Scene Basics

transition between scenes

Scene Basics


What is scene?

Scene: a unit of dramatic action that takes places in a single location in a single point in time.

In film,  a scene is generally thought of as the action in a single location and continuous time. the term scene refers to the continuity of the observed action – an association of time, place or characters. In drama, a scene is a unit of action, often a subdivision of an act. It is a division of an act presenting continuous action in one place.

A scene is a mini-story, with a beginning, middle and ending. It shows actions, embedded in description and background material. Creating them means finding ways for your story to show itself, rather than ways for you to tell it. Scenes are the specific stages by which your main characters motivations are enacted against opposition, internal or external (or both). A scenes has a cause-effect relationship with other scenes. Each scene shows something crucial or established at that point in the story.

How many scenes per story? Film 40-70, novels 80-140


Prep work before writing a new scene

Answer the following questions for yourself:

  • What is the objective world (as you, the author, knows it)?
  • What does each featuring character believe at this point? Do these beliefs contradict each other?
    Consider making a timeline chart of “who knows what when”, listing each scene and what the major players believe at that stage & what the reader believes at that stage.
  • How do the characters act on their beliefs?
  • What does the reader believe/know at this point?

What every scene must do

  • State the protagonist scene intention. A scene intention has to be related to the significant situation of the narrative and can be different for every scene. In every scene the protagonist should be motivated by two things: his scene intention at the start of the scene and his personal history. Personal history shows character nature which explains why the person is the way he is and why he reacts the way he does.
  • It advances the plot: It either starts something new or reacts to what happened before.
  • It demonstrates the characters: at least one character goes through some kind of change.
  • Each scene must give at least one piece of new information that relates to one of the major plot questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? The how and why are the most elusive and often unanswered until the very end. New information fills a piece of the puzzle, it changes the path of the character and pushes the plot forward. Spread the information like planning a five course meal. Each plate satisfies a little, yet leaves you wanting more until the desert satisfies you fully.

Scene Structure


Scene Act 1 – The beginning

When: Transition & time-frame

Use your transition lines for the opening of the scene. Let the reader know how much time has passed since the last scene and or when this scene takes place in the timeline. You can either straight up tell the reader or use clues, such as describing what has changed since the last scene. For example, the sunlight has faded away or the dishes have piled up.

Where: Setting

Anchor the reader in the place/setting within the first few paragraphs, preferably through character interaction with the setting. The beginning should be vivid and memorable, to draw the reader in.

Who: Character and Scene Intention

Establish a character into the scene in the second paragraph at the latest to avoid losing your reader.At least one character appears in the scene and this character has a goal. Each character featured has a goal. Announce the protagonist’s scene intention and or upcoming conflicts.

The character’s goal is called his scene intention. It comes directly from the plot and his personal history. The intent is his plan to take action. The motivation is his reason why. The plot forms the intent. The backstory forms the motivation. The intention first stems from a significant situation and then from the consequences that ensue. Intentions give purpose (to the plot) and immediacy (in the scene). They provide structure and direct the characters to their places. By complicating intentions, you build tension, drama and energy.

The character can show his intentions through interior monologue (showing thoughts and feelings), actions to influence the significant situation’s outcome or through dialogue. Intentions specific to one scene are immediate intentions, which must still relate to the plot but are more likely to relate to consequences. Scene specific intentions lead to complications, which lead to new intentions and so forth.

The beginner’s mistake

The beginning of a scene should lay out the characters, their relationship, the environment and the basic conflict. A common mistake is to feel the need to establish all the information at the top of the scene. Let the exposition happen naturally. Let the readers discover who and where everybody is and what their relationships are. That’s half the fun.

Scene Act 2 – The middle

This is where the characters get into conflict, the stakes are raised, consequences weigh over their heads. Perhaps a revelation turns the tables or puts things in a new perspective. This keeps the plot exciting.

  • Delay the achievement of their intentions for suspense and tension.
  • Prevent the completion all together.
  • Complicate it by making it dangerous, illegal, morally wrong etc.
  • Morph the intention into a different pressing need.
  • Ante up by giving new and surprising information. Information must lead to conflict and or danger, forcing the characters to adjust.
  • Throw in false leads to keep the reader questioning or provide a false sense of security.

Scene Act 3 – The end

Endings can carry emotional weight. They can leave readers wanting more. It should also set the stage for a following scene. Endings resume to float around in people’s heads cause this is where the pieces finally snapped together, adding up and making sense. By now, the reader has more knowledge and a greater investment in the plot and characters than before. He will feel compelled to find out what consequences it will bring in a following scene. Choose each scene’s ending individually, ensuring appropriate mood, pace and plot serving method.

