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How to Write the Perfect Scene: 8 Elements of a Scene

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Feb 11, 2020 • 3 min read

When most people hear the term “scene,” they think of a part of a play or a section of a movie. For instance, William Shakespeare divided the vast majority of his plays into five acts, and those acts contained any number of individual scenes. For Shakespeare, a new scene specifically meant a new setting, and each one required its own array of on-stage actors, props, and backdrops. Screenwriting is much the same. A screenwriter lays out scene structure by indicating new settings within the script.

In the world of prose fiction, scenes also play a key role in story structure. The ability to craft great scenes is among the most valuable writing skills an author can possess, whether you’re involved in novel writing, novella writing, short story writing, or creative nonfiction writing.



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What Is a Scene?

The definition of a scene, as it pertains to prose fiction, is a section of the overall story that contains its own unique combination of setting, character, dialogue, and sphere of activity. For instance, if a story opens on a scene where the main character is talking to her best friend inside a coffee shop and then they move out to the street, this means the opening scene has ended and the next scene has begun.

But changing location is not the only way to make a scene end. If the third-person narrator in the above example had remained focused on the coffee shop after the two initial characters had left, that would also have signified the end of the scene. Then, when two new characters enter and begin their own conversation, a new scene starts. In fact, you could craft an entire series of scenes in that one location, simply by shifting characters or the course of action.

The 8 Elements of a Good Scene

If you’re considering the craft of scene-writing in fiction for the first time, you’ll want to analyze what elevates a good scene over the type of scene that’s superfluous or just poorly written. When writing fiction, strive to create scenes that have the following elements:

  1. A good scene has a specific storytelling purpose. This could be an inciting incident, a flashback, a love scene, or a riveting action scene. As you go into writing a scene, as yourself: What does this scene accomplish?
  2. A good scene provides valuable information. Carefully pace out your reveals so that each scene brings a small piece of new information to light—such as a main character’s backstory or a rival character’s thoughts and motivations. These subtle reveals shift the course of the narrative—sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
  3. A good scene offers a point of view. Typically this will be that of the narrator or of a carefully chosen POV character. Knowing the purpose of the scene will help you choose a point of view.
  4. A good scene enhances character development. When possible, use each scene to deepen your readers’ understanding of your protagonist. Put your character into situations that force them to reveal their true colors. Use obstacles to challenge and test them. Give your character the capacity to grow and change.
  5. A good scene contributes to worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is especially important early in your novel, but every scene going forward can layer more detail onto your setting and reveal new, previously unexplored corners of your fictional world.
  6. A good scene shows without telling. When it comes to exposition, follow the “show, don’t tell” model that values action over explanation.
  7. A good scene has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The beginning of the scene should ideally establish its setting and relevant characters. The heart of the scene should contain action (which can simply mean active dialogue) and showcase the motives of the characters. The end of a scene—particularly a long scene—should start a transition into whatever comes next in your story.
  8. A good scene is like a novel in miniature. To really make a scene pop, you need to complete a compressed story and character arc, like a miniaturized version of an entire novel’s arc. If you’ve reached the last paragraph of your scene and you haven’t completed such an arc, go back and revise. While they may not be able to articulate it, readers have an inherent sense of when a scene ends in a satisfying manner and when it does not.
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