I'm not sure about the rest of you, but ever since I started writing, I threw around words like "scene" and "scene break" with the understanding that these terms identified essential elements of story writing. But for years I lacked the fundamental understanding of what a scene actually was. So for everyone out there who was like me, here's a breakdown of what a scene is and what it needs.
(The following is adapted from the newest IFW tips and techniques workbook, The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer's Workbook, available soon.)
Plot is accomplished through a series of scenes. A scene is the dramatization of one snapshot in time—what happens at one specific place and time. Of course, the action may unwind over a period of several minutes or longer, but once the action is transferred to a different setting or to a different character, that scene ends and another scene begins. However, we do not require a scene break if the viewpoint character himself is moving, say walking down the street from one house to another, or if the omniscient point of view is used.
Every scene in a novel must further the plot or develop a character (preferably both at the same time); otherwise, it’s an extraneous scene and should be cut. Every scene should also have a feeling of completeness about it. This is accomplished by ending the scene with an action, thought, or dialogue by the viewpoint character, hopefully resolving or reviewing whatever “mini-crisis” the scene presented.
(Tip: Make a scene feel complete by ending it with the focus on the viewpoint character.)
When a new scene begins, you, the writer, have a huge new responsibility. Have you ever thought about what happens to an unsuspecting reader when a scene changes? He’s been comfortable, hanging around and experiencing your story, aware of where he is, when he is, and through whose eyes he’s seeing/hearing/feeling things, when all of a sudden one scene ends and another begins. Your poor reader is snatched out of his comfort zone, zoomed through time and space, and is plunged into a new scene. God—er, um, you—only knows where he is now. He may crash into the same physical space he’s just vacated—or he may end up across the globe or even in a new galaxy. Five seconds may have passed—or ten days or a dozen centuries. Even more jolting, he could now be seeing and hearing and smelling through a different character.
It’s an extremely unsettling experience. That is, unless you, the creator of this world the reader is visiting, are experienced enough and thoughtful enough to guide him through the trauma. Oh, my! Did you even know you had this humongous responsibility? Well, you do.
Within the first few sentences of a new scene, your reader needs to know several things, including:
- Whose eyes he’s now seeing things through. (If you employ a single viewpoint character throughout the manuscript, this is not necessary.)
- Which characters are present in the scene.
- How much time has passed since the last scene ended.
- Where he is in general—such as the city, state, country. If this general location has not been visited previously, we may need more information, such as if it’s rural, big city, etc.
- Location, specific: if inside, where we are, such as in a living room or inside a diner. If outside, if we’re in a vehicle, hiking, etc.
- Time period: the decade we’re in. (If this does not change throughout the manuscript, you do not need to re-establish this.)
- Time of year: spring, summer, fall, winter—or actual month.
- General time of day: morning, afternoon, evening, night.
- Weather, if it affects the story in any way (and it usually does).
Additionally, the reader may need to know the date or the day of week, as well as any historically relevant happenings on that day. For example, if this scene occurs on September 11, 2001, and no mention is made of the collapse of the twin towers, your reader is going to question your integrity. We call providing this information grounding your reader, as it allows your reader to simply relax and become a part of the story instead of floating around in space, desperately trying to figure out where and when he is and through whose eyes he’s seeing.
(Tip: Research does more than add authenticity—it often opens the door to subplots and additional scenes.)
If it were not for the First Commandment of Writing—Thou Must Show, Not Tell—we’d just open each scene with a recitation of all the necessary facts. But, instead, we must be artistic about it. We must not just give all the information, but we must sprinkle it around and create amazing prose with conflict and suspense while doing so. The goal is to create a picture the reader can imagine in his mind. He must be able to envision where the action is happening, who is present, and what is going on. This balancing act of feeding information to your reader while maintaining interest is not easy. But it must be done.