Novelists talk about scenes all the time. But not all of fiction is composed of scenes. What is it that makes a scene a scene?
David posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I have a question regarding story structure. While I was reading through one of your blog posts about a strategy for writing a synopsis you described how the typical novel has 80 to 100 scenes and that some scenes are more exciting than others so that you get “sequences of scenes” (clumps of 3 to 5 scenes where the tension rises to a peak). Well, what I was wondering is how do you define a “scene”?
According to your article “Writing the Perfect Scene” a scene has either a Goal, Conflict, Disaster or a Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. But what exactly IS a “scene”?
Consider the beginning of the first Harry Potter Book. It opens talking about the Dursleys. Clearly JKR had a goal when she wrote it: to get the reader to buy into the premise that there is a secret world of magic. But where’s the CHARACTER’S Goal, Conflict, Disaster or the CHARACTER’S Reaction, Dilemma, Decision? Who exactly IS the POV character? If it has none of these things, then what makes it a “scene”?
But my question extends beyond that. Where does setting fit in? When I think of the word “scene” I think of a scene in a movie or a play: a specific location at a specific time where a relatively significant part of a story occurs. Using this definition there could conceivably be more than one “scene” per Goal, Conflict, Disaster unit.
When you say a typical novel has 80 to 100 scenes do you mean it has 80 to 100 Goal, Conflict, Disaster/Reaction, Dilemma, Decision Units? Or do you mean it has 80 to 100 of the “movie” scenes?
Randy sez: There is more than one question lurking here. Let’s take them in order.
First, what is a scene? That’s relatively easy, and David got it pretty close to the standard meaning. A scene is a sequence of events that happens at a particular place and time and that moves the story forward. The scene consists mostly of “showing” though it may contain some “telling.” The scene has a particular structure that gives the story motion.
When we say “showing,” we mean that the author is using the following tools:
- Interior Monologue.
- Interior Emotion.
- Sensory Description.
When we say “telling,” we mean that the author is using the following tools:
- Narrative Summary
I have blogged often about all of these tools, so I won’t try to define each of them here. Being a selfish money-grubbing author, I’ll also note that these are explained at infinite length in my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES.
[And by the way, the paper edition of my book is currently selling at half-price on Amazon, and my publisher is giving a $5 rebate, which is a pretty good bargain for those few remaining souls who don’t yet have a copy.]
Second, how shall we categorize the opening of Harry Potter? That’s easy, now that we’ve laid out our tools. The opening page or so of Harry Potter is a brilliant use of exposition to bring the reader up to speed on the incredibly Mugglish Dursley family. We learn that they are all very sorry excuses for human DNA carriers and that they have a secret. We desperately want to know that secret, because we don’t like the Durleys.
That’s the first page of Book One of Harry Potter. The rest of the paragraph uses quite a bit of narrative summary to take us through a day in the life of the Dursleys, the day that Harry Potter’s parents are killed and Lord Voldemort loses his grip on this mortal coil. The day that baby Harry is foisted off on his none-too-willing Dursley relatives.
As the chapter progresses, we see increasing amounts of “showing” and decreasing amounts of “telling.” We really don’t see much of a scene until Professor Dumbledore and Professor McGonagall arrive at the Dursley home and then Hagrid shows up with Harry.
So the second half of the first chapter qualifies as a scene. It’s in fact a proactive scene, in which the goal is to place Harry with the Dursleys. The conflict is that they just aren’t all that suitable, but they’re all the relatives Harry has. The setback is that Harry is left with them and when Mrs. Dursley comes out in the morning, she actually screams when she sees him.
It’s a bit easier to launch a fantasy with this kind of narrative summary, because fantasies are grown-up fairy tales, and fairy tales have a long history of beginning with narrative summary. You’ll notice that very few police procedurals, romances, thrillers, or any other kind of fiction begins with “telling.”
Third, David asks whether a typical novel has 80 to 100 scenes of the type that I define in my book and in my Writing The Perfect Scene article, or whether the novel has 80 to 100 movie-like scenes. The answer is the former, although it seems to me that most movie scenes have a similar arc to novel scenes. I could say more about that, but I think this post has gone on long enough.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
James Thayer says
This is a terrific post regarding scenes. Let me add: one of the best definitions of a scene I’ve come across is from Jack Bickham: a scene is “a segment of story action, written moment-by-moment, without summary, presented onstage in the story ‘now.’ It is not something that goes on inside a character’s head; it is physical. It could be put on the theater stage and acted out.” In a handout for a course on novel writing he used to teach at the University of Victoria, Jack Hodgins defines a scene as “a unit of continuous prose narrative, taking place in one location, in which we see and hear characters close-up, in order to move the story ahead by showing what is accomplished when one or more characters (or one character and a significant object) come together in a way that someone (perhaps everyone) pursues a goal and either succeeds, fails, or partially succeeds or fails, or lays the groundwork for succeeding (or failing) later.”
Cori Fedyna says
Here’s a plug for Writing Fiction for Dummies. I borrowed a copy from the library, but then realized that I just HAD to have my own copy. Btw, my copy features yellow highlighted sections, notes in the margin and a couple of post-it flags.
From beginning to end it holds tips that will really shorten the novel writing learning curve. Over the years, I have read many “How To..” books on fiction writing. If I were asked to pick only one novel writing reference as my resource, Randy’s book is without a doubt my first choice. I love the structure of the book–so left brained and practical! The conversational tone, just as in Randy’s blogs and ezine, makes the writing concepts easier to grasp. Thumbs up!
Randy sez: Thanks for the plug, Cori! Writing the book was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had a short time schedule and we wanted it to be a comprehensive introduction to fiction writing. It almost killed us all, but we got it done on time.
Carol Moncado says
I have the free ebook from a couple months ago but noticed it was 9.99 right now so ordered the hard copy. Where does one get the rebate info?
Carol Moncado says
Never mind ;).
Found it lurking on the Amazon site =D.
My question is: when moving from one scene to the next in fiction, other than time, location, character change, pov change, what is the criteria for having to change scenes? thank you.