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9 Essential Elements of a Scene
Some scenes are easy to write. They just flow naturally from the scene before. They seem to pour out of your fingers.You know the kind of scene I mean. It’s easy to write from beginning to end, it has a natural arc, it has a natural conflict.
I love writing scenes like that. I’m sure everybody loves writing scenes like that. But let’s face it—not all scenes flow so easily from our fingers to our pens or from our keyboards to our screens.
There are other scenes that prove more challenging. How can we handle scenes that DON’T flow?
I find it helpful to imagine that I’m setting the stage for a play or video production. This helps me remember to include all the elements of a scene. I can work them in all at once, or I can think about them ahead of time, while I’m outlining, one at a time, then add them into the outline or draft in layers. This makes a tricky, complex scene more manageable to work with.
What are the elements of a scene?
First of all, you can divide them into two categories: The Physical, or outward, elements of the scene and the Motivational, or internal, elements of a scene.
They’re equally important to creating a dynamic scene.
Let’s dig deeper into each of these.
PHYSICAL ELEMENTS OF THE SCENE
Early on in a book, you have a lot of scenes that are setting-rich. Because early on in the book is where description of new places and people must come. If you have a book with traveling, you may need description deeper into the story as well, since any time your characters enter a new environment, you’ll need to richly populate your scene with description. So some scenes, just by the nature of their position in the story or novel will require more description.
At the climax of a scene or book, however, you don’t want a lot of description, because that will slow down your action. To keep the pace from dragging, set up the scenery on your stage early on, so that when the exciting action arrives, the reader can focus on that.
Description is something that can slow me down when I sit to write a scene. It’s something I have to sit there and think about: this place. Where are they?
You don’t want White Room Syndrome, where the characters appear to be floating around in empty space. Unfortunately, this is a mistake I often see in Indie books. It’s impossible to feel rooted in the story without a clear picture in your mind of where, exactly, the characters are. Usually, the reader will fill in a bland background, but it won’t feel alive.
A great way to prepare for writing description is to go through pictures. If you can’t find any pictures exactly like what you have in mind, make your own montage of bits and pieces from different sources. Since you’re writing a novel, not using the pictures anywhere public, it doesn’t matter where you get the pictures, although you should be careful not to make your setting too cliché or so identifiable as to violate copyright of an existing franchise.
Next you need to know who’s going to be in the scene. Again, it may seem obvious, but you need to take the time to set this up. Also, do yourself a favor and limit the number of characters per scene to something memorable and manageable. Don’t have too many characters!
But what if you do have a large ensemble cast? Let’s say you have a large party traveling together. Your scene, in theory, has seven or eight characters. In practice, however, you can par this down by strategic and sequential focus on a few at a time. Imagine a camera zooming in to focus on the conversation between two or three characters at a time, while the rest remain in the background, not directly contributing to the scene. If needed, you can swing the lens of your focus around to another pairing in a following scene.
It’s true that sometimes you’ll wan a truly “Big Scene,” involving multiple characters all speaking and interacting with one another at the same time. Since those are a special case, we’ll deal with them another time.
Blocking is what we call the action on stage. Who does what, to whom, with what, when. Action is critical. And I admit, I often forget this element, important as it is…with the result that I have a scene of nothing but Talking Heads. Unless your characters are news anchors, try to add movement to your scene.
Action scenes that involve specific activities, such as battles, romantic courtship, horse riding, etc. are important enough to merit much more extended discussion, so we’ll just leave it here for now.
There is a special kind of action however, that is a little different than what we’d think of as an “action” and merits its’ own term.
You know how when you’re writing dialogue and you want to avoid writing nothing but: “he said, she said, he said, she said,” over and over? So instead, you’ve learned to write a “beat.” A beat is a small action accompanying dialogue. Busywork is the term I use for the kind of actions that supply us our beats. It’s a good idea to come up with a few possibilities in advance, while writing your outline, so that when it comes to writing the scene, your mind doesn’t just go blank.
Once you’ve richly furnished the environment around your characters, the busywork should come a little more easily. Your characters only need to do whatever they would naturally be doing in such a place, with such objects as are at hand. If they’re walking between the trees, they can avoid branches, or pause to pluck a ripe fruit. If they are inside, perhaps there’s a loom where one of them is weaving. And so on.
Busywork can do more than supply beats to conversation. Busywork can actually become the overt topic of the conversation…while under the surface, the dialogue is really about something else entirely. Sublimate the conflict between your characters into a seemingly trivial conversation about tennis or gardening or sorting bills, and you can create a much more subtle scene.
MOTIVATIONAL ELEMENTS OF THE SCENE
Your main character needs a goal for the overall story arc of your novel. But it’s just as important that your character needs a goal in every single scene.
Every character needs a goal, in every scene their in. When characters have opposing goals, or the same goals but different motives, the conflict you need for your scene arises naturally.
It makes no sense for your characters to have goals if they don’t have strong motives driving them to achieve their goals. And once again, this is critical not simply for the overall story arc of your novel, but for every scene in the book.
Every. Single. Scene.
Your character’s goal and motive has to be his OWN goal and motive. Not the author’s. The author’s goal for a scene may be to convey important information about what something looks like or to introduce a new character or even to show a nifty new gadget or system of magic that lies at the heart of the entire plot. But unless the characters in the scene have a reason to look around, meet someone or take interest in the gadget or magic, the scene will fall flat.
If there is no conflict in your scene, go back to Goal and Motive and look again. If you have two or more characters in the scene, they should not have identical goals or motives. (If they do, you may have too many characters! Or you haven’t individualized their motivations and personalities sufficiently to make them stand out from one another.) If two people have divergent goals or different reasons for cooperating to achieve the same goal, they will have conflict.
The conflict could be obvious, like a life and death struggle with an alligator. Or the conflict could be subtle. It doesn’t have to be overt, and it doesn’t have to be acknowledged, and the characters themselves might not even be aware of it, but it should be there.
What if there is only once character in the scene? This is a good opportunity to showcase the conflict inside the character.
The more levels of conflict there are in a scene, generally the more riveting it is.
Every scene is a miniature story, with an arc from one state to another. Every scene must show change. It might not be “progress,” if that means taking the hero closer to his goal; it may be that the purpose of the scene is disclose a new obstacle, which takes the hero farther from his goal. But one way or another, something changes.
THE NINTH ELEMENT
What about dialogue?! Not every scene needs dialogue. An action scene, or a lovemaking scene or a scene that summarizes a passage of some kind might have no dialogue.
When there is dialogue in a scene, it often dominates the attention of the reader—and even the writer.
In fact, when I outline my novels, I may begin with nothing but a dialogue, shorn of tags or description. I might have no idea where it takes place, and sometimes, I don’t even know who is involved! (I may know it involves my protagonist, for instance, but not be sure yet who is on the other side of the argument.) Only in later drafts do I figure out what setting would be the most dramatic backdrop for this conversation.
Working the other way around can be powerful too, however. If you start with a dramatic setting, and let your characters react to it from the core of their hopes and fears, the conflict between them can bloom organically…and the dialogue that results can flow from your fingers effortlessly, easily, wonderfully.
That’s the best feeling… When you’ve attacked the hardest scene, the one that eluded you for ages, and learned it so well inside and out that it becomes the smoothest and most delicious scene of all to write.
I love writing scenes like that.