Any story that you write—whether it’s a 500 word flash piece or a 300,000 word epic—needs to have scenes. But what is a scene? You’ve probably heard various things from various sources. What I have to say on the matter may not be what you think a scene is, but it is what I consider a scene to be. This is how I write scenes, and I think it’s the most effective construction.
A scene must have three things: a goal, conflict, and change. These three aspects of a scene are equally important. Without one of them, the scene fails to be effective. Without two, the scene falls flat. Without any of them, it ceases to be a scene. Most short fiction comprises of very few scenes. A novel can have anywhere from a few dozen to a hundred scenes. Scenes can vary in length. I’ve written scenes that were less than 500 words and others that were over 4000 words. As long as the scene accomplishes the three things mentioned above, then it doesn’t matter how long it is.
When writing a scene, the first thing you need to figure out is what the main character wants. What is their goal? What do they hope to accomplish? By the end of the scene, the main character will have either succeeded or failed their goal. For example, in my novel The Clockwork Giant, the first scene follows the main character Petra as she attempts to apply to the University in disguise. Her goal is to successfully fool the applications supervisor. The scene ends shortly after she fails.
Once the scene has a goal, you need to introduce conflict. There must be two opposing forces, something that the protagonist needs to overcome. This can be an actual person, the main character’s conflicting opinion or feelings, weather, time, etc. For example, in the first scene of The Clockwork Giant, the applications supervisor is Petra’s antagonist. He quashes Petra’s hope of applying to the University and sends her on her way. Because of him, she fails her goal. The first scene of this book has a clear antagonist for the conflict, but that is not always the case. Think of the first scene of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Mr. Dursley is the protagonist. His particular goal is to maintain normalcy. The conflict exists between his goal of normalcy and the occurrence of abnormal things in his daily life—the cloaked men, the owls, the shooting stars on the news, the cat reading a map. These are subtle antagonists, attackers on Mr. Dursley’s normalcy. By the end of the scene, Mr. Dursley’s normalcy is vanquished with the arrival of his magical nephew, Harry.
As you can see, conflict and goal should be closely related. If your conflict does not match your goal, then your scene isn’t living up to its full potential. Shape the conflict to meet the goal.
The final thing a scene needs is change—a shift in the status quo. This can be emotional change, new knowledge, a change of stakes, anything that changes the course of the story. The best scenes incorporate all of these changes, and the more extreme the change, the better. Though, subtle changes work well too, as long as there is another, stronger change present. For example, in the first scene of The Clockwork Giant, the scene starts with Petra confident that she will be successful in fooling the applications supervisor. As the scene progresses, and the supervisor rejects her application, Petra’s confidence transforms into hopelessness. She learns that fooling the University into letting her apply isn’t going to be as easy as she thought. The scene finishes with Petra sad, returning to her normal life, her dreams shot—the opposite of what she had hoped for in the beginning of the scene.
Change very heavily relies on goal and conflict. This is why the lack of one of these aspects can cause a scene to fail. And if the three aspects of the scene are not synchronous with one another, then the scene will not be as effective as it could be. Remember: change comes from the conflict, and conflict comes from the goal.
A story is a sequence of scenes, a series of goals, conflicts, and changes. Just remember the three aspects of a scene while you are writing, and you shouldn’t have any problems. If you do come across a problematic scene, reexamine it. Is the goal clear at the beginning of the scene? Does my conflict reflect the goal? Am I missing conflict? How does the story change by the end of this scene?
Do you have any questions about scenes? Do you have any other advice concerning scenes?