What makes a scene a scene? Is a scene the same as a chapter? And why does it matter? In this video, we’re breaking down the elements of a solid scene and clearing up some common misunderstandings.
Hello writers! Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. One scene at a time, we show our reader how our characters are evolving through their actions, their decisions and reactions to the events happening around them. But a common problem that new writers have is not understanding exactly what makes up a scene and which parts of the story require a fleshed out scene versus a simple narration or telling of what happened. So that’s what we’re talking about today. But before you start writing your scenes, you want to have a really solid foundation for your novel. This way you can make decisions for your scenes that are intentional and effective in getting across what it is that you’re actually trying to say. I encourage you to take the Novel Foundation’s quiz. It’ll take you less than two minutes to complete, and not only will you instantly see what your best next step is, you’ll also receive a customized toolkit of resources based on that next step and to support you as you continue on your journey.
The link is waiting for you right at the top of the description. So head on over there and take the quiz. So let’s talk first about the difference between a scene and a chapter. The main difference is that a chapter can contain more than one scene. Think of a chapter like a carton of eggs. How many eggs are in it depends on the hen who’s laying them. Just like how many scenes are in a chapter depends on the writer and the story. A scene is a singular event and usually takes place in a singular time and space. In that singular event, something important to the story needs to change. It can change for the better or change for the worse, but it does have to change. A scene is a point in the story where time slows down and we’re moving moment by moment alongside the characters.
Not everything in a novel will be a scene. It can’t be, or else novels would be thousands of pages long. But without solid scenes throughout the novel, your reader won’t have anything to ground them. Remember, scenes are where the reader has the opportunity to emotionally connect with your characters and their experiences. A scene will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I like to think of scenes as little stories within the larger one. In the scene, the character will enter with some expectation of how things are going to go. Those expectations will be challenged in some way. The character will make a decision and there will be a consequence for that decision. So let’s look at a couple of examples. First one that is not a scene and another one that is.
From an American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Edited for length. A meteor crashed our life on Labor Day weekend. When we went to Eloe to visit my parents, we traveled by car because I liked a road trip. Planes I associated with my job. Back then, I was a rep for a textbook company specializing in math books. It didn’t make me a mogul, but I was looking forward to a bonus hefty enough to start talking about buying a new house. I kind of wanted to hang my hat on a peg with my own name on it. This was on my mind as we drove up I-10 on our way to Eloe.
Now, that is not a scene, which you probably recognized right away in this passage. Roy is musing about his job and the potential of buying a house in the future while they’re in the car driving to a destination. We’re not moment by moment with them. In fact, we don’t even really know how much time is passing. It could be an hour, could be three hours, it could be 10 minutes. There isn’t an event occurring for the characters to react to either. Now, even though the fact that this is easily recognizable as not being a scene, it is a common mistake for writers to go on and on in this vein without grounding the reader in the present with a scene. So now let’s look at an actual scene that takes place during the exact same car ride. I’ve edited it down a bit just for length.
I clicked the blinker at exit 163 as we merged onto a two-lane highway. I felt a change in Celestial. Her shoulders rode a little higher and she nibbled on the ends of her hair. What’s wrong? I asked, turning down the volume of the greatest hip hop album in history. Just nervous. About what? You ever have a feeling like maybe you left the stove on? I returned the volume on the stereo to somewhere between thumping and bumping. Call your boy Andre. Then Celestial fumbled with the seatbelt like it was rubbing her neck the wrong way. I always get like this around your parents. Self-conscious, you know? My folks? Olive and Big Roy are the most down to earth people in the history of ever. You know, my folks love you, I said. They love you. And I love you, so they love you. It’s basic math.
Celestial looked out the window as the skinny pine trees whipped by. I don’t feel good about this. Roy, let’s go home. My wife has a flair for the dramatic. Still, there was a little hitch in her words that I can only describe as fear. What is it? I don’t know. But let’s go back. Looking back on it, it’s like watching a horror flick and wondering why the characters are so determined to ignore the danger signs. But in real life, you don’t know you’re in a scary movie. You think your wife is being overly emotional. You quietly hope that it’s because she’s pregnant, because a baby is what you need to lock this thing in and throw away the key.
In this scene, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Celestial is worried. She says what’s bothering her, and then Roy makes the decision to disregard it and keep driving. The consequences aren’t here in this scene, but they are implied and the reader already knows it. Roy is about to be falsely accused of a crime on this trip. I hope that these two examples and the tips I gave you were helpful today. If you enjoyed this content and know someone else who might benefit from it, please subscribe and share. I’ll see you next time.