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Structuring Your Story’s Scenes, Pt. 1: Mastering the Two Different Types of Scene

Trick question for you: What’s one of the most overlooked pieces of the story puzzle?

Okay, so it’s not really a trick. It’s a legitimate question with a legitimate, if somewhat surprising, answer. And that answer is: the scene.

Yep, you heard right. The scene—that most integral, most obvious, most universal part of any story—is also the most overlooked and least understood when it comes to the craft of storytelling.

How do you explain the scene?

Everyone has a different answer.

1. A scene is a unit of action. (Okay, that’s great, but what makes it a unit?)

2. A scene is a unit of action that takes place in one setting. (Well, that’s often true, but there are definite exceptions.)

3. A scene is a unit of action that features a specific cast of characters. When that cast changes (i.e., a character enters or leaves the scene), the scene ends. (Not even close. Sure, some scenes begin and end upon the entrance of characters, but others truck right along with a revolving door of supporting characters.)

Before we go any further, I’d like you to take a moment and consider your definition of the scene. And I’m going to bet it’s harder to quantify than you may think, isn’t it?

The two different types of Scene

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThe problem with most definitions of scene is that they’re, shall we say, vague. And by their very vagueness, they’re not of much help to authors who want to understand this fundamental building block of the story. Over the next twelve Sundays, I’d like to share with you a series about the nitty-gritty of scenes. We’re going to explore some concrete facts. We’re going to learn the basic structure of scenes, variations upon that structure, and how to use an understanding of the scene to pack them one upon another until we have a story that’s rock solid from beginning to end.

To begin with, let me note that we’re going to be focusing on two different types of scenes: scene (action) and sequel (reaction). In my opinion, these are absolutely ridiculous titles that don’t help at all with the misunderstandings surrounding the issue. However, since these are the commonly held terms for the story components we’re going to be talking about, I’ve decided to maintain them. For the purposes of this series, “Scene” with a capital S will refer to the scene in general (which can include in its definition the sequel). I’ll use a small and italics for scene and sequel when referring to the two different types of Scenes.

As the series progresses, I’ll be breaking down scenes and sequels into smaller pieces so we can analyze what makes them tick. But for now, let’s take look at the big picture.

The Emotional Progression of Scene and Sequel Infographic

(Featured in the Structuring Your Novel Workbook.)

What is a scene?

Remember how we talked last week about conflict and tension? The scene is where we find the conflict. This is the action part of the action/reaction dynamic duo. Big stuff happens in scenes. Plot points change the course of the story. Characters act in ways that affect everything that happens afterward. These are the Scenes that will loom large in your stories.

What is a sequel?

The sequel is a much quieter, but just as important, factor in your story. Within the sequel, we find the characters reacting. Usually, there’s not too much outright conflict, but there’s plenty of tension. These are the Scenes in which characters and readers alike are allowed to catch their breath after the wild and gripping events in the previous scenes. Reactions will
be processed and decisions will be made so characters can jump right back into the next scene.

As we dive deeper into the exciting world of the Scene, we’ll talk about how to structure the arc of each Scene, how to link all scenes and sequels so they all behave like proper little dominoes, how to use Scene knowledge to spot plot problems, and we’ll even dig down briefly onto the microscopic level of paragraph and sentence structure within the Scene. It’s
going to fun, so hang around!

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Three Building Blocks of the Scene.

Tell me your opinion: How would you define the scene?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Lovely post! “Scene” has always been one of those vague terms a writer apparently is supposed to just KNOW. I mean, you have a general idea, but no actual specific definition. Thanks for a concrete definition! :)

    • Charles Davis says:

      My definition of a scene: an action, a cohesive segment of story, in which a mini story evolves; the beginning and ending consist of the arch of that story no matter how significant or sustained

  2. Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the series as well. There is *so* much more to the Scene than we usually think. Once things are broken down to a brick-by-brick level, it becomes a very eye-opening experience.

  3. Definitely excited to see the rest of this series! I think a lot of my early missteps as a writer came from seeing scenes as merely discrete moments in time where a character DID or SAID something…anything! But I didn’t see them as a series of connected events that drove the story forward in some way, and I didn’t realize how important reaction scenes were. I ended up with a lot of scenes where characters just stood around talking about stuff. Not so interesting for the reader, and not compelling from a storytelling point of view at all.

  4. Within the scene, we really see how plot and character become intertwined. So long as our scenes are churning along in proper structure, the plot will always be moving forward.

  5. Looking forward to this new series.

  6. To me, a scene was the smallest unit which still told a story. Just like chapters and even books, they are somewhat (or even entirely sometimes) self-contained, and by the end the story must have moved forward in some definitive way for the reader: either the plot, the characters, the theme, or all three, should have expanded from the end of the previous scene.

