It’s this element of structure for the story. We all write them, but sometimes it seems like this overlooked aspect of our stories. I’m not sure why this is. It’s not as elemental as the word or punctuation. It’s not as long and sexy as a chapter. It’s not as easily diagramed as a sentence, right?
But it’s so important.
There’s an old book by Raymond Obstfeld called Crafting Scenes and in its first pages, he has a chapter called “What a Scene Is and Isn’t.” In it, he quotes the actress Rosalind Russell who was asked what made a movie great.
She answered, “Moments.”
And Obstfeld compared that thought about movies to our thoughts about scenes. He writes, “The more ‘moments’ a work has, the more powerful it is. Think of each memorable scene as an inner tube designed to keep the larger work afloat.”
And then there is the corollary, “The fewer memorable scenes there are, the quicker that work sinks to the depths of mediocrity.”
So What’s A Scene and How Do You Make It Memorable?
That’s the obvious question, right? A scene is usually action that happens in one setting. But it’s not always. It’s about focus. It can be ten pages or one.
Obstfeld says that a scene does the following:
Gives reader plot-forwarding information
Reveals character conflict
Highlights a character by showing action or a trait
And a memorable scene? What is that?
What does a scene have to have?
A beginning, a middle, and an end.
And the beginning? It’s like a blind date, he says. You have to tell the reader what’s going on and not just expect her to know. It has to hook the reader in, pulling her into its clutches so she wants to keep reading.
Stories aren’t always about hitting each prescribed beat. Stories are about characters making choices.
I’ve been talking about scenes a bit this week and I’m keeping up the scene theme today.
Mike Nichols had thoughts about scenes.
Mike Nichols (a famous movie guy) believes there are three main types of scenes and his scene types are all about what the conflict and choices are in the scene.
Fight – You have to use strength or endurance or willpower to get what you want.
Negotiation – You are being logical and everyone is working together to figure something out. It’s like Scooby Doo when the gang tries to figure something out.
Seduction – You are manipulating someone else to get what you want.
Rachel Poli among others says there are eight.
Hers read a bit more like plot points or story beats. And honestly, I worry about the idea of an ‘exposition’ scene because that usually slows down the plot and narrative, but here you go.
Introduction – Shows character/back ground
Exposition and preparation – Information is given to the character. She says this is where the conflict is scene, but I’d argue that you need your conflict to be seen in every scene.
Transition – “The character are on the move.”
Investigation – It’s an investigation.
Revelation – Things are revealed! Realizations are had.
Escape and Pursuit – Your characters rescue someone, they run away from someone, they run after someone.
Aftermath – This is usually after a big scene. It’s basically a reaction beat.
Resolution – The finale.
The Script Lab presents 17 types of scenes. We’re quoting them here.
1. Setting – Where are we?
2. Atmosphere/Mood – What is it like there?
3. Introduction – Who is it we are dealing with here?
4. Exposition – Necessary information. Quick and Clever.
5. Transition – getting from one place to another. Fast.
6. Preparation – What will it take to prepare for the task at hand?
7. Aftermath – How does the character feel about what just happened?
8. Investigation – Gathering information.
9. Revelation – The reader/audience finds out something important.
10. Recognition – The character finds out something important.
11. The Gift – Using a prop with emotional investment and turning it into a weapon, emotional or otherwise.
12. Escape – The character is trying to get away, avoid, or hide.
13. Pursuit – The character is trying to follow, capture, or secure.
14. Seduction – Someone must convince someone else.
15. Opposites – Two characters from seemingly opposite poles are forced together.
16. Reversal of Expectations – A character expects a certain, very clear outcome, but another character surprises him, influencing him to reverse his intention and do something else – practically the opposite of what he planned to do.
Why So Many Different Numbers? Three? Seventeen? That’s a big difference.
Well, people like to have original ideas and claim knowledge as exact. But also because they are looking at slightly different things.
You’ll notice that Nichols’s scenes descriptions really are different. They are about conflict and choice and not about story beats. And I like that.
Stories aren’t always about hitting each prescribed beat. Stories are about characters making choices. If you read those other scene lists they can be helpful in structuring your story and making sure you hit certain beats, but they aren’t about the core of your character’s transformation.
“A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result.”
Timothy Hallinan writes,
“For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over.”