Can Your Scenes be Seen?

Sorry, I had to do it. Puns give me life. Just like scenes give a story life! A story is made up entirely of scenes, like the Lego blocks of a Lego castle, and/or Lego blocks of a Millennium Falcon

Let’s play a game! Do you know what movie this scene is from?


Do you know the setting? Do you know who the characters are? Do you know what actions they are taking to get what they want? Do you know what conflicts they face externally and internally? Do you hear “My Heart Will Go On” playing in the background?

Okay, so the answer to the last question might be irrelevant, but scenes generally have these four elements.

  1. A setting – the environment where the scene takes place
  2. Character(s) – one or more characters
  3. Action – the characters must be doing something, and it should be forward-moving in terms of plot and/or character growth
  4. Conflict (external and internal) –what is the external conflict? (choosing to step onto the railing of the ship); what is the internal conflict? (putting trust in Jack, seeking freedom: “I’M FLYING!”)

I’m getting an MFA in writing (ack, don’t judge my degree on this post), but that means I really like craft books! Here are some awesome craft and writing life books I studied in preparation for this post: William Sloane’s chapter “Scene” in THE CRAFT OF WRITING, Donald Maass’ THE EMOTIONAL CRAFT OF WRITING, and Diana Wynne Jones’ REFLECTIONS.

Do you know what animated film this scene is from?


Do you know the setting? Do you know who the character is? Do you know what actions she is taking to get what she wants? Do you know what conflicts she faces externally and internally? Do you hear epic montage music playing in the background?

Before I discuss Disney’s Mulan (oops, I answered it for you), here’s some wisdom to chew on. Because why say it myself when someone has said it so much better. Also, spoiler alert if you haven’t seen Mulan. Although, if you haven’t, dishonor on you, dishonor on your cow…

Scenes are something like miniature stories. They have in them the germ of the entire story or book, and they are like the larger whole in other respects. Scenes have a beginning and an ending, like any complete story[…]Each scene has a setting—it takes place somewhere. Each scene poses the same problems that the story or novel poses. It must establish the reader as fast as possible. It must give evidence as soon as possible that it intends to continue the contract with the reader” (From “Scene” in William Sloane’s The Craft of Writing 74-5).

Okay, so let’s discuss this quote using the scene from Mulan as an example. The miniature story is that Mulan has made the decision to go to war in her father’s place, and therefore the actions she’s taking are in pursuit of that goal. This scene is like the larger whole as one of the major themes in the story is filial piety—which can be loosely interpreted as being good to one’s parents. Mulan’s motivation to go to war is to protect her father, whom she loves and respects. The setting is her home, at night, by the window (feel that wind blowing!). And the viewer understands this scene is leading toward the next scene (and the story in general), that she will have to pretend she is a boy and fight in the war.

So, recap and some quick tips about scenes:

  • Scenes have setting, character(s), action and conflict
  • Scenes should have a beginning, middle and end
  • Scenes should echo the past scenes and foreshadow the future scenes
  • Set the scene as quickly as possible to orient the reader
  • Scenes should have forward-momentum, whether it’s external action and/or internal decision or change
  • Begin the scene as late as possible to the necessary action and end the scene as early as possible
  • Transitions should be integrated into the story naturally so as to make them invisible

Let’s look at someone who I believe is a master at scene. This is an excerpt from Cindy Pon’s YA fantasy, SERPENTINE.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 12.52.21 PMLast gif of the post! Do you know what movie this scene is from?

giphy-1Do you know the setting? Do you know who the character is? Do you know what actions he is taking to get what he wants? Do you know what conflicts he faces externally and internally? Do you hear the crackling buzz as the lightsaber ignites in the frigid air?

Answer these yourself!

Camp NanoWriMo starts tomorrow, and I wish you all an AWESOME adventure with your stories. In REFLECTIONS, Diana Wynne Jones’ says that, “you can invoke the whole range of human thought and feeling by beginning from one simple, clear scene (Jones 48). If you notice, all the gifs of scenes I used in this post are iconic. When you begin your novel, is there a scene you’re looking forward to writing? Is there one that tugs at your heart, your soul? Write toward that scene. Write it first, if you must! I always begin a book with several scenes I either want to write or have written, and while I’m drafting, I connect those scenes to make a full story. Scenes can be powerful. Use them! And have fun ❤

2 thoughts on “Can Your Scenes be Seen?

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