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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The Slippery Slope of Exposition

Road to Denali - Mountains - Alaska

Stories are a trip. And like all good trips, it’s about the journey, not necessarily about the destination. As writers, it’s our job to make the journey as engaging and entertaining as possible. One of our difficulties though, can be the start of the trip, the Exposition.

We need to avoid too much Exposition whenever and wherever possible. Too much Exposition bogs down the story, and too often it results in the dreaded “telling” and not “showing”. Now, Exposition is a necessary evil. We need to tread through this dull land in order to see the more picturesque vistas, Rising Action and Climax.

These days, I’m working on analyzing short stories with my students, and one of the first approaches to this unit involves a discussion on Plot. While all discussions of Plot begin with the fact that all stories need Conflict, the conversation makes it’s way to Exposition pretty quickly. With the thirsty middle school minds before me, I tell them that the Exposition is where an author presents the reader with the major characters, the setting, and the basic situation of the story. The Exposition gives way to an Inciting Incident, a moment that largely introduces the Conflict and gets the story moving up the mountain toward Rising Action’s panorama.

I try to tell them though, that it’s better for an author to get to the Conflict ASAP, and to leave the Exposition behind as quickly as they can. Here are five ways to escape the mire of too much Exposition.

  1. Leave the Backstory Behind ~ As writer’s, we need to start the journey of our story in the right place, and often times, it’s as those elements that will be important to the Plot come to a head.
  2. Don’t Blind the Passenger ~ We need to make sure that our Readers see the road clearly. Show them the story unfolding, don’t Tell them what’s happening. Introduce characters in scene. Have them do something. Use body language and vocal cues to develop that characterization.
  3. Introduce Characters Once They’re on the Road ~ Try not to bog down the reader with too many details of someone they’ve yet to see in action. Feel free to build tension with hints, but don’t go into full-on backstory mode. Reveal the character and the details as they become relevant.
  4. Avoid Starting the Trip with Flashback or Prologue ~ These are tricky pieces of baggage on the trip because they can be valuable, but unless put to good use, they end up just taking up trunk space. There’s not her royal highness’s matched luggage.
  5. Let the Point of View Character Drive ~ Remember, the POV character is why we’re in the car to begin with. If something is relevant to them at a given moment, then it’ll be on their mind, otherwise, the reader won’t need to hear it.

What do you think?