What is a scene? And how do you write a scene that works?
In this post, we're going to talk about how to write a well-structured scene and then I'm going to walk you through my favorite method for structuring a scene. After that, I’ll show you how this structure shows up in one of the scenes from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Now, before we dive into talking about how to write a well-structured scene, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what a scene actually is.
A quick search on Google will return a ton of different answers, but the one I see the most often is some version of this — “A scene is a unit of action that takes place in one setting, features a specific cast of characters, and is told from one point-of-view. When either the setting, the cast of characters changes, or the point-of-view changes, the scene is over.”
For the most part, that’s true — but it leaves out one really important thing...
In a scene, SOMETHING MUST CHANGE. A scene starts in one place and ends up somewhere else — whether that be a physical location, mental state, relationship, or a different amount of knowledge. In other words, there needs to be an arc in each one of your scenes, just like in your global story.
So, here’s a revised definition...
A scene is a unit of story that takes place in more or less continuous space and time, features a specific cast of characters, is told from one point-of-view, and contains a mini-arc of change from beginning to end.
Now that we know what a scene is, let’s talk about what a scene is NOT.
A scene is NOT:
You can certainly have some of these things within a scene, but a well-structured scene they do not make on their own.
Now that we're on the same page about what a scene is (and what a scene is not), let's talk about how to write scenes. And to do that, we’re going to use something called ‘The 5 Commandments’ that originally came from Shawn Coyne over at The Story Grid.
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you probably know that I’m a Story Grid Certified Editor and these ‘5 Commandments’ are one of my absolute favorite tools in my writing toolbox. Not only do I love using them with my own writing, but they're always a bit hit with my students, too.
The first thing you need to know about writing a well-structured scene is that every scene needs to start with the point-of-view character’s goal. So, what does this person want to achieve or accomplish or learn in this scene? What are they trying to do?
And this could literally be anything -- it could be as simple as your character wants to go down to the river to fill up a bucket of water so that he can make breakfast, or it can be as complex as your character wanting to confront and defeat the evil Dark Lord. Your character is trying to accomplish something, and it needs to be clear in the first few paragraphs.
So, that’s the first thing. Your point-of-view character needs a goal -- and then, the ‘5 Commandments’ come in and help you create a mini-arc of change through the conflict that your character faces.
So, let’s go over each of the commandments first, and then we’ll look at an example.
Commandment number one is that there needs to be an inciting incident.
And this is really just the first thing that gets in the way of your character accomplishing his or her goal. So, it’s that first bit of conflict or the first unexpected thing that happens as he or she pursues that scene goal.
Now, at this stage, the inciting incident can cause your character to come up with a new scene goal OR it can cause your character to adjust their original scene goal. It depends on what the inciting incident is, and what you need your character to accomplish in the rest of the scene.
So, that’s commandment number one, there needs to be an inciting incident or something unexpected that gets in the way of your character pursuing their original scene goal.
Commandment number two is that there needs to be moments of escalating conflict that lead to a turning point. And really, I like to focus on the turning point for this commandment.
A turning point is a moment where the conflict reaches its peak and the character can no longer go after their scene goal in the way they had originally planned. So, it’s kind of like the final straw -- they’ve faced so much conflict, or so many obstacles that things can no longer go according to plan.
And turning points can show up in one of two ways -- you can have an active turning point or a revelatory turning point.
So, anyway, that’s commandment number two, there needs to be moments of escalating conflict that lead to a turning point.
Commandment number three is that there needs to be a crisis moment or a moment where your character faces a decision about how to move forward.
So, after the turning point comes in and ruins your character’s plans for achieving their scene goal, they have to decide what to do next -- will they do X or will they do Y?
And ideally, you want these options to carry the same weight. In other words, your character should face a choice between two equally good things or two equally bad things.
And the reason for that is because if you have to choose between a good thing and a bad thing, you’re obviously going to choose the good thing, right? It’s a predictable decision. If you had to choose between two equally bad or two equally good things, then the choice is more interesting.
With either choice, there needs to be something at stake, too. So, if they choose X, what do they stand to lose or gain? If they choose Y, what do they stand to lose or gain? This is how you make things interesting and keep readers on the edge of their seats throughout the whole story.
So, anyway, that’s commandment number three -- there needs to be a crisis moment or a moment where your character faces a decision about how to move forward in each and every one of your scenes.
Commandment number four is that there needs to be a climax or a moment where your character acts on their choice. So, did they choose X or did they choose Y?
This is one of the main ways you can show readers who your characters are -- through the decisions they make.
And that's because the dilemma your character faces (in the crisis moment) will have consequences no matter what they do So, their decision will prove something about who they are and what they value.
As the story progresses, and as your character grows and changes, their decisions from scene to scene will begin to shift (because what they value and believe is changing). By the end of the story, the person they’ve become will be someone who makes very different choices than the person they started the story as.