  • Answer scene questions and reveal truths.
  • Do not reveal entirely new information (surprise endings are fine though).
  • Have the characters settle into their changes.
  • Turn down the emotion and dramatic tone to give the reader a sense of conclusion.
Avoiding a droopy scene ending
  • Reminder protagonist  (and reader) of great obstacles still in play.
  • Focus the protagonist’s thoughts on his flaws, failings and losses.
  • Show the negative consequences of the scene events and resolution
  • Introduce a new source of tension in the final lines.
  • Show a strong display of emotion.
  • Lead directly into the reactionary scene, focussing on the character’s dilemmas.
  • Foreshadow future problems and dangers.
  • Reveal an epiphany that increases risk and danger; An epiphany is a realisation that consists of three parts.
      • The setup: a situation is misunderstood. The character acts on the misinterpretation. This action has a bad consequence.
      • The trigger: some specific event/ piece of evidence that reveals the mistake.
      • The moment of realisation
  • Twist the ending up in dramatic irony; Dramatic irony is an event that proves the reverse of what was expected and consists of three parts.
      • A misinterpretation of a situation
      • A character acting on the misinterpretation
      • The character experience of the unexpected outcome or consequence
Zooming in at the end

Invite the reader to become intimately close, have emotional contact with the characters. Draw them closer.

You can do this by having the main character (of the scene) summarise where he is in the final moment before a next scene starts. This helps to maintain clarity in a complicated plot, especially when the story has multiple main characters.

A character can also give a verbal revelation, surprising the reader. It zooms the focus in on the character and builds suspense for the following scene.

Ending the scene in a cliffhanger is also a zoomed-in effect, which is guaranteed to keep your reader turning the pages. Cliff-hangers can be a massive way of controlling suspense, if not overused. The effect of all cliff-hangers is forever lost if too many scenes have already ended with one.

Zooming out in the end

Pulling away from the immediacy and intimacy, giving the reader emotional relief – especially after an intense scene. The reader has a moment to catch his breath and reflect.

Visual descriptions ground the reader concretely in the present moment, by showing what is (not what it isn’t, or what it tries to be). By using the senses, you leave a physical impression on the reader, an imprint that sticks with him.

Reflecting on the events of the scene provides opportunity to explore the thematic undercurrents of the work. To create a philosophical angle, using visual comparisons (sjmile or metaphor0 is often a successful way. Always do this from the point of view of the most important character of the scene. Philosophical angles work best in: first person writing, main characters prone to philosophical thoughts, stories with a strong theme and character driven plots.

Conclusive endings: sometimes the plot simply needs to be wrapped up, for example when a character dies. Mourning can begin in a later scene, for now, the person simply dies. After the scene, the reader has a moment to collect his thoughts and emotions before continuing on. Other ways to provide a conclusive ending is to answer plot questions, the murderer is finally unmasked. Conclusive endings feel final but are not the ultimate end.


Determining appropriate scene length

The ending of a scene gives the reader a moment to catch his breath and regain stamina before diving into the next scene or chapter. These opportunities for pause are important to the reader and keeps him from becoming too drained to finish reading the whole book. Mixing short and long scenes is important to maintain the balance and prevent the story from feeling either too choppy or too slow. This balance determines the pacing and flow of the entire story.

Short

A scene of 10 or less pages is generally short. Sometimes a short scene is only a few pages long. Short scenes tend to make the reader hungry for more. Short scene after short scene will make the story appear choppy. Use short scenes if you want to differentiate one character from another (to show their differences), speed up the pace after a long scene, make the reader hungry for more, up the suspense, include several scenes within one chapter or to create a sense of urgency by dropping information in bite-size chunks.

Long

Generally speaking, a scene running for more than 15 pages is long. Long scenes should be rare, though not fully avoided. Long scene after long scene will make your story a drag, an exhaustive read to the reader. Use long scenes only when you wish to purposefully slow the pace (to give the protagonist and reader time to process what has happened and or build up suspense), insert a big piece of action (fights, chases, explosions while offering more in the scene than just that) or if the scene requires a lot of dialogue (without losing the sense of realism for the reader).


Transition from one scene to the next

There is no such thing as a transitional scene!

The separation of two scenes is usually indicated by a soft hiatus, which is a break of four lines between the last paragraph of the previous scene and the first paragraph of the next scene. Sometimes symbols are used, such as an asterisk or dingbat.
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Transitions move us over the boring parts where is nothing is happening. There are scenes and there are transitions, and never twain shall meet. By definition, if you were to write a transitional scene, you would be writing a non-scene where nothing is happening in between two eventful scenes. Otherwise known as a bit of scribbling that will be scrapped upon the first revision of the draft. Transition happens within the scene.

Any amount of time and space may be covered by a two-line transition. Whether three seconds pass or three centuries, two lines can always cover it. Leave your character somewhere memorable before the “nothing happens” part. Plant a seed to keep in their minds when they put the book down, so they will pick it back up again. Leave them with a pressing problem (cliff hanger). Next, you skip the boring part. Just remember to refer back subtly to where the character was left behind, when the next note-worthy thing happens.

Example: Mary sat down next to the house phone and waited.
At four in the morning, Mary was rudely awoken by a hideous ringing.

Sometimes the reader is brought back into the story through a different character. A common situation for this, is the “meanwhile” scene, or “at the same time”, “in another galaxy” and so forth. These work well for simultaneous action but also for skipping time and space


*Keep the scene list flexible and open to change

Clark, R. P. (2006) Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writing.
Cron, L. (2012) Wired for story: the writer’s guide to using brain science to hook readers from the very first sentence.
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques