to achieve, or are actions your MC wants to avoid.
Your characters need to take action in a way that makes sense to their growth. They will choose the easy ones first because they’d still be acting from a position of their Flawed Belief. They’ll pick paths that help them stay true to the Lie that they Believe. People (characters) don’t want to change. They don’t want to have to “grow.” They don’t want to give up their comfort zone. Their ideal situation is to get their heart’s desire while still inside their comfort zone, which is impossible but they don’t yet know this. So, the goals they pick first will be easy, safe, comfort-zone goals. However, they fail at these goals because they’re trying to achieve them as the Old Self, the person who lives by the code of their Flawed Belief.
It’s not until they change, evolve, grow (step out of the comfort zone), become their New Self, that they’re able to achieve their story goal. Prior to this point, they keep failing. You want to make sure that the goals your character decides upon go in a certain order that forces him gradually out of his comfort zone, forces him to gradually change.
They’ll pick the easiest goal first, then go down the line as best they can from easier, easy, hard, difficult, insane, painful, do or die type of goals. But as the goals get harder, your MC gets stronger. This is the symbiotic relationship between your plot and your character.
Do you enjoy writing scenes, or do you find them difficult? Let me know in the comments!