In a novel, what is a scene?
A scene is a small increment of the story that progresses the story forward. A novel is full of them. And while this may seem obvious, they ain’t easy to write.
Have you written a scene and not known where to start?
Ask yourself these ten questions!
The purpose of a scene is to put the characters in a new situation in which they are either pushed toward or pulled away from their objectives. Your scenes are the necessary steps that the characters take for the advancement of the story. Your characters could be in the scene deliberately, say Betty and Veronica arrived at the coffee shop to meet the woman with the dog for sale. Or they could be in the scene accidentally, say, they were pushed into the back room of the coffee shop by an armed intruder who was taking hostages.
1. Who will be in the scene? At the top of a piece of paper, make a list of characters that are absolutely necessary for this scene and no more.
2. What does each character do? Each character should have an objective in the scene. It may mean they have to keep a secret, deliver a note, or make dinner. They need to be busy with a particular purpose. Betty is there to speak to a dog owner about buying a poodle. Veronica is there because she’d rather help Betty than go home to her deadbeat boyfriend.
3. What are the consequences if the character doesn’t do what they are supposed to? If you write this down now, you can see what options you have for the scene. The more interesting the consequences, the better for this scene. Betty’s wanted a dog for a long time, ever since Foo Foo died, so if this doesn’t work out, she’ll be all the more depressed. If Veronica can’t decide what to do about her bf, Harold, then she’ll have to pay his rent again.
“Every scene should be able to answer three questions: “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?”
― David Mamet
4. What is the emotional temperature of each character? Whatever you do, don’t make them content! They need to irritated, sleepy, hungry, impatient or exasperated. They need to be fearful or stressed or in love. Whatever their state, they have to be in tension. The purpose of the scene is to either increase their tension or decrease it. Betty is on the verge of tears, she misses her old dog so much. Veronica keeps rehashing all of Harold’s sins and gets angry.
5. What do you want the final outcome of the scene to be? Next to every character make a positive + or a negative – sign. For those that will end positively, come up with at least six things that can be done or said that can bring them to the end of the scene with hope. For those that will end negatively, come up with at least six things that can be done or said that will pull them farther away from their goal. This is where their main objectives of the story may change. Betty’s change may be that she no longer wants to buy a poodle off Craig’s List, she just wants to survive. Veronica is so angry with Harold, that she has no trouble standing up to the gunman.
“[T]he success of every novel — if it’s a novel of action — depends on the high spots. The thing to do is to say to yourself, “What are my big scenes?” and then get every drop of juice out of them.”
― P.G. Wodehouse
6. What gift are you giving your reader? Each scene’s purpose is to give the reader more information, to have them pulled one way or the other, to reveal more secrets, or to have them grow in empathy for your main characters. If your reader isn’t coming away with a “gift,” or better still, a “surprise” in one of these things, then the scene isn’t necessary. Cut it now not after you’ve been sculpting that 3000 word monster for a month. For example, the gunman IS HAROLD! This infuriates Veronica. She takes the gun from him and forces him to his knees.
7. What is the pacing of the scene? If there is a lot of action, then your sentences should be short and your verbs vibrant and active. If you want a slower, more descriptive or contemplative scene, then choose longer sentences. In the beginning, when Betty is missing her old dog and Veronica is just a bit miffed, the sentences could be longer and reflective, but as the gunman enters and forces everyone to the back room, the action kicks in gear. The sentences are shorter. The dialogue is sharp and to the point. Betty whimpers. Veronica is enraged.
“Structure isn’t anything else but telling the story, starting as late as possible, starting each scene as late as possible. You don’t want to begin with “Once upon a time,” because the audience gets antsy.”
― William Goldman
8.How does this scene play with the scenes around it? You should be taking your reader on an interesting ride. This means that the scenes should alternate in action-packed and more passive. The emotionally gripping scenes should have a breather between them in which the main character (and the reader too) can stop and catch their breath. The scene before this one was when Betty finally got dressed and decided that a new pet would get her out of her funk. Or, the scene before this one was when Veronica had chewed out Harold for the millionth time. The scene after? Veronica is at the police station, giving a statement. Betty has snapped out of it, she’s the best attorney in the state!
9.How much attention do you need to the setting? Probably not much, unless it’s critical to the objective of the scene. Go easy on the description. Keep it to only a handful of sensory descriptions. In my example, we don’t need a detailed description of the coffee shop. You could say “hipster” and “reclaimed wood” and “chalkboard menus” and every reader in the world would know what you were talking about. With your setting description, keep it simple too.
10. What would happen if this scene got omitted? Be brutal. Unless the action or the emotion of the scene is critical to the next scene, don’t bother. Without fully knowing all of Betty and Veronica’s saga, we don’t know whether this scene is important or not. If the story is about the true love between Veronica and Harold, then it’s probably important. If the story has to do with Betty’s law career, maybe not. Take a step back and looking at the entire book before deciding.
Answer these questions before you draft!
If can adequately answer them, and then keep your notes with you, the actual drafting should be easier. It could also be that once you answer the questions, the draft takes you on a different tangent altogether — like the poodle seller is a spy, or the coffee shop owner has been in love with Betty for years.
Scene creating is slippery, but perhaps with these questions, you can get a good handle on the creation of them for your novel.
Need more help with scenes? Try these 14 Easy Ways To Bring Your Scenes To Life or What To Do When A Scene Isn’t Working
Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community.