Writing Excuses 10.25: What Makes a Scene?
Key points: Scene as scene-sequel bit. Smallest does one of those, while longer may do both. Scene begins where a character figuratively walks on stage, and ends where we cut. “Walks on stage” can be misleading because we often start in the middle of action. Scene controls pacing. Raise questions, struggle with questions or conflict, and end when something changes. MICE… central question or conflict. Cut or through transitions between scenes? Scene as a particular idea. Why use scenes? Pacing and practicality. Scene transitions signal to the reader that we are making a change. Metaphorically, using scenes is like understanding chairs at a molecular level. Or maybe understanding the pieces of chairs so you can put one together? Scenes often have a solid ending, that completes a clear arc of motion. How do you know when your scene is finished? Howard’s nose tickles. For Mary, it feels right. Mechanically, the scene provokes the reaction that you want to create. Try using the MICE quotient as a diagnostic tool — is there a point where the needed information is clearly available? Sometimes add a denouement, to make sure the reader is not too comfortable by raising a new story question. Scene length can be compared to opera and one-act plays — a long opera may have long intermissions, while a 45 minute short play probably can’t.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 25.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Makes a Scene?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And I joked that Howard is what makes a scene, among us. But we’re not talking about the scenes that Howard makes. We’re talking about the scenes that Howard draws.
[Howard] Yeah. Only drawing them with words for most of y’all.
[Brandon] Yes. We are talking about… I get this question fairly often from my students and from aspiring writers. They understand the concept of chapter, but it gets really hard when they realize, “Wait a minute, a chapter is made up of several scenes. What defines that as a chapter, and what defines these separate individual scenes?”
[Mary] Also, the same thing when you’re writing a short story. How do you tell if you’re doing the short story as one big scene or smaller scenes?
[Brandon] So what is a scene? What def… What do we mean by that word?
[Howard] For me? I… A scene can be either… I go back to scene-sequel format. It can either be functioning as a scene, which is something where there’s action, or a sequel, where there is processing of the action. For me, I describe a scene… The smallest unit of a scene is something that does all of one of those. A single scene might do two, it might do both of them, might have both scene and sequel. But for me, the smallest unit has to have a complete bit of one of those.
[Brandon] Okay. I think that for me, a scene begins where a character figuratively walks on the stage… A main character, and ends where we cut. So I’m actually using more of a cinematic terminology for this scene.
[Mary] Yeah. Although the walks onto the stage can be misleading because frequently you start in the middle of action.
[Brandon] Right. Or there… Where you start the scene with the character doing something.
[Mary] For me… So… This is where my theater background shows. For me, scenes serve… The structure of a scene serves two purposes. One is that it is a way of controlling pacing. So a series of short scenes are going to feel more like a training montage. That it’s going to give you a a lot of information, but not a lot of depth. Longer scenes are going to be like a very long… And again, I’m using cinematic… But it gives you more depth. But it also feels… Can feel slower. Sometimes it can have a sense of urgency depending on what’s going on in it. But…
[Brandon] I don’t do a lot of the first, I really don’t think. I’m trying to analyze, listening to you say that. I do a lot of start where we introduce a character doing something. We raise questions. They struggle with those questions or conflict, whatever it is. Then something changes and we’re done. That is a scene for me. Sometimes that’s an entire chapter. More frequently, there’ll be two or three of those in a chapter.
[Mary] Yeah. I am the same. That’s… I do the same thing, that what is happening in that scene is that I have a question in my character needs to deal with that question. I personally wind up structuring my scenes using the MICE question… Quotient, often. But… So there is a central question, a central conflict, and I’m trying to resolve that during the course of this scene or address it in some way or sometimes leave it unresolved. But my decision about whether to have a scene break or to roll straight through into the next scene? That is… For me, that is a pacing question.
[Brandon] That is a good point. Yeah. Because once in a… Sometimes… I’ll do this more in the longer books. The chapter… The character does something and then… They walk to another place. We stay with them as they do what Howard just said. They’re digesting what just happened. We’re actually starting a new scene right there. Even though there is no line break. It’s transitioning us.
[Mary] In theater, we call this a… It’s a staged transition. So in theater, there’s two ways to do a scene break. You can cut to black, which is in fiction when you’re writing the hashtag. Or you can do a through transition, which is where you see the characters actually moving the scenery and it is conveying information. Again for me, it’s very much a pacing thing.
[Dan] Yeah. I find that… I tend to think of scenes as one particular idea, whether that is this is where we’re going to learn X or this is when these characters are going to have this conversation. Whatever it is. When I go back in the revision process and say, “You know, actually this probably needs to be two scenes because there’s two ideas in it.” It’s always pacing that makes me stop and say “No” or “Yes,” whatever the decision is. I want this to stay as a single scene because I want to slow it down a little bit…
[Howard] I struggled with this…
[Dan] And have it be nice and long.
[Howard] At the end of Schlock Mercenary book 15, Delegates and Delegation, where we’d had a lot of action and a lot of reveals. Then I reached a point where I knew we were stepping into dénouement, but there is no page turn with Schlock Mercenary. There’s always just the next button. So I needed a scene that was different enough from everything else that I could say we have now entered dénouement. This is the point at which, fair reader, you are allowed to believe safely that we have resolved the conflict. What I did for that was pulled way back and did another establishing shot of the planet and this time, the ring is gone and there’s some narration happening. So, in my mode, which is third person cinematic with a semi-omniscient narrator, dropping into the semi-omniscient narrator for that scene was the pacing tool that tells the reader where we are in the story. This may sound really simple, but I struggled for a week, storming around the house with different things that needed to happen next, things that needed to happen in the dénouement, and they were all wrong because none of them telegraphed that this is where we are in the story. I had to have that happen before any of them would work.
[Brandon] So my next question for you then is, why do we do this? Why is it important to be thinking about scenes rather than chapters and books and things like that? What does it gain us?
[Mary] Well, again, sometimes we’re writing short fiction, but…
[Brandon] We are?
[Mary] Sometimes… Some of us are. But it serves the exact same function in both of them. So there’s… One of them is what we’ve been talking about with the pacing. The other is the practicality. Like, it allows us to do a jump cut, it allows us to go to a different character, to a different location, to a different time. But one of the things that it’s doing is it’s signaling to the reader that we are going to make a change. That… Whether that’s a visual break by the hashtag… I think you guys are gonna get to hear my cat now as bonus content. I don’t know. Then it’s still… It’s a signpost to the reader that we are making a pivotal change at this point.
[Howard] The form… The chapter, the scene, the whatever. That form is a portion of the syntax, and if you… Well, for instance, if you are… You have a scene and you have the line break and the very next sentence picks up exactly where we were before we had the line break… It’s very confusing. Because the reader is expecting, “Oh, this portion of the form, we’ve transitioned scenes. Wait, why am I in exactly the same room with exactly the same person and the only thing that’s changed is he’s now put a fork full of food in his mouth?” That piece of the form would be very confusing. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the reason we don’t see it often is because most of the writers we read understand that you use that line break in order to telegraph something happening.
[Brandon] Something’s changing.
[Dan] We are moving to a new place…
[Howard] A change of scenery or…
[Dan] Or we have jumped ahead in time…
[Mary] Or a new idea…
[Brandon] Or a gunshot just went off.
[Mary] The cliffhanger is a really good thing…
[Brandon] I would say it’s…
[Mary] Or not a really good thing, but a good indicator.
[Brandon] I would say that for me, once I started to be able to visualize a continuum like this, it made it much easier to judge the length of my story and shrink or grow it based on the type of story I’m telling. The Stormlight Archive books are very complicated in form. But when you start to think of them as a collection of scenes, it’s much… Like you can look and say, “Okay. A chair is really complicated. But once I start understanding the molecules that make it up, I kind of get it a little bit better.”
[Mary] You understand chairs at a molecular level?
