How do you know when to start a new scene in your story? And how do you know when to end it? What’s the reasoning you use?
Yvonne posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
when writing a scene in fiction, how do you know when to move to a new scene? Time, place, pov, deleted or added characters, and what, are the reasons for a scene change?
Randy sez: This is a question that vexes most beginning writers, and rightly so, because it’s a hard question.
The key thing is to understand what a scene is, and what a scene is supposed to do.
How Scenes Work—A Review
A scene is the smallest unit of fiction. It’s a story in its own right. The ability to write excellent scenes is arguably your most important skill as a novelist. By that, I mean that if you can write great scenes, you can get away with a mediocre premise, a mediocre plot, a mediocre setting, and mediocre characters.
I don’t mean to say you should cut corners on premise, plot, setting, or characters. I think you should shoot for excellence in everything you do. But my experience as a reader tells me that when the scenes are really strong, I keep reading, even when other aspects of the story are flawed.
It might be helpful right now to read (or reread) my famous article “Writing the Perfect Scene” which is the second most popular article on my entire site.
Here are some of the high points of the article:
- Every scene has a “focal character,” which could be any of the characters in your story, not necessarily the “hero.”
- A scene is a small, self-contained story about that focal character, with a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end.
- In most cases, the scene is a “proactive scene” with the structure:
- Occasionally, the scene is a “reactive scene” with the structure:
Typically, a scene takes place over some smallish interval of time. Could be minutes, could be hours. Rarely will it be less than a minute. Rarely will it be more than a few hours (and the longer it is, the more narrative summary you’ll need).
However long the scene takes in story time, most authors have a certain range of word counts they like to use to tell the story for that scene. I like the range of 1000 to 2000 words, strictly for myself. I’ve gone much shorter. I’ve gone a bit longer. Generally, I’m in my 1000-2000 range. But other authors may prefer shorter or longer. This is a personal choice every author makes. It’s also something of a contract with your reader. When you establish a pattern that most of your scenes are in a certain range of word count, it sets the rhythm for your story that your reader expects. Then when you break that rhythm, it should mean something to the reader.
Deciding Where to Start and End Your Scene
Now, on to Yvonne’s question. How do you know when to begin a scene (and therefore when to end the previous one)?
The answer is that you let your scene dictate that. Here’s how:
When you start writing a proactive scene, do it at the point in your story when it’s natural to establish the focal character’s goal for that scene. Quickly establish that goal, and then spend most of the scene working through the conflict of the scene. Eventually, you’ll hit a critical point. This is usually a setback (in which the focal character fails to achieve her goal and is now worse off than before.) Occasionally, it will be a victory (in which the focal character achieves her goal and is now better off than before). Once you’ve hit that critical point, the scene is over. Start a new scene.
When you start writing a reactive scene, it should normally follow closely on the heels of a setback in a proactive scene. The point of a reactive scene is to give the focal character a chance to react emotively to the hit she’s just taken and to switch directions. Start out with that emotive reaction and let it run its course (usually a few paragraphs or a page at most). Then take your character into a dilemma—what to do next. There should be no good options. If there is a good option, it’s not a dilemma. The dilemma may take quite a while to work through. The focal character has only bad options. Explore these and reject them, one by one, until there is only one acceptable course of action. That’s your focal character’s decision and the reactive scene is now over. Start a new scene.
But What if Your Scene Doesn’t Fit the Pattern?
What if your scene is neither proactive nor reactive? What if it’s just there to “set the background” or to “show the character acting in character”?
I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but if that’s all your scene is doing, it’s a bad scene. Setting the background is fine; so is showing a character acting in character. But neither of these is enough to carry a scene. If that’s all your scene does, you have two choices:
- Kill the scene
- Fix the scene so it’s either a proactive scene or a reactive scene
I’m not exaggerating here. Those are your two options. If you have a bad scene, kill it or fix it.
Beginning writers often get angry when they hear this stark choice. Getting angry at the messenger is a sign of an amateur. Professional novelists routinely kill bad scenes. Professional novelists routinely fix bad scenes. Professional novelists don’t complain that they don’t want to do what they need to do to delight their reader. Professional novelists do the hard work, over and over, until they get it right. Nothing is more important than getting your scenes right.
Circling back to Yvonne’s question, if your scene has been fixed so that it’s either a proactive scene or a reactive scene, it will be “obvious” when the scene should start and when it should end.
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 the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.