Learning! — The Elements of a Scene

I’ve been thinking about my own writing, and actually trying to objectively look at why some of my scenes are stronger than others. Now, there are a million and one reasons why a scene might be weak, but I’ve found a trend recently that explains why some scenes simply need more work to make acceptable.

I hear a lot about how “a scene should always do at least two things”, but really, it’s hard to quantify that because what does and doesn’t count as a ‘thing’ a scene does? All scenes should generally move the plot forward somehow, so that’s one thing, if you’ll allow it to be.

Without dedicating a whole lot of time to this, there are only a few things scenes can really do: teach readers, establish important bits, move characters, and answer questions. Anything and everything boils down to those four things, but those are some pretty broad things, so lets unpack them.

Teaching readers is simple. Fantasy authors need to teach their readers about the world. But all authors need to teach their audience about what’s going on. Magic systems need to be explained, sci-fi technology needs to be explained, etc. Scenes like this tend to happen less and less as a novel progresses, obviously. We shouldn’t need to teach the reader anything after a certain point.

Establishing important bits is a bit harder to explain. This is where we get character background, the history of the world, the reasons for the conflict, things like that. This is anything that isn’t instructional. If a character has anger management issues, I’m not going to teach you what that is. I’m going to establish what it means to that character and perhaps why they got to that point.

When I say a scene should move characters, I mean this both literally and figuratively. Naturally, characters will move as the story progresses. They’ll go to new places and meet new people, etc. But this also refers to character growth and character arcs. If characters don’t move in any specific scene, you should probably ask yourself if that scene is important (and it might be!), because without moving characters you risk slowing down the plot.

Lastly, answering questions. Yes, this does include “What is behind the secret door”, but it’s way more than that. Really, the big question here is ‘Does the POV character get what they want in this scene?’ Now, you could argue that every scene should always have an objective for the character, but I think that’s a restrictive way to think about it. Going from one place to another could require a scene, but they’re not usually achieving anything by doing that: it’s just necessity. No. What I’m talking about here is “Protagonist X runs to the castle to save the princess! Does he achieve this?” That is the question of the scene. The answer could very well be ‘No’, but there should be an answer in this context. If that question isn’t answered, then why are you showing us him going to the castle gate as it’s own scene? Why is that important? Well, if you’re not answering a big question, it has to include one of the other scene necessities. Maybe it’s to establish that the moat is just one big trampoline, and you’re including that scene to foreshadow how they characters escape in the next scene.

So, yes. All scenes should have at least two of those four elements. But let me give some warning. Teaching readers is often way less important than newer writers tend to think. In Chapter One, you don’t have to explain how the magic system of this universe works. You just have to establish the POV character and, likely, move them to the next chapter by establishing a conflict and answering how they accomplish this. This is how everything begins, from The Hobbit to Steelheart to Big Hero 6 to Rogue: One. The list here is endless, really, because all of those things need to happen in order to get an audience to be interested.

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