That's why, in most cases, you’ll want your point-of-view character to be taking the action or making this decision in this climactic moment. Otherwise, you risk creating a character that has no agency, and when that happens too much, it starts to feel like another character’s story.
So, that’s commandment number four, there needs to be a climax in each scene or a moment where your character takes action on their choice.
Commandment number five is that there needs to be a resolution.
So, this is basically a moment when we get a glimpse into how your character’s decision worked out for him or her.
How does your character feel now that they’ve acted on their choice? Do they feel confident? Do they regret their decision? Do they wish that they could have been a little bit braver? Were there immediate consequences for whatever they chose to do?
This is also where you can establish that sense of forward momentum into the next scene. So, now that everything in this scene happened, and now that they’ve made a specific decision, what’s their plan?
At the end of each scene, ask yourself: “Because of what just happened in this scene, what will my character do next?” or “What is the inevitable result of the choice my character just made?" Sometimes we get a glimpse of their plan in the climax, but other times, characters will formulate a plan here in the resolution.
So, that’s commandment number five, there needs to be a resolution.
And that’s it -- that’s how you write a well-structured scene! You have a point-of-view character with a goal, you throw those ‘5 commandments’ in their way, et voila, you have a mini-arc of change.
Now, one thing I want to draw your attention to is that just because there’s a mini-arc of change -- or just because each of these ‘5 Commandments’ are present in each of your scenes, that doesn’t always mean they deserve a spot in your novel.
Every scene should link, in some way, to the overarching plot, and to your character’s arc — ideally by helping them solve one piece of the plot puzzle and by challenging your their inner obstacle (the belief, worldview, or fear they have to overcome in the story). If a scene doesn’t advance your story toward the global climax, then you should find a way to connect it to the spine of your story or consider cutting it altogether.
To determine whether your scene contains a meaningful arc of change (or not), check out this post on value shifts that talks about how to make sure the arc of change in each and every one of your scenes is meaningful.
Okay so, now let’s take a look at these ‘5 Commandments’ in action… and to do that, we’re going to use the scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when Harry and the rest of the first years get sorted into their school houses.
In case it’s been a while since you’ve read this book or seen this movie, in this scene, Harry has just arrived at Hogwarts and Professor McGonagall announces that the new group of first years will be sorted into their school houses before dinner.
Harry is nervous because he doesn’t want to be the center of attention when it’s his turn to be sorted and he’s also a bit worried about what will happen if the sorting hat doesn’t think he belongs in any house. What if nobody wants him? What if he has to go back to the Dursleys?
When it’s Harry’s turn to be sorted, he puts on the sorting hat and listens as it weighs his qualities and personality traits. Harry starts to worry that he’ll be put in Slytherin, so he tells the hat, “Not Slytherin, not Slytherin.” The hat takes Harry’s preferences into consideration and decides to put him in Gryffindor. After that, he joins everyone else at the Gryffindor table, listens to Dumbledore’s speech, and eats dinner.
So, let's break this down...
What is Harry's goal in this scene? Harry's goal is to get settled at Hogwarts. He and the rest of the first years just arrived so, it’s all about getting settled and figuring out what’s next.
What are the five commandments in this scene?
I like this example because, to me, those five commandments and the arc of change in this scene are really clear. Not only that, but there are so many great details that show readers who Harry is in this scene.
For example, he’s really worried about what might happen if he’s not sorted into any house. He’s so used to feeling like he doesn't belong with the Dursleys that 'not belonging' has almost become his default worldview. Maybe he doesn't really belong anywhere? And if he doesn’t belong here, what does that mean? What's at stake? Will he have to go back to his miserable life with the Dursleys?
We also get to see the kind of person Harry is when he asks the Sorting Hat to not put him in Slytherin. In Diagon Alley, and on the Hogwarts Express, we've already seen a few examples of the kind of person Malfoy is (and we know he was immediately sorted into Slytherin). Not only that, but Ron gave Harry his two cents about what it means to be sorted into Slytherin while they were waiting for McGonagall outside the Great Hall. So, through Harry’s choice to stand up for himself here, we get a really good glimpse of the kind of person he is by this one moment of action.
And that’s what I meant earlier when I said that in each scene, the crisis moment is an excellent opportunity to show readers who your character is AND how they change over time. This scene is also a great example of how Harry takes what little action he can even though he's not ultimately in charge of the outcome. The Sorting Hat will be the one who chooses which house Harry belongs to, but he still tries to take control of his fate by using what little agency and control he has.
Learning how to write a well-structured scene can be a total game-changer for your writing practice -- it was for me! And it's usually a huge 'a-ha' moment for the students in my Notes to Novel course, too.
As a bonus exercise, I highly recommend picking a scene from your favorite book or movie and seeing if you can identify these three things:
The more you practice pulling apart scenes that work, the easier it will be to incorporate these elements into your own writing. And if you can learn to write well-structured scenes, you'll be well on your way to writing a story that works, too!
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