Monday, April 29, 2013

What is a Scene?

You’ve heard the word thrown around a bit, but what is a scene, how long is it supposed to be, and why are scenes important to your story? Today I will go over this, and next week I’ll go over how to manipulate a scene to enhance your story.

What is a Scene?
In structural terms, a scene is a unit of drama, a subdivision of a story. Plays, movies, TV shows, and books all are broken down into scenes, but in books in particular, a scene is usually smaller than even a chapter, and your story will ultimately be filled with dozens of these.

A Beginning, a Middle, and an End

Sometimes a scene is considered a story within a story because it is structured with a beginning, a middle, and an end. So for instance, if your book is about an investigator who is solving a mystery, in one particular scene he might be chasing a key player involved in his investigation.

The scene might begin with the investigator running surveillance at an abandoned warehouse, the middle of the scene might consist of a chase, and the end of the scene might come to a close when the pursued individual hops a fence.

Almost all scenes have this particular cadence to them, and this is probably why scenes are such an effective way to narrate—because they are essentially a story within a story.

How Long is a Scene?
The length of a scene can vary, which partially explains why a scene is so difficult to define, but usually a single chapter contains several scenes. My suggestion is to not worry about the length of your scenes. Having a scene that is two paragraphs long is okay. So is having a ten-page scene. 

Some writers lean towards shorter scenes in general, others lean towards longer scenes. And in a single book an author can have both a scene that’s two paragraphs long and a scene that’s ten pages long. All are correct, so don’t worry about the length.

What Does a Scene Contain?
More important than the length of a scene, what really defines a scene is what the scene contains. Like I mentioned earlier, a scene usually contains a beginning, a middle, and an end, although the beginning of a scene can still occur in medias res (in the middle of things).

But more importantly, a scene pushes the plot forward either directly or indirectly. The above example, where the investigator chases an individual is an example of a scene that directly pushes the plot forward; your main character is actively pursuing answers that will solve the mystery.

However, you can also have scenes that indirectly push the plot forward. So if in the same story your main character happens to be cleaning out his attic and he finds some old letters from an ex, the scene may not, on the surface, have much to do with his investigation, but it might be important if the discovery sets off a chain of internalized events that ultimately affect the way your main character investigates or his personal thoughts lead him to a vital connection that could help solve the case.

Lastly, a scene is active, and your character should encounter opposition. In a scene, whoever is narrating that specific section of text should encounter external or internal stimuli. Essentially stimuli—whether it’s a person or something less tangible, such as a bad grade—creates conflict. This conflict should, when the scene ends, either lead to a new piece of information and/or leave your character worse off than when the scene began.

What Is Not a Scene
So far, there are really three main things that I would not consider a scene, summaries, filler, and sequels.

Summarizing, is exposition. It gives the reader the backstory, it reviews events, and bridges temporal gaps (spans of time between scenes). But summaries are not considered scenes because they do not narrate moment-by-moment, and this type of in-the-moment narration is key to writing a successful story.

Summaries have their place, but they are not scenes, and summarizing in place of a scene is almost always less desirable than simply taking the text out of its summarized form and writing it out as the events unfold.

Ah, there is almost nothing I enjoy nagging about as much as filler. These are those sections of text that do nothing other than fill space. They do not push the plot forward—they usually have nothing to do with the story at all—and they are usually boring. So for instance, if during part of the story we’ve been running with throughout this post—the investigation—your main character cooks dinner, and goes into great detail to discuss what he cooked, how he cooked it, and what it tastes like, your characters are going to be extremely confused (unless this is a culinary themed mystery) and not entertained. 

Let me be clear: the example I just gave you of filler is different from my example of the investigator cleaning out his attic. Why? Because what the investigator finds in the attic directly affects how the rest of the plot unfolds; the meal he cooks does not. 

Filler can be a confusing topic for some because you have to know what is important and entertaining for readers to read and what isn’t. So in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book in the series, J.K. Rowling spends a good deal of time discussing the world she created, including the school grounds, the professors, the classes, the spells, and so on. This is not filler, because it’s world building, and it’s necessary for the reader to know how this world functions so that the actions of Harry Potter and everyone else in the world make sense.

This can get tricky, so the key to understanding what is filler in your book and what is not is asking yourself why the section of text is important. If you cannot come up with a good answer, chances are it’s filler.

Sequels follow scenes. These sections of text are a recovery period for the readers; this is where characters reflect on their situation. Unlike a scene, these are usually reflective periods of time that allow readers to catch their breaths and allow characters to analyze what’s happened to them and what they should do next. I will go over this in greater detail in a following post.

To conclude, a scene is a subdivision of a story, a single unit of drama. It has been defined as having a beginning, middle, and end, and within a scene, your character encounters conflict. A scene can vary in length; both long and short scenes are perfectly fine. In a scene, your character should encounter opposition, and the scene should either directly or indirectly push the plot forward. Lastly, summaries, filler, and sequels are not scenes.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Great explanation, Laura. Now off to play "hunt the scene" in my own novel :)

  2. Hi Laura - as always - so thorough and helpful. I have already referred this post to several of my writer friends :)

    Also, have I mentioned what an AMAZING editor you are?? Once I'm published, it will all be your fault.

  3. Valuable explanation on how to develop a story. Thank you, Laura. Good ideas for controlling prose too.