Monday, May 6, 2013

Does every scene have to have conflict? Can you have a scene that simply shows more character development, or simply hints/builds towards things to come later in the story?

These two are interrelated questions and focus on an important question—what is a scene? There are a lot of different theories out there, and words of advice. Here is my take on it.

I believe that in a scene something must be altered. This can be the status of the character; the physical, emotional, or spiritual condition; or the understanding of what is happening.

Some people teach that you can use a scene simply to reveal characterization, but I think those scenes fall flat.

Think of a scene as a mini-story. And what is a story? It’s the introduction of a character who faces a conflict that escalates into a climactic conclusion that provides the audience with a satisfying resolution. All while giving the reader a powerful, emotional experience.

The building blocks of a novel are scenes, and the cement that holds them together are interludes. A scene consists of action—such as you might see on a theater stage. If you can see the actions onstage in the novel, it’s a scene. If you cannot, it’s probably an interlude.

The scenes in a novel are strung together by interludes during which the characters process what just happened and make a decision that leads to the next scene. The reader is invited to join the character as she thinks about what just happened, the emotions that it evoked, and then the new direction for the story. Just remember, in a scene, a person or a situation must be altered. If nothing is changed, it’s an unnecessary scene.

Assignment: The detective chases the villain through the streets but doesn’t catch him. Frustrated, she goes back to her hotel room and while she’s taking off her shoes, she rubs her feet and remembers the chase. While doing so, she realizes that the villain was limping as he ran. That motivates her to drive across town and accuse her friend, who recently sprained his ankle, of the crime. Her friend is angry and shows her that he’s limping on the left leg rather than the right one. He’s so offended that she would accuse him of the terrible crime that he says he never wants to see her again. He slams the door in her face and she returns home, dejected.

Identify the two scenes in the paragraph above.
Identify the interlude.

Also, notice how, in each of the two scenes, the character struggles, fails to get what she ultimately wants (to catch the bad guy), but moves closer to solving the mystery by eliminating possibilities.

So, look at your scene and ask if there is conflict, or just talking heads. Ask if there is an ending that drives the story forward, or one that just falls flat. Ask if something meaningful is altered, and if not, change the scene or delete it (because it is probably not necessary).


  1. Steven, I am almost done with my first novel, and will be using the guidance above to help me in revising it. The points in this article give me a test by which to measure the importance/non-importance of each scene as it pertains to the overall story. Great post. Thank you!

  2. Steven, I love the advice you give in these posts. It is very helpful to me as a novelist, even though I already have multiple novels under my belt. One never stops learning.