In this section, you will discover the definition of scene and how it relates to your novel. You’ll learn about the role of description, dialogue, and internal monologue. You’ll find out how a scene can be further analyzed through the ideas of conflict and change. Once you have completed this section you will be able to successfully construct (and deconstruct) scenes within any novel, whilst also being able to identify the scenes in your own work.

What Is A Scene?

We started this part of the course with a wide overview and consider the concept of story. We then went on to look at how setting, theme, and plot were all important concepts of your story. We now take a look even deeper and consider the role of scenes.

For most readers and writers the first time they come across scenes as distinct elements are in the form of a play. However, scenes are not unique to plays and most successful novels and film scripts will have started out life as a series of distinct scenes. The fact that the story makes no reference to these scenes does not mean they do not exist.

So what is a scene?

In its most simple form, a scene is:

Action that takes place in a single location.

A scene is, therefore, a sequence of actions in one location, but as I am sure you are guessing, it is not that simple.

Here’s an example:

Let’s say the opening to your novel takes place at a train station. The opening sees a lone figure standing on the platform. A train arrives and only one person gets off. It is a man dressed in a suit and he’s carrying a suitcase. He walks to the lone figure on the platform and hands him the suitcase. No words are spoken. The passenger returns to the train and the lone figure walks from the platform.

This is a scene. In fact, it is the opening scene.

The complexity, in regards to scene definition, comes in a couple of additional elements that scenes tend to possess. These elements are:

  • Time.
  • Place.

All scenes take place in a defined time and location.

In our example above, we see that the TIME is modern day (or contemporary) and the PLACE is a train station.

One little tip: you will often see the words ‘setting’, ‘location’ and ‘place’ used interchangeably when people talk about scenes. Please be aware that these phrases have been given different meanings when talked about in context to story.

This means we can expand our definition of a scene:

Action that takes place in a single location and time.

What’s In A Scene?

So what kind of stuff do we see in a scene?

The answer to this will be addressed fully in the Elements of a Novel section but we will address the topic on a basic level to provide an understanding.

A scene can contain one, some or all of the following elements:

  • Description.
  • Dialogue.
  • Internal monologue.

Description is when a writer uses the narrator to describe the way the location and characters appear. It is also used by the narrator to describe the actions of characters.

Dialogue is speech between characters.

Internal monologue is the thoughts of characters.

It is worth dwelling on these three elements. These represent the three elements writers use to tell a story. They are the tools of your trade. However, as an editor (and writer) it is essential that you see them as separate components, only in doing so will you start to get a clear picture of how they interact.

What is most important is that you start to see the three elements as distinct and separate entities. This is how an editor sees a novel and it is how a writer must view their own work, if they wish to self-edit with any level of success.

You should now start to have gained a feeling for the structure of a basic scene. In essence, it is a string of actions that take place in one location. One other important aspects of scenes is that they can be formulated without being written out in full. If we go back to the example above, we can see that this scene could be summarized as:

‘Main character is given suitcase at train station.’

This means that when planning a novel as a writer or trying to decipher a novel as an editor, it is possible to strip away the basic components (description, dialogue and internal monologue) and distil the book into a number of scene summaries.

There’s More…

The theory behind scene structure is a little more complex than has been outlined above and it will be of benefit for you, as an editor, to have a deeper understanding of the current thinking.

When examining a scene in more depth we can come across a more detailed definition for a scene:

Action, which occurs through conflict, taking place in a defined time and place, resulting in a significant change to at least one value held by the main character.

This definition is a little more complex but let’s unpack the details…

The stuff we already know stays the same – a scene is an action that takes place in a time and setting. Nothing new there. The first new concept is that of ‘conflict’. This is something we’ve already touched on in a previous section and something we’ll examine in more detail in Understanding Novel Structure but let’s outline it here.

Conflict is simply something that is stopping the main character achieving a particular goal. For example, let’s say you have a character that needs money and decides to rob a bank. This sets up an immediate conflict with the police. Conflict is not always physical confrontation but may also be internal within a character. The beauty of conflict is that it makes things interesting. Conflict in itself is pretty boring, but characters reacting and being changed by conflict – well, that’s the lifeblood of a good story. In short, conflict is your friend.

We now turn to the ‘significant change’ to a ‘value’ held by the character.

