What’s the Purpose of Your Scene?

In creating meaningful and effective scenes, the most important questions every writer should ask himself are, What is the focus of this scene? What is its purpose? Let’s a take a look at how to find the best answers to these questions.

How to find your scene’s purpose

Scenes are created in one of two ways.

1. Either we begin by envisioning something happening without yet knowing how it will move the plot forward…

2. Or we start out with the knowledge of what needs to happen to move the plot forward, then build a scene around it.

Often, the latter is easier to work with, since we’re consciously building scenes with the plot’s needs in mind. With the former, we can end up with vivid and organic scenes—but we have to twist them around to get them to fit the necessary purpose. Either way, the questions we need to ask ourselves next fall into line with Syd Field’s advice in his classic Screenplay:

When you’re preparing to write a scene, first establish the purpose, then find the components, the elements contained within the scene.

Strip the scene down to basics. For the moment, forget about character development or theme. How does this scene move the plot forward? How does it build upon what happened in the previous scene, and how does it lead into the scene that will follow?

In my Crusades-era historical novel Behold the Dawn, I envisioned a scene in which the protagonist Marcus Annan would meet a Scottish noblewoman in a Saracen prison camp. That was the purpose of the scene; that’s what was necessary to build into where the plot needed to go in the next scene, when Annan meets the woman’s dying husband, who turns out to be an old friend of his.

How to develop conflict around your scene’s purpose

Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish in a scene, the next question you need to ask yourself is Where’s the conflict? Conflict can come in any number of forms, from outright war to a rumbling of tension. If your scene is going to be weighty enough to float its purpose, you must inject some inherent conflict.

In Behold the Dawn, that conflict comes both from the general threat of the two characters’ imprisonment and, as the scene progresses, a rising tension between the characters themselves as they realize they may not be such strangers to one another after all.

Your conflict will be the vehicle to express your scene’s purpose and carry it forward to its point of impact with the scene to follow. Perhaps even more importantly, the conflict is what will keep your readers’ attention.

How to strengthen your scene’s purpose with context

Once you know your scene’s purpose and central conflict, you can deepen its subtext by exploring its context. Two characters arguing may fulfill both of the former qualifications, but by itself it doesn’t offer much in the way of underwater ballast.

Start asking yourself, What’s under the surface of this scene? What’s happening between these characters or in the background that isn’t spelled out in the conflict? Maybe your characters are telling each other they can’t stand the sight of each other, when really they’re madly in love. Maybe they’re trying to pretend nothing is wrong in their relationship, when, really, one of them is plotting to kill the other.

Subtext brings so much to the table, and all you have to do to put it into play is to choose your settings, dialogue, and narrative with care. What you don’t say can be as powerful as what you do. If your madly-in-love characters are breaking up, why not set the date for Valentine’s Day? Or maybe their falling out happens in a theater while the credits run on a love story’s
happy ending? Don’t choose your characters’ surroundings randomly. Choose them to strengthen the emotional impact of every scene.

I deliberately set Behold the Dawn’s scene at night, in the middle of the stink and fear of a sick tent, to heighten the characters’ feelings of hopelessness and desperation and to contrast with their meeting, which signals the beginning of something new and better for both of them.

If you can consciously harmonize your scene’s purpose, conflict, and context, you’ll be able to focus it—and your readers’ attention—down to a needle-fine point. And if every scene in your story can reach that level of focus, your novel as a whole will be that much closer to perfection.

Tell me your opinion: Do you ever have difficulty figuring out the purpose of your scenes? 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you for the great tips and examples, Katie. Being a newbie writer, this was invaluable. Thanks!

  2. Scenes build stories. If we can get that right, everything falls into place easy as pie.

  3. How are you able to come up with new ideas every week after so many years? I enjoy reading your posts.

    Richard

  4. The good thing about being an active writer writing about writing is that I have lots of personal experiences to draw on. Writing is a never-ending journey of learning. Glad you’re enjoying the posts!

  5. It’s easier for me to figure out the purpose of the scene in this novel since I’ve given outlining a chance, and I know how the scene will matter to the whole story. Then I just build it up to make it better. At least, I hope it’s better.

  6. Understanding the purpose of a scene is important whether you pants or plot, but it works especially intuitively with the outlining process.

  7. Once again, valuable advice :). I tend to lean towards #1, since that’s just how inspiration comes to me. Then it’s always a struggle to try and shoehorn it into the story progression! Sometimes I get lucky and it does work (maybe it’s my unconscious mind at play, helping me along by sending me the scene inspiration in the first place), and others, I’m not so lucky and I end up having to cut the scene out altogether, albeit reluctantly.

    I’m hoping that eventually I’ll get better at #2, but I have a feeling this is just always something I’ll consciously have to work at to improve.

  8. I admit, even as confirmed outliner, most of my best scenes come to be through method #1. It never fails to amaze me how the brain can create thematic flow, when I didn’t even known yet what theme I was going for.

  9. I seem to use both ways in my novels. I do only basic planning before I start writing, so while I have a few specific scenes in mind, a lot of pantsing goes on, too. Sometimes one scene wanders into another that doesn’t seem to have any purpose other than to be a transition. I guess the occasional brief transition is okay, although if I can’t get a little conflict into it, too, often as not it gets thrown out during revisions.

  10. Transition scenes still need to carry the weight of the plot. Often, they’ll be “sequel” scenes, which means they’re quieter scenes in which the characters are reacting to the big action scenes that came previously. In these scenes we’re dealing with a dilemma the character is facing more than outright conflict, but all the playing pieces we mentioned in this post should still be working in concert.

  11. I think there’s a few scenes that I need to rewrite to strengthen the emotion impact. I tend to flow more toward’s writing scenes by envisioning them first(#1)…I guess I’m a bit of a panster(although I do outline:) I need to do another re-read to check things out. THanks for the helpful tips!

  12. I use the second method with my scenes. I envision things “as they happen.” But, as you mention, the underlying conflict has to be built as you go.

  13. @Lorna: No matter how hard-core an outliner you happened to be, you’d still end up with those organic scenes. After all, that’s how most of our story ideas come to us in the first place!

    @Traci: Nothing like a little naturally evolving conflict to keep everything hanging together.

  14. Gabrielle says

    I tend to jump headlong into writing a story, get a few chapters in and then crash and burn because I have no idea where I’m heading next, or how to get from A to B. My scenes are built using the first method more often than the second. This post has some great pointers – thanks!

  15. I do the same thing when I don’t outline. If I don’t know where I’m going, the whole story becomes one difficult and bewildering slog – with lots of backspacing!

  16. I’ve never thought about scenes in quite this way. Mostly I just tend to write what comes naturally and then see if it works. Lots of food for thought in this article. Thanks.

  17. I actually have a whole series on scenes coming up around the corner. Their mechanics remain a mystery to many writers. But once we kick them into gear, the whole story works better.

  18. Another awesome post. Thank you!

  19. Glad you enjoyed it!

  20. Nice blog, thanks.

  21. Thanks for reading!

  22. I just read your page on scenes. Thank you so much for providing such good and useful information. You don’t know how much I appreciate your time and effort in helping newbies like me!!

  23. It’s totally pleasure! Makes my day to hear the information has been helpful.

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