The 7 Elements of a SCENE
There are few things as soul-crushing in the writing process (at least to me) than getting a bunch of characters in a room with the intention of something happening, then the characters proceed to stand around and stare at each other.
Or worse, look at you like this.
My characters didn’t know why they were there. I didn’t know why they were there either. I had no clue what they were supposed to be doing, so I’d start throwing random instructions at them: “Fight, characters! You guys should fight now! Maybe fighting will make this event have a purpose!” Which inevitably resulted in characters going through the motions of battle for no apparent reason, like they had all lost their minds.
What was the problem? I didn’t know how to write a scene. I didn’t know what a scene was. I had a vague definition that it was something about changing scenery, or just “something happening”.
It’s not. And once I learned what a scene was, my characters got to stop pummeling each other, while wishing they could pummel me.
So what is a scene?
The definition of a scene is kind of like the definition of a story. Story is change, a massive change in the life of your main character. A scene is change too, but much smaller, and part of that huge story change. You couldn’t have the BIG change without these tiny changes. Thus, a scene is not switching scenery. It’s not flipping to a new Character’s POV. It’s one segment of change, which triggers the next change, which triggers the next, which gradually build into sequences, which build into Acts, which build into story.
So what goes into a scene? How does it work?
1. Alternating Charges
If a scene opens positive, it will turn negative by the end. If it opens negative, it will end positive. Simple.
2. Character Goals
Everybody in a scene wants something. If they don’t want anything, they shouldn’t be in the scene. And these characters, with their often opposing goals, are going to employ different tactics on each other to get what they want. Which creates …
3. Escalating Conflict
Conflict is created when one character wants one thing and another wants something else, right? So the characters in the scene are each pushing for something different, each new tactic increasing in determination. And what are these actions called?
The beats of a scene are exchanges of action and reaction. One character does something, another character reacts. All exchanges (beats) are pushing the scene onward, building tension and conflict, until finally …
5. Turns & Revelations
The scene turns. The positive has changed to negative. Something has been discovered. The story has spun in a new direction.
6. Connection to Story Objective
Every scene must be connected to the BIG goal of the story, the main character is taking small actions to reach that big goal. If it isn’t obviously connected to this big plot, it won’t make sense. Your reader won’t know why the heck they’re reading the scene. Which brings us to …
7. Logic & Necessity
Every scene must be necessary. It must be able to be linked with the previous scene. “Because that happened in the previous scene, THIS must happen in this scene.”
So! To see how that all works, let’s break down a scene from Tangled. (Because I used it in the last post to map out how a premise works, and my little writer heart can’t resist symmetry.)
Which scene? The one right after this happens:
Opening Charge: Positive. She’s realized everything.
Rapunzel’s Goal: Rise up against her mother – finally.
Gothel’s Goal: Regain control.
Escalating Conflict: They’re fighting over who controls Rapunzel, and this battle causes them to go from “mother and daughter” to “enemies”. The conflict builds nicely in this scene, causing the story turn.
Connection to Story Objective: Throughout the movie, the big thing Rapunzel wants is freedom, she wants her life to begin, she wants to have a new dream. This is the moment she figures out how to do that; it’s not escaping the tower, it’s escaping Gothel’s control over her.
So! Here’s the scene.
“Rapunzel? Rapunzel, what’s going on up there?”
Ignores her. Still processing the tremendous implications of this revelation.
“Are you alright?"
"I’m the lost princess.” (Dumbfounded. Almost whispering it to herself.)
“Oh, please speak up Rapunzel! You know how I hate the mumbling.” (Bullying.)
“I am the lost princess! Aren’t I?” (Fighting back. She will not be bullied anymore.)
Gothel stares, stunned. She’s rendered temporarily speechless, because her secret’s been revealed finally, and her victim is actually fighting against her.
“Did I mumble, Mother? Or should I even call you that?” (Accusing. Drawing herself up taller. Looking down on Gothel and glaring. She’s seeing her clearly for the first time in her life.)
After a pause, thinking up a tactic. “Oh, Rapunzel, do you even hear yourself? How could you ask such a ridiculous question?” (Laughs. Ridicules. Attempts to make her feel childish, dumb, worthy of being mocked. Tactics which have always worked. She even begins to hug her.)
Rapunzel pushes her. “It was you! It was all you!” (Still accusing and angry, but pain is beginning to show. It’s almost like she’s giving her a chance to explain herself.)
“Everything I did was to protect you.” (And Gothel doesn’t say anything redeeming. She’s holier than thou, regal, bestowing kindness on an ungrateful, stupid child. Trying to control through guilt.)
Rapunzel rams her out of the way.
“Rapunzel!” (Shouting. Now trying anger.)
“I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power …” (Leaves her.)
"Rapunzel!” (Still trying the anger angle.)
“But I should have been hiding from you.” (Throwing the truth at her.)
“Where will you go? He won’t be there for you.” (She’s tried everything else. It’s time to attack her heart.)
“What did you do to him?” (Fear)
“That criminal is to be hanged for his crimes.” (She’s keeping up the disapproving mother act, but striking her right where it will hurt her most.)
“No.” (She’s stopped. Shrinking in on herself. Staring, horrified. And Gothel thinks she’s won.)
“Now, now. It’s alright. Listen to me. All of this is as it should be.” She goes to pat Rapunzel’s head, a gesture symbolic of her superiority, her physical, mental, and emotional control over her victim.
Rapunzel grabs Gothel’s wrist. “No! You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me! And I will never let you use my hair again!"
Gothel wrenches free, stumbling backwards in shock and anger, breaking the mirror in the process.
Rapunzel walks away. She’s escaped Gothel emotionally now.
"You want me to be the bad guy? Fine. Now I’m the bad guy.” (Well, now emotional control is over. It’s time to start stabbing Rapunzel’s boyfriend.)
This action has no reaction, interestingly. It leaves us hanging, a cliffhanger created with only beats.
Closing Charge: Negative. She’s now a full-fledged villain, the motherly persona shed, and she’s determined to get what she wants whatever the cost.
Turn: It changed from positive to negative, and now we’ve got a Flynn-stabbing witch to deal with.
Revelation: She’s always been evil. She has always been the bad guy. The motherly act was just that, an act.
Logic & Necessity: This scene fits with the previous scene, and the one that follows.
Though I’ve seen these concepts in many books, the place I first learned about it (and the best resource for scene design in my opinion) is the book Story by Robert McKee. It’s helped me countless times, is one of my favorite books on storytelling, and I highly recommend it if you write anything.
I realize that these definitions were a little vague, so I’ll be explaining things more thoroughly in subsequent posts.