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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Verb Pickin’: Showing, Not Telling

OURHOUSE 4019 by Visual Verbs
OURHOUSE 4019 by Visual Verbs (Photo credit: VISUAL.VERBS)

I remember many of the writing teachers I’ve studied under promoting the virtues of “showing” and not “telling”. But what does that mean? They meant that you don’t have to tell your readers that the old woman on the park bench is sad; you can show them:

The old woman on the park bench wept quietly.

Actually, you don’t even have to tell your readers that she’s old:

Wearing a shawl around her shoulders, the woman on the park bench wept quietly, wisps of gray hair escaping the woolen cap, frail bony fingers clutching her handkerchief.

Annie Dillard, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for her work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and author of the incredibly insightful The Writing Life, is famous for her ability to “show” and and “tell”. In her autobiography, An American Childhood (1987), Dillard doesn’t tell the reader that building a road through the Everglades between Tampa and Miami was an arduous job; she shows the reader:

To build the road, men stood sunk in muck to their armpits. They fought off cottonmouth moccasins and six-foot alligators. They slept in boats, wet. They blasted muck with dynamite, cut jungle with machetes; they laid logs, dragged drilling machines, hauled dredges, heaped limestone. The road took fourteen years to build up by the shovelful. -An American Childhood

A well-chosen verb not only heightens the drama of a sentence and makes its meaning clear but also sends a message to the reader that the writer has crafted the sentence carefully, that the idea matters.

The overuse of the linking verb “be” is a common signal that a writer is telling rather than showing. “The old woman is sad.” “The old woman is old.” “Building a road through the Everglades between Tampa and Miami was an arduous job.” It might be surprising when in checking a paragraph or two of your own prose how often you’ve used a form of be as the main verb. An abundance of such examples-say, more than two or three in a paragraph, constitutes a clear “revise” message.

The potential drama and meaning of your prose are weakened or missing altogether when the verbs don’t pull their weight. Sometimes the culprit is one of our other common, garden-variety verbs, such as havemakegodogettake. Because there verbs have so many nuances of meaning, you can often find a more precise one. For example, where you have a selected the verb make, you could probably express yourself more exactly with constituterenderproduceformcompletecompel, or create.

It’s important to note, too, that these alternative to make are not uncommon or esoteric words; they’re certainly a part of a reader’s active vocabulary. Unfortunately, however, the precise vern doesn’t always come to mind when you need it–especially when you’re composing the first draft of something. Rather than stop right there in midsentence or midparagraph to find it, just circle the word you’ve used–or highlight it in someway. Then, during the revision stage, you can take time to think about it again.

For more on this subject, check out Rhetorical Grammar by Martha Kolln and Loretta Gray.

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