30 July 2008

Story Elements #3: Scenes

It came to my attention the other day that those things we writers like to call 'scenes' are neither as well-known nor as straight-forward as I'd always believed. And since they fit nicely into my Story Elements series, I thought this would be a lovely opportunity to explore my opinion on them :) Prepare yourselves...

Defining Scenes

There are lots of definitions of the word 'scene', but for the sake of brevity and focus, here are the more relevant ones.

In TV, stage plays and movies a scene is a part of the action in a single location.
In fiction, a scene is a unit of drama.

Continuous block of storytelling either set in a single location or following a particular character.

Screenwriting Info:
Action taking place in one location and in a distinct time that (hopefully) moves the story to the next element of the story.

Film/Editing Terms:
Action that occurs in one location at one time.

Screenwriting Glossary:
Continuous action with or without dialogue that takes place in one setting.

Good definitions - but note that they're all from screenwriting. Mostly, this doesn't make a difference, but let's throw in an author's definition here just to round things out.

Holly Lisle:
The simplest definition of a scene is that you've written a scene when something important changes. See her
article on scenes and scene creation here.

Which means scenes can be tiny, or massive, depending on the scale of the change you're focussing on.

Scenes often line up with chapters, but they don't have to - and you can have multiple scenes in a chapter, but not multiple chapters in a scene.
It's a complete, discrete unit, an event, an episode... A scene :)

However, when I said this to my friends the other day, one of them came right back with:

Oh yes you can [have multiple chapters in a scene]! I just ended Chapter three with Rick peering through a window and someone hits him from behind. Chapter 4 starts with him reacting to the blow and finding out what happened. Same scene. Different chapters. And a coat hanger in the middle.

The question is, does a chapter break equal a scene break? I think so, because it's the change that you're focussing on in the scene that determines where you break the chapter. It all depends on where you cut and why, because this will depend on what change you're trying to show. *tries to think of an example*

A guy comes into a restaurant. That's a change - he's moved positions. If that's the important change, then you could just end the scene there, and start a new scene for the next change that you wanted to show.

If, however, he comes in, and the waiter says something which irritates him, and he gets angry - maybe the change the scene is supposed to show is his change of emotion, rather than his change of position. In this case, the scene will be longer, and will be one scene even if it includes the same things that the previous two scenes would have shown... Yes? It's about figuring out which change you're emphasising.

A great resource that really helped me get my head around the whole business of what makes a scene - and more importantly, what makes a good scene is Holly Lisle's How To Write Page-Turning Scenes. It's a quick read, and for me it was well worth the money to figure out how to tell before writing which ideas had potential to become scenes, and which didn't. It's a great refresher on types on conflict, too. However, I've always struggled with structure (versus character), so if you're pretty confident you know how to plot and structure, it may not be so useful.


Just_Me said...

I remember that debate. Good definitions :) I don't think I could define a scene, I just think of it as "this happens and next that happens." Simplistic, but it works for me!

Inkblot said...

And that's the main thing :)

Though I was thinking at around about the same time about that... I think that a certain level of technical knowledge can only be useful. But anyway, that's a thought for another post :)

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