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What is a Scene?

This week, let’s chat about scenes. In the last installment, we discussed the over-arching set up of the novel through acts, but this week, we’ll break it down further so that we see the actual usefulness of scenes.

Scenes are different for each medium (TV, movie, book, screenplay, etc.), but they embody this one thing: action.

A scene is a section of writing in which your reader is a part of the story and there is more attention and focus on what’s happening; it is not description, or exposition (for the most part), or conclusion, but it happens around these pieces in chapters.

You know when you’re reading a novel and a chapter typically starts off with a sort of “introduction” and then moves into the meat of the chapter. Chapters are broken into scenes- you can see writers break these up by using little “page break” symbols.

Sometimes, the writer just uses white space to create an illusion of switching attention between scenes. So, don’t get confused by thinking a chapter and a scene are the same thing (chapters are for the most part subjective, which is why I am not including them in this series).

Scenes, however, can be broken up into multiple parts:

  1. Entry
  2. Action
  3. Exit

Entry pertains to the beginning of the scene. This can be written several different ways; abruptly (a ship is sailing along happily and then BAM -the entry- the Kraken attacks), languidly (your character is slowly waking up after being kidnapped), through dialogue (which is my favorite way to break into a scene), etc.

Action doesn’t just mean literal “action.” It means the meat and potatoes of the scene- the substance. It can usually be broken down even further:

  1. Something happens to the character.
  2. The character reacts.
  3. The reaction makes something else happen/ elicits some sort of emotional response.

ALWAYS always always ensure you include the emotion felt in this scene. You aren’t transcribing a movie scene, here, you are getting into your characters head, no matter what genre you’re writing. The characters are going to feel something. Even if you’re writing from a POV that allows for less mind-reading (like third-person), the characters still react and speak. If one of them doesn’t like what happened, show them storming away. If one of them is talking shit about the other characters, do your characters agree? Does someone walk in on them and overhear? Readers like to connect emotionally to stories and scenes are where it happens.

Exit is the end of the scene (not the end of the chapter, remember that) where SOMETHING is resolved. This can be a plot point, a character arc/a part in a character arc, foreshadowing… whatever it is, ensure it’s necessary. It doesn’t even have to be an actual resolution, meaning the world doesn’t have to be conflict-free after this scene. It just has to be a resolution of the action, which means this certain action happened and it affected the characters and you explain/show how it affected the characters.

Now, every scene has something else to it besides purpose, and in one of the resource books I’ve been reading, they call it PULSE. In The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield, she calls it pulse. There’s conflict and tension in your scene, yes, but there’s something else driving it. A scene is propelled forward by your characters main desires, and sometimes that can actually cause the conflicts within your scene. This background desire or need is what pulse is.

For example: In The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, there’s a scene right at the beginning of the story where a new character is introduced and is narrating the novel. He comes upon Lyra in a new world, and the scene serves mostly as an introduction between the two characters and make them companions, but there is this subtle beat beneath the scene that stems from Wills desires to help his mother. He initially goes on this adventure because he doesn’t want to see her die, so he needs to find a way to help her. So he goes adventuring. Does that make sense?

I hope this helped! If you guys would like more examples in these posts I’d be happy to do so, I’m just afraid of writing too much on the subject 🙂 I tend to get rambly when I talk about something that interests me lol

If you are interested in one of the books that helped me format this post, look up The Scene Book by Sandra Scofield. It’s a nice little book that I used in a class in my Master’s program and it is a great reference.

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