Scenes are the playgrounds of your characters, the center ring in which your characters perform, the theater of conflict, revelation, goal-seeking, problem-solving, transformation and resolution.
Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that scene-writing can make or break a story.
Ever wonder how bestselling authors approach scene-writing? How they think about scenes? What “mental movies” play in their heads as they pen their prose?
Here, we are interested in the big picture, the global method of scene-writing.
Most scenes include the three essentials of storytelling – characters, conflict and cauldron (or setting).
Characters: the actors or people in your story
Conflict: the collision of needs, wants, desires, goals, (emotional, mental, physical and sometimes spiritual) problems, setbacks, hindrances, obstacles and complications
Cauldron: the setting, location, locale, or place where the characters play out the conflict
So there you have it: the three pillars of scene. Of course, there are more elements to scene-writing, like theme, time, symbolism, emotion, dialogue, cause and effect, and more, but in this post, we want to widen the lens. We are climbing to the top of the literary peak and gazing out at a panoramic view of scene.
One of the confusing aspects of scene is length. How long is a scene? How short can they be? Do all scenes need to be the same length?
Truth be told, there are no hard and fast rules, but there are some guiding principles. Many editors suggest that most scenes in a story follow a consistent pattern — be about as long or short as all the other scenes.
That’s helpful, but not particularly revealing in terms of your specific story.
When considering the size of a scene, keep this scene-writing trick in mind:
Let’s unpack this idea for a moment. There are several possible takeaways here, so breaking down the principle may assist with clear understanding and accurate application.
Scenes should be as short as possible – Reader attention is short, fleeting. Short scenes capture and keep attention. Short scenes force writers to cut the fat of a scene, to edit out flabby description, unnecessary action or repetitive dialogue. Anything that doesn’t add to the scene gets taken out.
And as long as necessary – Scenes require time and space to develop conflict, to reveal change, to express theme and emotion. Scene length is almost always directly proportional to scene depth.
Scenes should be as short as possible and as long as necessary. So, when writing your scenes, keep these questions in mind:
- Is this (word, sentence, description, dialogue, character) essential?
- When does the conflict develop to a head? Where is the peak moment of conflict, emotion or revelation?
- How soon can I end the scene after this peak moment? Can this moment be the end of the scene? Why or why not?
- Does this scene ramble on too long? Can it be split into two different scenes?
- Does the scene end too soon? Are there three escalations of conflict?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you approach the length of your scenes. Add your comment in the comment section below.