[Brandon] Well, it’s a metaphor.
[Howard] It’s a…
[Dan] He also communicates with them, but…
[Howard] When I was doing product management… In software terms, junior engineers would spec out how long something was going to take to code and they would always get it wrong. Engineers who had written lots and lots and lots of code could look at, “Oh. You’re asking me to do this dozen things which is going to take this group of modules and that’s going to take me this long to write and the piece of code is going to be about this long. It’s the same thing. The experience of…
[Brandon] A better thing would be the pieces of the chair. You’re going to make a chair. You gotta make this chair. If you look at it and say, “Wow, that chair… I’m just going to cut that out of a big piece of wood.” No, that’s not how you make a chair. Because if you can understand individual pieces and make them very well, then the chair comes together. It’s the same way with a book for me. Once I understand what the different scenes are trying to accomplish, I can construct chapters. With those chapters, I can construct arcs which are smaller than a book.
[Dan] Yeah. See, the arc of a scene is what I think we ought to get into now, because…
[Brandon] Why don’t we do the book of the week first?
[Dan] The book of the week, and then come back to that?
[Brandon] And then the arc of a scene.
[Dan] Fantastic. Oh, the book of the week is The Devil’s Only Friend, written by the excellent writer and handsome gentleman, Dan Wells. It is the fourth book in the John Cleaver series.
[Mary] And it’s so good. I’ve already read it. Sorry. Really loved it.
[Dan] And you too can read it as well on audiblepodcast.com/excuse. I had, for a long time, all of my major publishers had been asking for more John Cleaver books and I was never ready to write more because I didn’t want to just do it for money. I wanted to make sure I had a good story to tell. It wasn’t until I thought, “Well, okay, now I know what John’s next arc of character growth is, and now I have a really good idea of who the bad guy is and how he or she works. Well, okay, now I’m ready to go.” So that’s what this is. This is the start of a new trilogy that takes John in a new direction. He grew a lot in the first trilogy, but that doesn’t mean he is in a happy place or possibly ever will be.
[Howard] You already said audiblepodcast.com/excuse?
[Dan] I did.
[Howard] Where they can start a free trial membership… Did you say that part?
[Dan] I didn’t, but it is a 30-day free trial membership.
[Mary] And it’s a really good book. It’s a really good book.
[Brandon] They should listen to this because in August it will be our project-in-depth.
[Mary] Oh, that’s right.
[Brandon] So if you can listen to or read The Devil’s Only Friend before then, you’ll be much more cognizant of what’s going on in the story as we discuss it with Dan.
[Mary] Also, there are the things that are spoilers that I desperately want to talk with Dan about, and you don’t want to be spoiled on this book.
[Brandon] All right. What is the arc of a scene, Dan?
[Dan] Okay. Like I said earlier, I tend to think of a scene as a particular idea or an event that has to happen. So, for example, I’ve started writing John Cleaver number five, and had an idea of the first scene and what I wanted to do with that. So I started writing it, and got to a point where he said a line of narration and I thought, “Well, that has to be where this ends.” Because that has completed a very clear arc of motion from the first line to this line. That’s… It didn’t accomplish all of the plot stuff that I wanted it to, but it was so obviously a solid ending that had accomplished something else that I just had to end it there and move on and do the rest in another scene.
[Howard] That happens to me all the time, where I’m writing a pair of characters in a conversation in the strip, and I’m thinking, “Okay, this is going to run the Monday through Saturday, the single row strips.” I arrive at Thursday and the line of dialogue on Thursday has closed off the scene in a way where if I do the next piece that I felt needed to be done in order to move the plot forward, I’m going to be telegraphing to the reader that I’m starting a new scene and they will be confused when I actually change scenery on the strip that follows it. So I look at the scripts and I say, “Well. Is there a way for me to move that bit of plot forward by putting it in another scene? Can that be told with a different set of characters?” That happens to me pretty much every week.
