The Art of the Scene

The scene is the essential building block of most contemporary fiction. But what really constitutes a scene? 

Hollywood screenwriting guru Robert Mckee defines a scene as “An action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time a space that turns the . . . condition of the characters’ life . . . A scene causes change, in a minor, albeit significant way.”

A scene must represent a turning point. Mckee’s maxim: “No scene that doesn’t turn.” Ideally, “every scene is a minor, moderate, or major turning point.” Climactic scenes accomplish larger reversals.

Although fiction writers would be ill advised to take all their cues from Hollywood, it seems to me that McKee’s rigorous test can serve as an important tool in assessing whether a scene is pulling its own weight or needs to be cut. Does it change a character’s situation in the story? Is it a turning point? If you discover a scene that is only there for exposition, or just to tell us about a character, or just taking up space, don’t hesitate: cut it!

To lean on McKee again: Scenes can turn in one of two ways: with action or with revelation. And, turning points cause emotion. If scene moves a character from poor to rich, that produces a positive emotion. If scene moves a character from rich to poor, that produces a negative emotion.

In order to experience these emotions,
  1. We must empathize with a character
  2. We must understand what he/she wants and want them to get it
  3. We must understand the values at stake in characters’ life
Pretty simple, right? 

Uh huh. 

Well, you try it.

A final thought by way of paraphrasing Lee Martin (in Poets & Writers): First draft scenes are like little presents; we need to open up the boxes to see what’s inside. It’s important to let go, slow down, and dwell within the scene.

And this is just in the first draft. In revision, we have to go back and re-inhabit these nascent fictional events (the ones we don’t end up discarding) until they jump up with a life of their own.