What the heck is a scene, anyway?
“A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a story event,” writes Robert McKee in Story.
Meaning: it’s an event that takes place through conflict that changes the life value of one or more characters. Alternatively: it’s action that results in the character’s quality of human experience changing from the beginning to the end. Put simply: change that occurs through conflict.
You know something is a scene when it pulls a character out of their comfort zone, progressively complicates (for better or worse), asks the character to make a decision, shows that decision, and describes what it means. Or, when a character has fully experienced an inciting incident, progressive complications, a crisis, climax, and resolution. When something has happened to them to cause a change.
Why does it matter?
Because, says Shawn Coyne, “scene is the basic building block of a story.” A bunch of scenes compiled together builds your novel. So you must know what constitutes a scene (and what doesn’t) in order to know whether or not it should be in your novel or thrown into the nearest garbage bin. No one said writing was easy.
So what is a scene, really?
Change through conflict. On the whole, stories are about change. And scenes are a boiled down, less intense, mini-story. They should do the same thing your global story does: upset the life value of the character and put them on a path to try and restore it.
What are value shifts?
Value shifts measure the change in a character’s life. They are on a spectrum based on what’s at stake. For example, the scene where the criminal is caught. The change might move from injustice: the criminal has thus far escaped being discovered, to justice: he is brought in. Compared to the proof of love scene where the change moves from hate or indifference to love or commitment or intimacy. In each of these examples, the start of a scene is very different from its conclusion.
The value spectrum in a scene depends upon what the character wants. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. What they want in any given moment will determine how that scene turns. Either they’ll get it, or they won’t. In any case, there must be a change from the start to the end or a scene doesn’t go anywhere. And, if a scene doesn’t change in life value, it’s either description or backstory. And it shouldn’t be there.
Genre: the overarching structure of your scenes
In the bigger picture, all the scenes weaved together build your novel. And that novel will fit into a certain genre, which determines what’s at stake overall. Genre isn’t meant to be scary or confining. It merely gives you an idea of the expectations your audiences comes to your story already having.
Genre will even help you, the writer, decide which scenes are necessary to your novel and which aren’t. For example, if you’re writing a thriller, you’d better include a “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene or you’ll alienate your audience. And, unless you’re writing a love story subplot, you probably don’t need to worry about a scene where the lovers experience their first kiss.
At their core, scenes boil down to a certain event. The lovers breakup. A stranger knocks on the door. All is lost. Etc. Etc. And, depending on what you want your story to say, you get to decide what those scenes look like and whether or not you even need them in your novel. Genre is the key to making those decisions in a way that will impress your audience and keep them coming back for more.
How to use core emotion, core event, and change to judge your scenes
So you have a scene. In it something takes place and the value shifts for one or more characters from beginning to end. Great. But, how do you know whether or not it should be in this particular novel? By looking at the core event and core emotion. And by evaluating the change that takes place.
To do this, you should know why you decided to write the novel you did instead of the infinite number of other possibilities you could have chosen. What are you trying to say? How do you want your audience to feel after having read your novel? Genre combined with controlling idea will give you an idea of what you were thinking when you rushed this idea to the keyboard.
Then, when you’re evaluating a particular scene, look at its core and how it relates to the bigger picture. What is the event that takes place? The change the character experiences? And the emotion you want to evoke?
Once you have that written down for every scene, you’ll be able to track the overall change and evaluate how each scene gets your character closer to or farther from their ultimate goal. If any scene doesn’t fit with the overall story’s core (the emotion, event, and change) it should probably be cut.
Probably because only you can be the judge. Just make sure you’re a fair one.
What this means for your writing
Hopefully this doesn’t make your head swirl into the unproductive resistance realm from which some never return. My goal is to help you be more critical of your writing, but in a way that is actually helpful. To give you tools and language to evaluate what’s on the page and whether or not it should be included in a final draft.
Being able to look at your writing objectively is key to being a good writer. You can neither be too harsh nor too gentle. And being able to see your scenes from this angle might help you be honest when evaluating something you’ve written.
The goal is to keep readers reading. You do that mostly at the scene level. Knowing how to write a scene that hooks, builds, and pays off will satisfy your readers. And, being objective as to whether or not it should be included in your novel is key.
Rebecca Monterusso is a Story Grid Certified Developmental Editor, which is a fancy way to say that she helps writers learn to tell their stories better. She spends her time traveling the world, writing whatever takes her fancy, and deconstructing the many stories she reads on her blog to better understand craft. Ultimately, she believes that stories are the only way to change the world, which makes writers mighty powerful people.