[Brandon] I do the opposite a lot. Which is where I say, “Oh. That’s where my scene ends.” I move it down to the bottom and I say, “Okay. I’ve got this other stuff to accomplish in this chapter or in this scene…”
[Howard] Oh, and you put stuff in the middle.
[Brandon] And I go and put the… I move that to the end, and I go and move the stuff into the middle.
[Howard] I do that when I don’t have anything to go on the Friday and the Saturday. I don’t have a place to switch to, and I think, “You know what, I just need to write… Rewrite Tuesday and Wednesday so that there’s room for those pieces.”
[Dan] So how do we know when we’ve hit that point? We’ve all said that we know. How do we know?
[Howard] My nose tickles.
[Brandon] Howard’s nose tickles for me, and he calls me.
[Dan] Okay. He calls you up and says, “By the way, you just finished with that scene.”
[Howard] That’s what that is.
[Mary] So I have two answers. One is the way I actually know, which is that it feels right. But that’s not something you can teach, and that’s very frustrating. What is happening with that is that mechanically the story is provoking the reaction in me that I wanted to be provoking in the reader. What I can do when it’s not working is that I… Again, I use the MICE quotient, but I often use it as a diagnostic tool. So… We’ve… You’ve heard me talk about this a lot, but if we’re looking at the idea portion of the acronym, if my character enters the scene and they have a question and this scene is about them trying to get the information to that, and then I have that moment where the information is clear. Then I’m like, “Aha. End of scene.”
[Brandon] Or, I do denouement with my scenes sometimes. I say, “Aha. That’s the end. Now we’ll go to epilogue for a few paragraphs.”
[Mary] Yes. So that’s… This is, again, gets into… It’s a pacing question for me. So I’ll have that thing of “Ah, this is resolved.” Sometimes I will add more after it, because even though that is a nice resolution, I know that what it’s going to do to my reader is going to make them feel comfortable, and I don’t want them to feel comfortable yet. So what I will do then is I will introduce part of the next scene. Which is I will raise a new story question.
[Brandon] And then you will cut. It’s like we’ve been talking about…
[Mary] Then I cut.
[Brandon] How to make a good hook at the end of a chapter, is to introduce some curiosity for what’s coming next.
[Howard] You do that because you want to build the page turn, because you want them to keep reading now. Often, Brandon… I mean, you’ve said this before, Brandon, sometimes you want to give people a chance to put the book down.
[Brandon] In a 400,000 word book, I do. Never in a 100,000 word book. In 100,000 word books, that’s all… I’m doing a lot more of what Mary’s saying here. I’m like… This is going to be read in a few quick settings… Sittings. Whereas a 400,000 word book… 1000 pages long. You’re not going to. I’m not… I actually plot those as a trilogy. Each book is a trilogy where there is an end of a book.
[Mary] This is actually a really good example of something that I talk about with my students when I’m talking about scene length. One of the things that I talk about with my students is thinking about it like an opera. If you’re doing Aida on the Metropolitan Opera stage, you can have this giant opera with all of these things. When you do three intermissions that are half an hour long, your audience is completely fine with that because they’ve been sitting for a long time, and getting up and stretching and having cocktails is really great. But if I’m doing a short story… If I’m doing a short play, a one-act, and it’s 45 minutes long and I have a half-hour intermission, no one is going to come back after the intermission.
[Brandon] Right. Right. No, they will, but you’re going to lose some of them.
[Brandon] We are out of time. Mary, you have our homework for this week.
[Mary] Yes. So what I want you to do is I want you to… What we’ve been talking about is the function that a scene serves. What I want you to do is look at the next three or four scenes of what you’re writing, whether that’s a short story or novel, and decide what the function is in the story. What is it doing to progress the plot? So that’s the function. Then I also want you to decide what your main character’s goal in that scene is. What they are trying to accomplish. So identify those two things, make sure that you know what those are, and then look at where you’re starting and stopping those scenes, where you’re planning to start and stop them, to make sure that you’re doing that in a place that will serve those two pieces.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.