by Winnie Griggs
The workhorse of a story is not words, sentences, or paragraphs – it is the scene. Because it is in a scene that we see the key element of any good story – namely relevant change.
Today I’d like to discuss eight elements I feel make up an effective scene:
1 Something happens
The ‘something’ doesn’t have to be remarkable – it can be as simple as a single activity or as complex as several dozen story beats rolled together.
2. A goal
The author needs to look at this from two different levels:
One, is to view it from the character’s perspective – what does the character hope to accomplish during the course of this scene?
The second is the reader perspective. What do you as the author want the reader to come away from this scene with?
3. Elicit reactions
A well crafted scene will evoke emotion, both in the characters on the page and in the reader. And these won’t necessarily be the same emotions.
Depending on how the author plays it out, the reaction of our focal character could be one of mortification, determination, depression, irritation, victory, etc.
On the other hand, in this same scene, the reaction of the reader might be one of sympathy, amusement, annoyance, etc.
A good writer will choreograph her scene to tease the emotions she wants from both the characters and the readers.
4. Story purpose
The whole crux of your scene’s reason for being is to move the story forward in some fashion. There are many different kinds of scenes – fight scenes, flashbacks, love scenes, opening scenes, turning points, climactic scenes – but in every instance, a scene must have some effect on the focal character or overall storyline . Something necessary to the story as a whole must be contained within the scene to warrant its existence, otherwise it should be rewritten or ruthlessly cut. In order to pull its weight effectively your scene should ideally perform at least two story functions – three or four would be better.
As in a full-blown story, each scene must have a well defined beginning, middle and end. It’s a mini-story of sorts – there’s an inciting incident, a series of actions or beats, and then a resolution that tells us we’ve extracted everything we can from this particular scene. However, with the exception of the final scenes, the scene resolution does leave some unanswered questions, some loose ends that nudge the reader into the subsequent scenes to find the answers.
The scenes should flow one from the other, sculpting and shaping your story in an aesthetically satisfying way that is entertaining and relevant. Each scene builds on the one that came before and leads to the next – enhancing, changing, or redirecting your through line, either subtly or forcefully – always pushing inexorably forward to the resolution.
CAUTION: Logical doesn’t mean predictable. However, given what the reader knows about the characters and situation, it must be a believable next step.
This is the underlying emotion in your story. Is it comedic, solemn, dark, light? This should play into your scene in subtle or overt ways, coloring the actions and goals, informing the responses of both the characters and the reader. A scene will be depicted very differently in a romantic comedy than in a romantic suspense or women’s fiction work, even using the same action beats.
The change can be big or small, but you should be able to both identify it and see how it moves your storyline forward. This forward motion can come either through revelation or a relevant honing of character, world or plot. Your protagonist, or her situation, must be different at the end of the scene than she/it was at the beginning.
So there you have it – if your scene does not meet all eight of these elements then you need to take a good hard look at it and see if you can beef it up. If not, then no matter how lyrical and elegantly crafted, no matter how invested you are in it, the scene must be ruthlessly deleted.
Multi-published author Winnie Griggs is an RT Reviewers Choice Award winner and the author of fifteen published novels. She’s been married to her cattle rancher husband for 37 years now and together they’ve raised four proud-to-call-them-mine children. To learn more about Winnie and her books, please visit www.winniegriggs.com.