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Redefining Scenes: Why a Scene is Not What You Think it is

August 25th, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Scenes are an important way of dividing your story, both so it’s easier to read and easier to write. But a scene is so much more than that! On K. M. Weiland’s blog, Justine Schofield redefines scenes in a way that focusses on their real purpose. Here’s my take.

What’s a Scene, Anyway?

The post, entitled Scenes: The Building Blocks of Your Story is chock-full of tips, and I suggest you pop on over after you’re done here. The point I want to focus on comes from the section Changing the scene, and although she explains her point as far as it is needed for the article, I want to explain why this was a fundamental shift in thinking about scenes for me.

The statement itself:

… the scene changes every time a new character is introduced, one of the characters on the page exits the present action of the story, or the setting of the story changes.”

It is clear from the surrounding text that Justine is not talking about a scene shifting or transforming in some subtle way, she is talking about one scene ending and another beginning.

But hang on, a change of setting produces a new scene, sure, but characters entering and leaving? What’s going on here?

Smells Like Scene Spirit

Often when we read about scenes, we are reminded of the importance of conflict. Every scene, we are told, must have conflict and (derived from that) tension. Not all-out-fisticuffs conflict necessarily, nor gnaw-at-your-fingers tension either, but both must exist. This is because conflict moves your story forward and tension makes it interesting.


This fine image by o5com on Flickr.

Despite the apparent transparency of the quote above, it is pointing towards something far more subtle and fundamental. A scene is defined not by setting or characters, but by the conflict the scene surrounds. Conflict is not only something required in a scene, it is the reason the scene exists. Plenty of things happen to characters between scenes, but they are never shown and often not alluded to in stories. This is because they are boring spaces devoid of conflict.

It makes sense then to consider a scene to change when the setting/characters change, not because characters and setting are essential (although of course they are), but because these changes alter the nature of the conflict in your scene. Thus a scene is redefined as a moment of conflict.

It seems obvious once the revelation has passed. But often we are told something and follow it, thinking we know why, without really understanding. Knowing why a change of time/place or even the appearance/removal of a character means a different scene, changes your mindset when you sit down to write.

For example…

Consider a scene involving two people. If a third party enters, they bring with them their own allegiances, desires and internal conflicts. They may stir up strong emotions in one or more of the other individuals, or they may directly challenge one or both of them. The conflict, indeed everything important about the scene, has changed. It is in effect a different scene.

For a really in-your-face example, consider the first Toy Story film. When Buzz is introduced, so is one of the main conflicts of the film – Woody’s jealousy. Now consider each scene occupied by one of these characters where the other enters. The atmosphere changes, and whatever the scene was about before goes out of the window. It is now about their relationship and the conflicts involved. In this redefinition of a scene, the scene has changed.

Look at him, centre of attention with those stupid wings and that flashy helmet…

In fact, we could extend the notion of a character “entering” a scene to the moment when a character is mentioned. When emotions are running high, sometimes even the mention of another character is enough to change the tension or introduce another conflict, changing the scene.

Try this in future (I’ll be doing the same) – make a mental note when you’re watching a movie or reading a story, to watch out for the moments when conflict or tension changes. I would bet characters entering/leaving or a change in place/time always signal this shift. Think of that as a new scene, and consider how that would help you divide up your own writing and really focus it.

Over to you:
Can you think of specific “scenes” from films or books that demonstrate this shift? Do you think of a scene in this way and does this improve your writing? Mash your keyboard until words come out, and put the results in the comments section below.