The Purpose of a Scene
In fiction, scenes are the building blocks of chapters. A chapter might contain one, two, three or more scenes. Each one has to deliver on some element of the larger story; it has to be about something and deliver to a specific goal:
Regardless of the set-up or format of the scene, there has to be conflict by way of character opposition or obstacles.
Taking a character-first approach to fiction, each of our scenes ideally illuminates some aspect of one or more characters in the story. When every plot ever conceived already exists, character is where our interest lies. If we leave a scene without new insight into a character, be it protagonist antagonist or supporting, then its a scene wasted.
A scene may advance the plot – “that’s no moon, that’s a space station” – but characters’ reactions to that provide interest. Curiosity, fear, defiance, fight-or-flight, competence or panic; there’s no worthwhile plot point without character reaction.
A scene that only info-dumps an educational tract of world-building information is a poor scene. How does it relate to character or plot? The Death Star certainly raises the stakes with the entire crew of the Millenium Falcon.
Conflict or obstacles to overcome are essential to a meaningful scene. Perhaps it’s Luke and Han arguing over who’s the better pilot while escaping the Imperial star destroyers, face to face. Lizzie Bennett discovers Darcy forced the Bingley’s to leave Netherfield. Darcy is the opposition and the obstacle in absentia. Conflict exists between two of them though they are physically apart.
The standard elements that make up a scene are:
Or put another way; talking, doing, thinking, telling.
A scene might contain any or all four in endless permutations. The question is which to use to best deliver the scene goals, advance character and plot, delivering any necessary extra information in the process.
Structuring the Scene
So we return to the core idea that scenes are micro-stories in their own right. Which means they need at minimum:
- a goal
- a hook
- a core conflict
- a resolution
Along the way we need to gain some character insights. We also need to experience some narrative drive by way of action within the scene, or action the scene sets in motion.
There’s much more to be said about scene goals, but for now lets focus on straightforward scene goals:
- Luke persuades Han to go rescue the Princess
- Darcy proposes to Lizzie
- Lady Catherine wants Lizzie’s assurance she won’t marry Darcy
You can flip the scene goals to ask central question:
- will Luke persuade Han?
- will Lizzie accept Darcy?
- will Lizzie risk all for love?
Note that last question isn’t ‘will Lady Catherine get her own way,’ it’s not her scene. The question isn’t even ‘will Lizzie cave in to social pressure?’ It’s the scene that answers the central question of Pride and Prejudice.
These are mostly dialogue scenes centred on character, advancing the overall plot and with important added context of setting or social hierarchy.
Example 1: Star Wars Rescue
Goal: Luke persuades Han to go rescue the Princess.
Hook: we’ve found the Princess.
Conflict: Han resists the call until Luke dangles a reward in front of him.
Character insight: Luke’s heroism versus Han’s cynicism overcome by greed.
Resolution: Han agrees.
Action: they devise a rescue plan.
Example 2: The Proposal
Goal: Darcy proposes to Lizzie
Hook: Darcy has something important to say, a bolt from the blue…
Conflict: Darcy’s proposes badly, Lizzie rejects him in kind
Character insight: Darcy’s pride, Lizzie’s prejudice, neatly summing up the themes of the entire novel.
Resolution: Lizzie rejects Darcy outright.
Action: the pair part ways with absolute finality…
Example 3: Lady Catherine’s Visit
Goal: Lizzie risks all for love
Hook: Lady Catherine arrives unannounced and on the warpath.
Conflict: Humble Lizzie versus over-privileged Lady Catherine.
Character insight: Lizzie completing her rehabilitation from prejudice to wisdom. Lady Catherine revealing the full extent of her prejudice.
Resolution: Lizzie opens up to the possibility she might marry Darcy after all.
Action: Lizzie emerges as the fully empowered woman she aspires to be.
You can lift each of these scenes out of the wider story and look at them as short-stories or flash-fiction, with little or no editing. As thumb-nail sketches, they stand as complete stories delivering their micro-plots start-to-finish.
From writers who know how to structure a scene, they achieve their scene goals with absolute focus and no waste. Put them back into the overall story structure, there’s a perfect contribution to the story arc.