Shaping Scenes – the Heart of a Great Story

In a story, just like in a theater, when the curtain rises…you see a scene. You see characters moving and talking on a stage, and the story begins to unfold. Also just like in theater, each scene has a beginning, middle, end. Scene is the basic unit of a story, and every great story is dramatized in scenes. So, the better you are at writing scenes, the better your story will be.

You can think of a story as a string of pearls. The string is the story arc, and each pearl is a scene. The space between the scenes often includes narrative summary, which quickly describes and condenses the time between scenes.

To shape each scene, consider the wave form. It’s found throughout nature, in the ocean, sound, light, breath, sex, life. The wave is also the form of a story. Begin with energy that swells to a crest, then subsides and releases. Use the wave form to shape your story arc or plot and also to shape each scene within it.

Your beginning opens with an energetic hook to captivate the reader. In the middle, complications and conflict cause the story’s energy to rise, reverse, rise again, reverse again, and ultimately reach a peak, your climax. After that, the energy falls to bring a satisfactory release and closure. In the story arc, this is the finish. In each scene’s arc, this is the place for another hook leading to the next scene.

I like to revisit the Greek Unities to sharpen the focus of each of my scenes. The Greek Unities are simple: one place; one time; one action. In ancient Greece, Aristotle proposed these unities as the ideal way to structure a theatrical play. Today, they provide a useful guide for shaping a scene.

The setting of your scene should be one place. It may be a road or path and still one place. You can bring the setting alive with description, using all five senses. Make the setting do work: use details to set the mood and reveal character.

A scene should unfold at one time, so know your year, season, day, hour, weather, et al. Everything about the time of your scene can do work for your story, in terms of mood and character.

A good scene centers on just one action, one main event that creates dramatic suspense and moves the story forward. Action centers on a Conflict – a struggle between opposing forces – the soul of drama. The overall story has a central conflict, but each scene should also have a smaller related conflict that moves the story forward. There are generally three types of conflict: character v. character; character v. nature or system; and character in conflict with himself.

Dialog only scene – decision, secret revealed, relationship advanced, etc.
Action scene – something changes to move the story forward
Combined dialogue and action – often the most engaging for readers
One character scene – may be internal monologue, but you can enhance its power with a relevant action, even though done by one person alone.

When do you decide all this about your scene, before you start it, during or after? The truth is, you can decide, and change your mind, and decide again – any time! With every revision, you’ll discover more, and your scene will come closer and closer to the ideal you want!