One common way to conceive of a scene is: A short, continuous part of a story in which a change significant to the overall story occurs.
Often, scenes are also separated by distinct space or marker on the page. Methods of separating scenes can range from a blank line or two, asterisks (***) or another symbol, switching the font of the writing or a chapter break.
Below is an example of a scene from the novel Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridason (translated from Icelandic to English by Victoria Cribb).
Kristin did not know how long she had been asleep. She got up and put on her jacket and gloves. The local shop was only round the corner. She really ought to force herself out. Coffee was no good unless it was made with hot milk. She had just reached the door when the phone started ringing again, making her jump.
‘What the hell is going on?’ she asked, picking up the receiver.
‘Hi, it’s Elias. Can you hear me?’
‘Elias!’ Kristin exclaimed. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’ve … trying to get hold of you … day. I’m on the glacier …’
The connection was poor; her brother’s voice kept breaking up.
‘Is everything all right?’ she asked, still groggy from her nap. She had got up far too early that morning.
Everything’s grea… Two of us … taken off on snowmobiles. Per… weather. It’s … dark.’
‘What do you mean, two of you? Where are the others?’
‘We’re … bit of a test drive … fine.’
‘This is hopeless. I can only hear the odd word. Will you please go back and join the rest of the team?’
‘We’re turning around …lax. The phone costt seven … thousand. Can’t you hear me?’
‘Your phone’s useless!’
‘Don’t be like that. When … you coming … glacier trip with me?’
‘You’ll never get me to set foot on any bloody glacier.
She heard her brother say something unintelligible then call out to his companion.
‘Johann!’ she heard him shout. ‘Johann, what’s that?’ Kristin knew that Johann was a good friend of her brother’s; it was he who had been responsible for getting involved in the rescue team in the first place
‘What are all those lights?’ she heard Elias shouting. ‘Are they digging up the ice?’
‘You should see this. There’s something happening up here,’ he told his sister, the pitch of his voice suddenly higher. She heard him turn away from the phone and shout something to his friend, then turn back.
‘Johann thinks … in the ice,’ he said.
This was followed by a long pause.
‘They’re coming!’ Elias exclaimed suddenly, the words sounding in fits and starts over the poor connection. The excitement had vanished and he sounded panic-stricken, his breathing ragged.
‘Who?’ she asked in astonishment. ‘Who’s coming? What can you see?’
‘Out of nowhere. We’re … by snowmobiles. They’re armed!’
‘They look … soldiers …’
‘… a plane.’
But the connection was abruptly severed and however much she yelled down the phone, alarm now rising within her, all she could hear was the dialling tone. She set the receiver gently back into its cradle and stared blankly at the wall.
(Note: One thing not in this scene is description of Kristin’s location, because that was set up in the previous scene.)
How do you know if a specific change is significant to the overall story?
A simple test is to think: ‘If I summarised the story to someone who has not read it and left that scene out, would they be likely to ask a question to which the answer is an event in that scene to understand the story?’
When you read the first few scenes, you may not have enough detail to know which parts will be important to the overall story (reading the blurb may make it clearer what is important to the story in the earlier scenes) but soon enough the main concerns of the story become apparent and a reader can figure out what is likely to be important to the overall story. In a story for which it takes a multiple scenes to become apparent what is important to the overall story, a reader can focus on the immediate concerns of the characters, as long as that holds their attention, while the primary story details are set up.
Of course an author could also deliberately try to mislead a reader, to get a reader to think something was more important and something else less important to the story, in order to set up a surprise twist later in the story.
Determing the important part(s) of any one scene will depend on the overall story it is part of. For example, if the scene from Operation Napoleon had been in a superhero novel, Kristin may have rescued Elias in the next scene and the important part of the scene could then have been the impulsive actions of Elias separating from his team, although the exact same scene may have been used.
In the scene above, Elias let his sister Kristin know that there was a plane and armed people who looked like soldiers where he was on the Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland and at the same time the phone call gave Kristin reason to be concerned for Elias’s safety.
How do you know which change in a scene is the scene-defining change?
There does not always have to be only one important change in a scene (for a discussion of this in practise, you can listen to director John Singleton’s commentary track on the DVD of the movie Higher Learning). Many writers prefer to think in terms of one significant change per scene, to help keep the scene and story focussed (and simpler to plan and write). My thought on this is to do what works well for you and your specific story. I tend to prefer at least a major change per scene which is clearly and immediately identifiable (though some specifics may be left out for suspense), possibly some minor changes to build on and make into the major change for a later scene, and sometimes (depending on the story) a change which becomes more apparent later in the context of a mystery or setting up a surprise twist.
The movie The Graduate has clear examples of this in many of its scenes, in which one clearly and immediately identifiable element of the scene is completely reversed between the beginning and the end of the scene. While each major reversal within such scenes is clearly and immediately identifiable, the consequences to follow from each change are open to various possibilities.
The general consequences of the change in the scene from Operation Napoleon become apparent in the novel’s blurb, which tells of a mysterious World War 2 German plane which crashed over Iceland, inexplicably with German and American Officers onboard, in 1945 and an attempt by the US Army to secretly remove the plane in 1999. “By coincidence two young Icelanders become involved – but will pay with their lives. Before they are captured, one of the two contacts his sister, Kristin, who will not rest until she discovers the truth of her brother’s fate. Her persuit puts her in great danger, leading her on a long and hazardous journey in search of the key to the riddle about Operation Napoleon.”
To gain a better idea of how specific scenes contribute or don’t contribute to the overall story, watch some DVDs of movies which contain deleted scenes and ask why those scenes were cut as opposed to other scenes. Some will even have commentaries in which the director or other person will tell you why the deleted scenes were the ones cut. This can help not only for cutting unneeded scenes but also for better understanding why you want to include the important scenes and how you want to approach them to tell your story well.
The Australian Literature Review