    I also like to think of scenes as books in a series writ small; just as Book Two of a nine book series is self contained, yet operates in context, and is just one piece of a larger unfolding story — so too is the scene.

    Maybe in 12 weeks I’ll have a different definition ^_^

  7. Thanks for this very thought provoking post. Until I read this, I hadn’t really thought of what a precise definition of a scene might be, but now that you mention it, I feel like I kinda know a ‘scene’ when I see one. I’ll take a shot here: seems to me that a scene is a ‘unit’ of storytelling is where an action takes place, from beginning to end. The action in an individual may be part of a larger action that occurs in steps spread over multiple scenes, or as one of the other commenters said, it may just be interconnected to other actions. But in an individual scene considered on its own, the scene describes some action that has a discernable beginning, middle, and end. That’s my inadequate explanation of a scene and I’m sticking to it, for now:-)

    Can’t wait to read the rest of what you are going to say on this topic. I can tell I’m about to learn something cool and worthwhile!

  8. @Lorna: Thanks, so am I!

    @Daniel: Yours is a solid definition. Nothing wrong about it. But I do think you’ll find it even more helpful to start breaking the definition down into smaller bits, as we’ll start doing next week.

    @Tony: Ultimately, that three-part arc of the scene (beginning, middle, and end) is what it’s all about. That, more than anything, is what we’ll be exploring in the coming posts. The “I know it when I see it” reaction is common. Scene, before we start breaking it down, bears a lot in common with voice. They’re both solid components of storytelling, but their execution can be a bit hazy.

  9. Uve given absolutely essential info which I find so helpful! Will defenitely follow ur posts on this topic =D

  10. Thanks for stopping by!

  11. I’m not sure what the definition of a scene is, but I know one when I see one. Good post, Kim. I look forward the next ones.

  12. Writers run on instinct. We know what we know, but we don’t always know just what it is that we know. If you catch my drift. ;) Bringing our knowledge into the conscious realm, where we can name it and explain it, puts us that much more in control of our craft.

  13. Your second option up there is pretty close to my definition of a scene. But, at least in my genre, sometimes a scene can span different locations for varying reasons, so it’s a flexible definition to be sure. Generally a scene for me involves one or more characters doing one particular thing, whether it’s confronting a murderer, interviewing a witness, or sharing a romantic interlude. The interlude, for instance, could shift from a restaurant, to a car, then to a moonlit stroll on a lake shore. It’s still the same scene despite the location change because it carries over an overarching goal or theme.

  14. I like the emphasis on action (the character doing a specific “thing”), rather than setting or cast, since that, ultimately, is what drives the purpose of the story. We’ll be getting into that come Sunday.

  15. Ohhh… can´t wait to read more on this series! Because you are right, building a good, merorable scene is HARD stuff!

    I try to stick to the mission-driven scene concept, trying to build each one around the things my plot (or my character) need to happen.

    BUT I have noticed that there are moments when certain scenes are meant to give an insight of the scene (the character deiven scene) and, in my experience, readers don´t usually get it and find those scenes unnecesary. I still wondering how to avoid that!

    Thanks for a great post!

    xoxo

    M.

  16. Speaking generally, “plot” Scenes are usually scenes and “character” Scenes are usually sequels. Scenes drive the action forward; sequels allow characters and readers alike to absorb and react to what’s happened. But that, of course is a gross generalization. Plot and character, when done right, can never be extracted from each other so neatly.

  17. Unfortunately it´s not black and white :P

    Thanks for the answer!

  18. That’s true of pretty much everything when it comes to writing!

  19. I always thought of its one scene being set up. A miniature introduction, complication, crisis, and climax. One issue with this definition could be, what if the sequel does not have a proper resolution? Or for that matter is it important for each paragraph to have its own resolution?

    I used to just throw in more conflict, but at the price of having a first draft where the added conflicts did not make sense in context, and I kept leaving some plot threads hanging.

    I have a hard time with beginning a story, and with ending it. But I’m better with ends. Ending on a mystery or remaining question is my schtick. and I don’t seem to follow up on it.

  20. Your definition is spot-on, as a matter of fact. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll be discussing the three-part structure of scene (as distinct from sequel). Among other things, I’ll get into some tips for keeping conflict on point.

  21. A scene is a passage containing primarily action and dialogue (for the term is borrowed from the theater) which is fitted into a more or less uninterrupted unit of time. It is a passage which gives the impression, therefore, that the reader is watching something dramatic happen between characters in real time.

    Very helpful series!

    • K.M. Weiland says:

      Good definition of the scene as a dramatic unit. Glad you’re enjoying the series!