Elements of a Scene

by Vicki Hinze
  1. The majority of novels have a beginning, middle, and an end. Every scene should, too.
  2. Each scene is a capsule that depicts a specific story event. That event relates to the events in each of the other scenes, and when the writer strings all the scenes together, s/he's got a book.
  3. Each scene moves the plot and characters ever forward toward the story's resolution and conclusion. When we discussed plot, we determined that to hold together and carry the story weight, the plot had to contain specific elements. Well, a scene has to carry its weight, too. Something essential to the whole (novel) must be in a scene to justify its place (and space) in the novel. That justification is an earned right—each scene must prove that including it is essential. Otherwise, in editing, it gets the ax.
  4. Every scene needs an inciting incident, a spark that sets the scene in motion. Think of this as the cause that incites an effect (remember, in plot, we worked from cause to effect to cause to effect) that links the scenes to each other. (What happens in a scene causes the next scene to happen, and so on.)
  5. In each scene, the character has a goal and a strategy for reaching that goal. If the character doesn't want anything, then the scene lacks purpose. If the character doesn't have "a plan" (ill-conceived, halfcocked plans are fine; there must just be some semblance of one which motivates the character to act) to get what s/he wants, and there is no one trying to stop him/her from getting it, then you've got no scene goal/strategy and worse, no conflict. If there is no conflict, you have no story—applied to the scene, you'd have no scene.
  6. Each scene has a resolution. Now the scene resolution might carry the character closer to his/her goal, or push him/her further away from it. It also might cause the character to change from one goal to another. The point is, there is a sense of closure, on having gotten all we're able to get from this scene, and there is movement. Each scene resolves (goes from beginning to middle to end), preparing the way for the next scene or the story's conclusion.

An example of that change in goal would be if the character was motivated by a belief, then in a scene, s/he learned that belief was false and something entirely different was true. Something that changed the way the character viewed his/her goal. So the character changes the goal to adapt to his/her new belief/truth.

That's a scene resolution, because based on what happened in the scene, it altered the character. Change—physical change or a change of perspective—is growth, and we all know that character growth is the means by which the character demonstrates and the reader gauges that reading the book was worthwhile and all the struggles the character endured were worthy of the time invested in them.

Do keep in mind that just because a scene is wonderfully written and lyrical and pleasant to read doesn't mean you keep it in your novel. Every scene requires conflict. Without it, the scene can't be justified. As I said (but it's worth repeating because it's so important), every scene carries the burden and blessing of advancing the story. If it doesn't, then it shouldn't be there.

Run a check on your scenes to make sure the elements are there. It's a great way to tighten your writing—and to help bulletproof your manuscript.

Vicki Hinze 2003

Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers' conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Visit her website at: www.vickihinze.com

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