What is a Scene?

Narrative is the telling of a story, the events and consequences for the characters. Scenes are those passages in a narrative when we, as writers and readers, slow down and focus on an important event in the story so that we are “in  the moment” with the characters in action.

Scene is Action

No matter the length (long or short, covering time compressed or stretched), Scene is Event. Something happening. As writers, we are called to present this moment in engaging a way as possible, drawing our readers into the moment with a vice grip that will not let them go.

Among the elements at our disposal to generate these scenes is Dialogue. While we aim to make the conversations between our characters authentic and accessible, dialogue in writing is sharper, shorter, and smarter than our everyday chats. Real talk is littered with “well’s” and “uh’s” and “so’s”, and to include too many of those bits or the other verbal crutches people employ, hurts the action of the scene.

If a scene is action, if a scene is event, then using dialogue must aid in the progression of that action, of that event. Dialogue must accomplish something, must move the story along. Dialogue needs to be part of what is happening.

Time and Place

Screenwriter Christopher Keane defines a scene as “an event in a screenplay that occupies time and space.” Any change of setting or time marks a new scene. While prose writing differs greatly from playwriting, this concept is useful because it reminds us prose writers  to let the reader know and understand that there is a time and place of the scene. The happening needs to unfold somewhere.

Setting can help develop a number of different aspects of a scene, including mood. The setting of a scene can have a significant effect on the emotional atmosphere of the event. Setting can also factor greatly into the development of the plot.

Four Basic Elements of a Scene

  1. Event and Emotion – Every scene has event and emotion. In a scene, characters DO things and FEEL things. In a scene, characters act and react. These moments, these events, these things done then add up meaningfully in the story.
  2. Function – Every scene has a function in the story. There should be a specific reason that a writer has chosen to render this moment in detail rather than transmit the happening in summarization. Each scene accomplishes something for the story. The function a scene serves might be to reveal something about the character, introduce new plot elements, or foreshadow some later event. Whatever it may be, something is different by the end, something has changed.
  3. Structure – Every scene has a structure. Simply, there was a situation before the scene, a line of action takes place, and there is a new situation at the end. Beginning, Middle, and End. We writers need to remember not to get caught up in merely the thoughts of a character and make sure something actually happens in a scene. Actions cause reactions.
  4. Pulse – Every scene has a pulse. Pulse is the vibrancy in the story that makes the scene live. It’s the pulse that makes the scene matter to the reader. Pulse is emotional, and not to be confused with Tension, which is built from the action of a scene.


Scofield, Sandra. The scene book: a primer for the fiction writer. London: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.

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Top Ten Tuesday: The 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction

Arthur Conan Doyle Español: Arthur Conan Doyle...
Arthur Conan Doyle and his big, beautiful moustache. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I’ve been on something of a mystery kick these days. In preparation for reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Hound of the Baskervilles, I came across a list written by a Catholic priest who happened to also be a writer of detective fiction.

Ronald Knox, the priest, was a mystery writer in the early part of the 20th century who belonged to the Detection Club, a society peopled by such legendary mystery writers Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterson, and E. C. Bentley. This priest fittingly entitled his list of musts for mystery writing The 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. Here they are, with my commentary.

1.) The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the readers has been allowed to follow.

To start the list, Knox establishes the rules of the game. Mysteries hold so much allure because they are the most interactive. Remember those old choose-your-own-adventure stories? Well-written mysteries allow the reader to step into the story and try their hand at solving the riddle, bring the reader into the story far more effectively than making a choice and turning to a specific page. Interestingly, Knox also reveals the aspect of mysteries that separates it from the likes of thriller where the criminal is not an option regarding Point of View.

2.) All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Here, Knox makes a distinction regarding the mystery genre as an autonomous category. Fantasy and like get their own set of rules, but there are plenty of authors who are successfully blending the genres, like Jim Butcher with his Dresden Files series. This also speaks to the idea that the detective must be the one to solve the mystery.

3.) Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

Alas, Clue was before Knox’s time.

4.) No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

This, I think, is something that has crept into the genre some, especially on the TV-side of things. Shows like CSI, CSI: New York, and CSI: Albuquerque all push the forensic envelop, but I think the point Knox is trying to make here is connected to the one from the first commandment: Let the reader stay in the game. To delve too deeply into the science of the crime will alienate most readers who aren’t, in fact, scientists.

5.) No Chinaman must figure in the story.

While I’d love the idea of a priest to be wildly racist and incredibly uncouth (not that there weren’t/aren’t any), Knox is really making a larger point on avoiding cliche. To rely on racial stereotypes was a sure sign that the story was weak. So avoid Chinamen, Rednecks, Vatos, and the like.

6.) No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

This commandment is related to the second one in that the mystery needs to be solved fairly, with the detective finding the solution with a logical progression through the clues. It’s an integral part of the writer-reader pact.

7.) The detective must not himself commit the crime.

The detective is the hero of the story, and the character the reader most often identifies with. This is particularly true of the Cozy. So, to make the detective the criminal would be a betrayal of the reader. It’d be breaking the established rules of the game. Besides, twists like that are better served for the thriller genre.

8.) The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

This rule speaks to keeping the story an authentic, traditional mystery. The clues, as they appear, must be available to the reader or the detective has an unfair advantage. To keep the clues from the reader makes it an unsolvable mystery and thus the story loses its true appeal. What makes mystery writing so interesting, and difficult, is to present all the clues to the reader all the clues and making assembling them correctly the real task.

9.) The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, below that of the average reader.

Poor Watson. My students were insulting him in class today, but his character trope is an important part of the mystery. They are useful for the detective to serve as a sounding board–to have someone to explain everything to. It’s this character that can ask the obvious questions the reader may be wondering, and reading the Watson’s thought processes can also helper to the reader.

10.) Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

Here is another rule that forbids plot machinations. Avoid deus ex machinas in mysteries because they cheapen the product. Everything in the story needs to be set up and presented, not twisted into the light at the end. The criminal can in fact have a twin, or be a master of disguise, but those elements need to be weighted early in the story.

So here they are, the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction. What do you, my dear Watson reader, make of them?

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Wake-Robin Ridge On Sale!

Don’t miss this new romantic suspense by Marcia Meara! FYI: She’s awesome.

Bookin' It


I just discovered amazon.com has the print version of my book, Wake-Robin Ridge, on sale for $10.17, a savings of $2.82 over the regular list price. If any of you guys were thinking

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