I’ve run a critique group for years and years. Every member of the group typically brings one scene to each meeting to be critiqued.
By far the most common question I ask after reading a scene is: “What happened in this scene?”
It seems like a simple question, but it covers a lot of ground:
- How is the lead character’s situation different at the end of the scene from the beginning of the scene?
- How does this scene advance the main story?
- Is this scene a story in its own right, with a beginning, a middle, and an end?
Let’s look at each of these questions to see why they matter. As we’ll see, these questions go progressively deeper.
What Changed in the Scene?
A scene needs to change things for the lead character of the scene. It might make their situation better. More often, it makes things worse. Sometimes, it leads to a change of direction for the character.
If none of these things happened in the scene, that’s a problem. Your reader just invested several minutes reading a thousand or more words, and nothing changed? Your novel is about how your characters change themselves and the world around them to solve a problem or meet some goal. Every scene needs to contribute to that change.
Imagine Luke Skywalker and his mentor Obi-wan Kenobi meeting Han Solo in that cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie. They talk for a bit. Kenobi tries to persuade Solo to take him to the planet Alderaan. But Han Solo doesn’t want the job. Eventually, Kenobi and Solo agree to disagree, and they both leave.
If that’s the way the screenplay had been written, it would have wasted a terrific scene. The cantina had incredible atmosphere, but the scene would have been pointless. Because nothing changed. Every scene needs to change something.
But not all change is created equal. Some kinds of change matter, and some kinds don’t…
Did the Scene Advance the Main Story?
Imagine a new version of the cantina scene in which Luke and Kenobi sit down to talk with Han Solo. Kenobi asks how much Solo will charge to give them a ride off the planet to Alderaan. Solo convinces them to abandon their journey so they can become dentists providing free care to needy aliens.
That would be a remarkable change. But it would wreck the main story. (Important as the battle against gum disease is, it’s not Luke’s battle). In the main story, Luke and Obi-wan Kenobi have information inside the droid R2-D2 that will expose the weakness of the Death Star, the weapon of the evil Empire. They need to take that droid to Alderaan and hand it off to the Rebel Alliance who can use it to destroy the Death Star.
So the only kind of change that makes sense in the cantina scene is something that gets Luke and Kenobi a ride off the planet.
That could actually happen in ten seconds, if that’s what the director had wanted…
Is the Scene a Story in its Own Right?
Imagine yet another version of the cantina scene in which Han Solo is standing at the bar. Kenobi taps him on the shoulder and says, “Say, could you fly me and my buddy to Alderaan?” Han Solo shrugs and says, “Sure.” They walk out, arm in arm.
Done in five seconds. That does change things for Luke and Kenobi. And it advances the story. But it’s not very interesting. It’s not a scene, even if you dragged it out for five minutes.
What’s missing here is that a scene needs to be a story. A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Typically, the lead character starts with a goal, runs into conflict, and faces some kind of setback at the end. Less commonly, the lead character starts with a reaction to some setback in a previous scene, wrestles with a dilemma, and then comes to a decision at the end. (See my article, Writing the Perfect Scene, for more on this.)
The way the actual Star Wars cantina scene plays out is fairly complex.
Luke goes to the bar and orders a drink while Kenobi goes looking for a shady character who might give them a ride. A space alien picks a fight with Luke, and things get progressively worse. Pretty soon, Luke is in trouble up to his ears. At which point Kenobi intervenes and tries to placate the trouble-maker. But the alien won’t be placated, and Kenobi finally whips out a light saber and cuts off his arm.
Next, Kenobi and Luke sit down with Han Solo and his partner, Chewbacca. Kenobi asks if his ship is fast. Solo brags about it and offers them a crazy high price for a trip to Alderaan. Luke and Kenobi don’t have the money, but Kenobi counters with an offer of some cash now and a super crazy high price when they get to Alderaan. Solo agrees to the offer, but now there’s trouble…
Two Imperial Storm Troopers are at the bar, asking questions. Clearly, the ruckus Kenobi raised by cutting off the alien’s arm is about to catch up with him. Luke and Kenobi make a quick exit, leaving Han Solo to smile at the Storm Troopers.
When the Storm Troopers move on, Solo crows to Chewbacca that this could really save their skins. It’s the first sign we’ve seen that Han Solo has his own problems. Chewbacca leaves to get the ship ready to fly. On Solo’s way out of the bar, his troubles escalate…
A bounty hunter named Greedo intercepts Han with a blaster leveled at his chest and forces him to sit at a secluded table. Han claims he’s got the money to pay off Jabba the Hutt, only he doesn’t have it with him right now. Greedo gloats over Han and tells him it’s too late. It’s clear Han has only seconds to live. But he distracts Greedo long enough to shoot him from under the table.
So Han’s in even bigger trouble than before. He still owes Jabba the Hutt, but now he’s killed Jabba’s bounty hunter.
That’s the scene, and it’s quite a little story all on its own. And it serves the larger story in three ways:
- Luke and Kenobi finally have a ride off the planet, which was the reason for the scene in the first place. Problem solved, but…
- They are in serious trouble because of the disarming of the alien, which puts the heat on them to get off the planet quickly, and…
- Han Solo is in even more trouble with Jabba the Hutt, a problem that will come home to roost in a later movie in the series.
Three Questions for That Scene You Just Wrote
When you finish a scene, take thirty seconds to congratulate yourself. A scene is the basic unit of fiction, and you’ve added another unit to your growing pile. That’s all good.
But now give yourself a reality check, with these three questions:
- What changed in the scene?
- Does that change advance the main story?
- Does the scene work as a story all by itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end?
These questions may uncover some weaknesses in your scene. If so, don’t panic. It’s a rare scene that can’t be saved. Once you’ve found the weaknesses, make a note and save it for later. You don’t have to know how to fix the scene. You just need to know why a fix is needed. You can either fix it tomorrow, or fix it someday when you write your next draft.
But fix it. Every scene needs to carry its own weight. Every scene. For more thoughts on how to fix a scene, I’ll refer you to my book How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method.
Excellent article. Thank you!!
Linda Strawn says
One of the best articles on constructing scenes I’ve read in a long while. Thank you!
Pamela Tracy says
I’m taking notes. Thanks for the wonderful examples.