The concept of value, and change to this value is important and it is the foundation of how you can create engaging scenes. In the context of novel structure, a value (sometimes called ‘story value’) is any ‘universal experience that can shift from positive to negative’. In essence, this is something that relates to the main character that has a polar opposite. As a simple example, you might start a scene in which the main character is very happy, an event within the scene (triggered by conflict) makes the character sad.

Let’s put some meat on them bones…

Imagine you have a story in which a teenage boy is madly in love with his girlfriend. The problem is that his family are very religious and his girlfriend is from another religion. The scene we are writing starts with the boy returning home after proposing to his girlfriend. He is happy and is eager to tell his parents. When he confronts his father and tells him the good news his father is angry and says that if he marries the girl he’ll be disowned. The boy is now sad.

Perhaps not the most riveting scene but it serves our purpose.

The value in the scene is ‘happiness’ and we see the boy go from happy to sad. The conflict comes in terms of his father. It is this conflict that causes the value to shift.

This is a simple example but should illustrate the point.

Here are a few examples of values you can use:

  • Alive/dead.
  • Love/hate.
  • Truth/lie.
  • Courage/cowardice.
  • Happy/sad.
  • Knowledge/ignorance.
  • Possession/loss.
  • Right/wrong.

In reality, you can use any value that you feel fits with your scene. The only essential element is that the value has a polar value that can switch from one value to another (happy/sad).

As with themes, there’s no one definitive list and it will come down to the writer to decide the value that any one scene is addressing. This said the theme of the book might actually include the values that a writer seeks to address.

One other aspect to drill home is that word ‘significant’. It is essential that the value you pick is important to the character and the story. If the value is losing a sock whilst getting dressed in the morning you are in for a pretty dull scene.

One point to illustrate is that value changes presented via single scenes tend to be minor changes in relation to the full story. To see major changes we need to examine acts.

Let’s return to our example at the train station and apply this new knowledge…

The opening scene in our made-up novel takes place at a train station. The scene sees a lone figure standing on the platform. A train arrives and only one person gets off. It is a man dressed in a suit carrying a suitcase. He walks to the lone figure on the platform and hands him the suitcase. No words are spoken. The passenger returns to the train and the lone figure walks from the platform.

The value that is being addressed is loss/possession. The main character (the guy on the platform) starts the scene without the suitcase and ends it with the suitcase. The conflict is actually not obvious to the reader but is still part of the scene. The guy on the platform is trying to rescue his daughter from a gang of kidnappers and the suitcase contains a gun, which he’ll need the rescue. The conflict comes from the kidnappers.

The final word here is that this more complex definition of ‘scene’ is a working model. Not all scenes will fit strictly to this definition but it is a very powerful rule of thumb. Scenes that fail to have both conflict and value-change will be boring to read and will lead an editor to question the scene’s role in the novel.

This means that when assessing your book if you find sections that feel ‘slow’ or ‘boring’ or, you’ve had feedback from readers suggesting certain sections didn’t capture their interest, then start with the scene structure.

Go to the section in question and plot out the scene. Write a one sentence summary of the scene and apply the lessons in this chapter.

  • Does the scene contain action?
  • Does it occur at a set time and location?
  • Is there a value change?
  • If so, is it driven by conflict?
By applying these questions you will often be able to identify weak scenes in your novel, which need to be removed or rewritten.

Story And Scenes

The relationship between a story and its scenes is simple. The story is the overriding concept for your novel, it will have distinct themes, a setting and a wider plot structure. The story is actually constructed from a series of defined scenes. The content of these scenes will be influenced by themes, setting and plot.

Many writers will start planning their novel by plotting out the rough content of each scene. Conversely, an editor may work backward recording the outline of each scene as they edit.

As a rule of thumb, a novel will contain about sixty scenes, while a film tends to have roughly fifty and a play about forty. This is a really rough guide and the only reason it is mentioned is to allow you to place the novel you are editing into some kind of context. If your novel has just three scenes, you are doing something wrong.

Exercise

  1. Start at the beginning of the novel and identify each scene. Write a one sentence summary of the scene. Compile these in a single document. Number these scenes.
  2. For each scene, answer the following questions. Write the answers in the document you compiled above:
    1. What is the scene’s setting?
    2. What is the value change?
    3. What is the conflict?
  3. Go through your scene document and identify all scenes that lack a value change and conflict. Re-examine these scenes asking the following questions:
    1. Is this scene essential to the plot? Can I remove it?
    2. What changes can I make to include a value change and conflict?