Wednesday, August 21, 2019

How to Write Scenes (and What Qualifies as a Scene)

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Scenes are the building blocks of fiction, but many writers struggle with what they actually are, and how to write one.

For something so fundamental to writing a novel as the scene, scenes are a frequent source of frustration for many writers. Even when you generally know what a scene is, fully understanding how to write it can be confusing.

Common questions abound:
  • What exactly is a scene?
  • What does a scene need to have?
  • How long is a scene?
  • Are scenes and chapters the same thing?
Let’s look at what a scene is and how it fits into the larger novel:

What Is a Scene?

First, it’s important to note that “scene” has two uses in writing.
1. The individual chunks of the novel.
2. The dramatized action of a goal—conflict—result sequence.
I’m going to talk about both, but unless specified, when I say “scene” I mean the dramatized action version.

A scene is a chunk of the novel that shows the protagonist or point of view character trying to achieve a goal, what happens as they do it, and what the result of that pursuit is.

For example, the character wants something (the goal), they act to get it for whatever reason (the motivation), they face opposition or something that won’t let them have it for some reason (the conflict), and then they either succeed or fail to get that goal (the result, which leads to the sequel).

Basically: They want something, they can’t have it, and this is what happens when they try to get it.

That’s it.

It’s both simple and terribly complicated, because anything can be a scene as long as it has those three things. But scenes also have everything else that goes into telling a story—dialogue, exposition, internalization, characterization, world building, etc. All of those elements help create the scene that pursues that goal and advances that story.

(Here’s more on Goals-Motivations-Conflicts: The Engine That Keeps a Story Running)

What Does a Scene Need to Have: The Core Elements of a Scene

A scene is built from the following elements:


The character is trying to do something, there’s a reason they can’t do it, and the goal is resolved in some fashion. This structure is also referred to as Goal—Conflict—Disaster, but I dislike that because “disaster” makes you think it has to be an actual disaster, and that’s not true. Most of time it’s bad, since that’s the nature of stories, but it’s just “what happens at the end of the pursuit of the goal.” Failure to achieve the goal is a “disaster,” even if there’s no actual disaster.

A scene ends with the resolution of the goal, in one of four ways:
The protagonist gets the goal: Whatever the protagonist was trying to do, it was successful.
The protagonist doesn’t get the goal: Whatever the protagonist was trying to do, it failed.
The protagonist gets the goal, but there’s a catch (or there’s more in some way): Whatever the protagonist was trying to do, it was successful, but it either had a price to pay or a consequence, or the protagonist discovered more needed to be done to fully resolve the goal.
The protagonist doesn’t get the goal and it makes things worse: Whatever the protagonist was trying to do, it failed, and things are worse because of that failure.
After this, the protagonist gets a chance to react and reflect on what just happened, and decide what to do next (the sequel).

What Comes After the Scene: The Core Elements of a Sequel

Scenes and sequels are not the same thing. The scene is where the actions takes place. The sequel is where the reaction takes place.
  • The protagonist reacts
  • The protagonist debates or reflects on what just happened
  • The protagonist chooses what to do next, which sets the goal for the next scene
Sequels are not scenes, because they have no goal—conflict—result driving them. A sequel can be one sentence, such as, “Holy cow, it’s gonna blow, we have to get out of here.”

Let’s look closer:

Say the goal of the scene is to disarm a bomb. The protagonist tries his best, but in the end, he clips the wrong wire and the timer speeds up. He has failed the goal. The result of that failed goal causes him to react.

His reaction is: Holy cow

His debate or reflection is: it’s gonna blow (he’s considered what’s going on and has decided what it means)

His choice on what to do next is: we have to get out of here

Thus the sequel ends and the new goal takes over.

Here’s Where Scene and Sequel Gets Tricky

The next goal is to “get out of here,” which moves the plot forward. Odds are there will be a scene or chapter break at this moment, because it’s high tension, and a great place to end a chapter.

But you might choose to keep going without a break in the text. So technically, there’s a new “scene” because there’s a new goal, even if it’s in the same chunk of text. The scenes blend together, even though they are two separate scenes.

Most of us would call this, “the scene where Bob can’t disarm the bomb and they get out just before it explodes.” That summary describes the overall action that takes place in that situation and chunk of text in the book. Even though there were multiple goals (and thus scenes), it’s still all in one chunk of the novel.

Yeah, I know, it can make the head swim.

