The essential components of scenes
Over the weekend I took my 5-year-old daughter to see her first real play, Beauty and the Beast. Based on the Broadway musical of the famous Disney movie, I really wanted her to experience the difference between a stage production and a movie watched on-screen at home.
One of the big differences between plays and movies is the way scenes are delineated. In movies, the transitions vary. Most often there’s a quick cut to a new place or characters. On-stage, however, it’s glaringly obvious when scenes change: the lights go down and the audience applauds.
In fiction, however, the delineation isn’t quite as obvious. In fiction we have to narrate the in-between, the transitions from scene to scene. For this reason there can be some confusion about what a scene actually is,how it functions, and the purpose it serves. A few months ago, I was privileged enough to attend a seminar presented by a fellow book coach, Abigail Raeke, who gave an extremely helpful distillation of all things scene.
Let’s take a look.
What is a scene?
A scene is a building block of story in which you watch something happen in real time that contributes to the character’s transformation.
What’s the difference between scene and summary?
When writing fiction, we need both, but we have to choose when to use each.
The quick way of remembering it is this: summary tells us what happened; scene shows the process of how it happened.
Everything that moves the story forward should be played out in-scene, otherwise the readers will feel like they’ve missed out on something. This is the difference between, say, hearing about an explosive break-up after the fact, versus watching it unfold yourself.
In Beauty and the Beast—or any play or movie—the scenes are where you watch the characters in action. One of the big turning points of Beauty and the Beast is just after you see Belle sneak into the forbidden West Wing, find the rose, and get screamed at by Beast. She leaves the castle, running into the wolf-infested woods. The beast then rescues her, before collapsing with an injury. In this scene—when Belle has to choose between leaving him lying there (gaining her freedom) or helping rescue him.
What if, instead of actually watching the wolf attack, the beast’s rescue, and her subsequent choice, the curtain raised on a scene in which she told Cogsworth, Lumiere, and Mrs. Potts about the events. Boooorring…Which would you rather watch?
Think about scenes in terms of what that stage is going to open its curtain to.
The function of scenes in a story is to: slow the story time; let the readers experience things through the eyes of the narrator; and show us moments that lead to internal shifts/changes.
What are the essential components of scene?
The number one most important thing that must occur in every single scene is a change. For the character, there is some kind of shift (internal, external, or both). From the action portrayed in the scene, they gain a new understanding of themselves, and understanding of the world, or in relation to the other characters. So in Beauty and the Beast, in the aforementioned scene, Belle begins to question whether Beast is really so horrible, if he was willing to protect her from the wolves.
2. Singular event in one specific place
Something out of the ordinary happens in one location. If the characters leave, technically a new scene begins. Belle is attacked by the wolves in the forest, and Beast appears to fight them off.
3. Scene intent or expectation
In every scene the character has a want, or goal, or hope. It could be something small, or something big. In the forest scene in Beauty and the Beast, Belle wants to get out of the forest alive.
There’s always something standing in the way of your character getting what they want. For Belle, that conflict is the wolves. They are attacking her, putting her life in jeopardy, and preventing her from getting home. When the beast rescues her and injures himself, it helps her, but it also functions as an internal obstacle for her…
5. Decision to act or not
In a scene, a character must decide how they are going to overcome, or react to (or not) the obstacle presented to them. For Belle, she has to choose whether to leave Beast behind, even though he saved her life, or leave and go home. She chooses to help Beast.
What happens as a direct result of the character’s decision to act or not? For Belle, her consequence is forsaking her freedom yet again to help Beast. She must spend more time in his castle, though now it is her choice. The consequence also paves the way for the next scene. It serves as that moment of “…and so…” And so Belle and the beast had to figure out how to get along…
So how do you know if your scene is story-worthy?
This is a great question because you cannot have scenes for everything. Transitions don’t need scenes, nor do habitual events or non-essential day-to-day activities. The question to ask yourself is this: Is there an internal shift for the character that matters for their arc of transformation? If yes, then make it a scene. If no, you can summarize it.
The most important piece I hope you take away from this is that in scenes, something must change that will help move your character forward on his or her journey of transformation.