Scenes are the building blocks of your novel. When you plan (if you plan!), you’re thinking in scenes: individual little chunks of story that build on one another as they work towards the conclusion.
Like me, you probably feel you have an intuitive grasp of what a “scene” is in a short story or novel. If you feel your scenes aren’t quite working, though, or if you struggle to outline your scenes, thinking through what exactly a scene is might help.
Let’s take a quick look at a few definitions:
A scene is a sequence where a character or characters engage in some sort of action and/or dialogue. Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end (a mini-story arc), and should focus around a definite point of tension that moves the story forward.
Teach Yourself How to Write a Blockbuster, by Lee Weatherly and Helen Corner (pg 40, 2006 edition)
By “scene” we mean here all that is included in an unbroken flow of action from one incident in time to another […] The action within a scene is ‘unbroken’ in the sense that it does not include a major time lapse or a leap from one setting to another – though the characters may, of course, walk or ride from one place to another without breaking the scene, the camera, so to speak, dollying after them.
The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, John Gardner (pg 59, 1991 edition)
For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over.
What’s a Scene (And What’s A Chapter?), Timothy Hallinan, TimothyHallinan.com
Some writers like to think of scenes as chapters, starting a new chapter for each new scene. There’s no reason you can’t do that – but chapters play a different role.
I sometimes end chapters mid-scene (so there’s a cliffhanger) and I only switch viewpoints when I switch chapters, even if one chapter contains multiple scenes. That’s a personal preference – yours might be different.
There’s never going to be a perfect definition of “a scene” that works for every circumstance, so don’t get too caught up in trying to decide whether a small time gap or a change of location definitely means it’s a “new” scene. If it feels to you like the same scene, treat it that way.
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