TAP041, What is a Scene? How to Write Great Scenes
TAP041, What is a Scene? How to Write Great Scenes
Are you confused about scenes and chapters? Do you write scenes that aren’t working, and you wonder why?
In this first instalment of this mini-series on scenes, I will discuss the difference between scenes and chapters. Define what is a scene in the context of novel writing. I will answer the age-old question, what is the perfect length of a scene? And I will share how to end a scene and know when a scene has reached its natural end.
About the Mini-Series
You’ll probably have noticed that I’ve mentioned that this is a part of a mini-series but haven’t said how long this series will last. That’s because I honestly don’t know. I want to leave it a little open-ended, so I can give the series as many episodes as it needs. Why? Because I want this episode to help you to write better scenes. And in the spirit of that helpfulness, I’ve also included another writing exercise in this show as well.
Scenes vs Chapters
As I stalk the pages of Reddit within the writing and self-publishing subreddits and in other online forums, I notice a trend among first-time writers and authors. There is often a fixation surrounding chapters and finding the perfect length. But what they don’t know and perhaps learn through time and experience is that stories are written one scene at a time.
So, what is the difference between scenes and chapters?
A chapter is a tool to help control the pacing of a story. So, how does a chapter achieve this? By grouping together one or more scenes. Because a chapter is a tool that controls pacing, there is no perfect length. Chapters can be as long or as short as they need to be, provided that the chapter has a page-turning effect on the reader. That’s what matters most–the reader experience. So, technically it’s okay to have a chapter that is 300 words or less, but it needs to serve a purpose and move the story forward.
This leads me to point out the obvious. If a chapter is a tool, then what is a scene?
What is a Scene?
Way back in 2014, when I first started writing my first novel, I crafted a definition for myself because I was so confused. For the life of me, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the concept of a chapter. You get it; I’m a classic overthinker. So I gave up and wrote what I knew. Because I started out writing screenplays, I understood scenes. And that’s what I wrote⏤scenes.
However, I overthought the concept of a scene, and I started to question whether the concept of a scene was different for a novel than it was in a screenplay. In light of this, I turned to Google and came up with my own definition that has been pinned to my noticeboard ever since.
A scene is a unit of story that takes place in a specific location and time. If one of those things changes, then you have a new scene. Scenes stand on their own but also link to the pages before and after.
How Long Should a Scene be?
There are no hard and fast rules, but the story must come first. But, there are a few elements you need to consider when discussing length. The scene must serve a purpose and should have a beginning, middle, and end.
That purpose doesn’t necessarily need to move the story forward in terms of plot; it can contain an important character moment. You get it; the scene needs to earn its place in the novel beyond a piece of writing you are proud of. However, when considering the perfect word count for a scene, the focus must be on the scene having a beginning, middle, and end before you start cutting words because you fear it’s too long.
So, what do you do when you have a super long scene with a considerable word count? Break the scene into two at the most logical place, and divide it between two chapters. And choose a moment in the scene where you have raised a question in the reader’s mind. Perhaps in your super long scene, your point of view character witnesses another character receiving a threatening text⏤cut the scene at that place. Choose a moment that’s full of intrigue or at least leaves the reader wanting to know more.
But let’s circle back to the beginning, middle and end of a scene, and focus on the beginning and end; these are the natural breaks in a story where your reader can put your book down. And that’s what you don’t want⏤for the reader to close the book.
Starting a Scene
So, how do you start a scene? Here is the mini-checklist I wish I had when writing my first novel.
Ground the reader in the scene. And in doing that immerse the reader in the five senses, don’t just focus on setting description.
Answer the who, what, where, when and why questions as they are appropriate to your story.
- Who is the point of view character?
- What are they doing?
- Where are they?
- How much time has elapsed since the last scene? (That’s the When Question.)
- Why are they in this place?
But most importantly, especially if the scene is not the opening scene, how did the characters get to where they are now? You need to make every effort to link the previous and subsequent scenes together.
To make this a little easier for you, I have created an infographic for those of you who are that way inclined.
How Do You Know When a Scene Ends?
Now that I’ve discussed how to start a scene, let’s discuss how to know when a scene has reached its end. A scene ends when one of the following changes:
- Point of view character
- Another character enters the scene
- A New Setting
- Jumps in time
- Or, you’ve achieved everything that you set out
Tips on Ending a Scene
Now, this is where I’ve made the most mistakes. Actually, that’s not true; I make mistakes in the beginning, but not as frequently as in the end of a scene. I tend to take the “get out early” advice too seriously to the point that my ends are abrupt.
What do I do wrong?
I leave my scenes too early. The second a character leaves, or the scene goal is achieved, I end it instead of wrapping up the scene and leaving a hook to encourage the reader to move on to the next one. This is something I’ve discovered through my line editor and by using beta readers.
So, how do you avoid an abrupt ending?
By wrapping up the scene, explain what the character does after they either fail or achieve their goal within the scene. What does the character do next? What are their thoughts about what they’ve just learned? Consider how they move from one scene to another. You don’t have to drag it out. All you need is a few sentences to wrap up the scene so you can move on to the next.
Here’s an example from Kiss the Girls by James Patterson:
“I thanked Dean Lowell and left his office feeling touched by the man, and somehow better. I went off to the student dorms. Guess who’s coming to high tea?”
It perfectly sums up the scene, and you get a sense of what Alex Cross will do next and his thoughts about what transpired in less than thirty words. That’s all you need.
Write the next scene in your current work in progress or start something new. As you write the first or next scene, ensure that you give the scene a beginning, middle, and end. Make sure you ground the reader in the scene using my mini checklists. And wrap up the scene at the end to avoid giving it an abrupt ending.
I hope this episode gives you a basic understanding of scenes and how to write them. As always, I have an important question for you.
- Did you do the writing exercise?
- Do you plan on doing the writing exercise?
- Would you like me to continue setting writing exercises like this?
I want to hear from you. Share your process or struggles with writing scenes in the comments section below or over in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group. If you like, you can submit your writing exercise to me in the Am Writing Fiction Facebook Group.
In the next episode of the podcast, I will delve deeper into the anatomy of a scene.
Thank you for listening, and happy reading and writing, everybody.
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I’m Amelia. When I’m not hosting the Authorpreneur Podcast™️ and the Book Nerd Podcasts, I write Mystery Novels under the pen name A. D. Hay. And, I’m the author of Suspicion, the Lawn, and the Candidate.
On this blog, I help new writers to finish their first draft, prepare their manuscripts for professional editing, and when they get stuck in the first draft phase or are confused about the revision process.
Right now, I’m editing and preparing my soon to be published mystery novels, Suspicion, Duplicity, 24 Hours, and Immunity for publication.