(Here’s more on The Difference Between a Sequel and a Scene ) 

How Scenes and Sequels Confuse Writers

I think this wrinkle causes much of the confusion with scenes. It’s just not always clear where a “scene” ends and how the sequel fits into that. We commonly refer to scenes as a chunk of text in the novel where something happens, and that’s mostly accurate, but not the complete truth.

The scene goal might be resolved before the actual break in the text. Most scenes (in the “chunk of text” way) also have a sequel, where the protagonist reacts to the result part of the scene.

(Here's more on And...End Scene: When to Add a Scene Break)

Now This Is Where it Gets Really Tricky

Sequels typically focus on the inner debate of the character, because they’re reacting and trying to figure out what to do next. It’s easy to see how “thinking” is a sequel and “action” is a scene.

Someone sitting around thinking is not a scene. However, someone with a goal of “figure out how Bob got out of the room” is a goal that might show a character thinking while they try to figure this out.

The difference here is that “just thinking” is a reaction to an event. “Directed thinking to solve a problem” is action based on a goal.

It also works the other way. A character might react to a situation by smashing up the room and screaming before collapsing onto the floor and sobbing. It’s a lot of action, but there’s no goal or conflict to be had, so it’s not a scene.

The goal and conflict determines whether or not that chunk of text is a scene or a sequel.

(Here’s more on Painting a Scene vs Dramatizing a Scene)

Examples of Scenes

One of the more common scene questions I get is, “What goes into a scene?” Writers want to know if the situations in their stories are scenes or not. A scene might be:
John wants to ask Lila out, but he keeps getting interrupted (goal and conflict). He gives it one last attempt (action). Someone comes over and he chickens out (result).
Carlos want to sneak past the guards to rescue the prince, and to do that he needs to disguise himself as a serving wench bringing dinner (goal and conflict). He grabs a tray and brings in dinner (action). He sneaks past (result).
Izumi needs to monitor the crews’ health to ensure the mission is successful, but they’re ignoring her advice and working too hard (goal and conflict). She confronts the crew (action). They promise to come in for checkups at the end of the shift (result).
Rose wants to trust Julian, but isn’t sure if she should (goal and conflict). She makes a list of the pros and cons (action). She realizes there are more cons than pros (result).
For all of these, there are small goals driving each scene. The result leads to the sequel. For some of these, the sequel will be pretty short, because there’s not a lot to react to or think about. Others will need a little more page time to show those reactions. And some might need a few pages to really debate it if the issue is problematic enough.

(Here’s more on Thoughts On Writing a Scene)

How Long Is a Scene?

Scenes can be any length, though they’re generally chapter-sized or shorter (as in, a chapter might contain several scenes). There’s no set word count for them, and the size varies from book to book. For example, novels with 10,000-word chapters might have 10,000-word scenes, and novels with 1,000-word chapters might have two 500-word scenes in one chapter. Remember:
  • A scene might be the entire chapter, regardless of length
  • The chapter might consist of multiple smaller scenes
Most scenes have at least a few hundred words, since you do need time to show a character in pursuit of a goal and what happens. But you’ll also see extremely short chapters that move the story, even though they aren’t scenes. For example:
A single sentence chapter: “I’M THE ONE WHO UNPLUGGED YOU.” (no citation because I don’t want to spoil this particular book)
This clearly isn’t a scene, because there’s no goal—conflict—result. It’s also not a sequel because there’s no reaction and debate on what to do next. It’s a chapter because the author wanted this to stand out and have emotional impact.

(Here’s more on Don’t Know How to End Your Scene? Here’s Why.)

Are Chapters and Scenes the Same Thing?

No. Chapters are an arbitrary organization device to control a novel’s flow and pacing. You can have a lot of them, or none at all.

However, almost all books do have scenes, even if they don’t have chapters. The book is broken into chunks to make it easy for readers to read it.

Some people might consider those chapters, others won’t. It’s really your call there.

Scenes can be confusing, but it helps to consider what people mean when they say “scene.” If they’re talking about the chunk of text that covers the reason why that situation is in the book, it’ll contain more than just the goal—conflict—result elements of a technical scene.

Do you struggle with scenes? Do you have any other questions about scenes or sequels?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. I "chunk" my story usually by setting. It isn't always that way but I would say it happens about 85% of the time. I consider scenes sort of mini stories making up the whole of the bigger story.

    I wasn't sure what a sequel was. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

    Do authors really have 10,000-word chapters? There's an English author who doesn't use chapters, just scenes.

    1. Some authors do, though I think chapters in general are getting shorter. Depends on the genre I think.