Performing open-heart surgery on a scene

Some scenes are born easily, some are dragged kicking and screaming into the world; some are born beautiful, some as ugly as sin. So what do you do when your scene looks more like Frankenstein's monster than Adonis?

Scenes are the heartbeats of story, the essence of drama – and sometimes (most of the time) they're going to need some work beyond the first draft. But as any surgeon will tell you, you need to know what to expect beneath the surface when you make that first cut. To that end here are the four elements of a scene.


This, essentially, is the point of the scene – the reason that it's included at all. If you distil the scene down to its dramatic purpose you may find that it has none at all, in which case you cut it. You may also find that the purpose of the scene may be better served by another scene. Whatever the case, understanding what the purpose of a particular scene is will allow you to develop the best way of presenting that purpose.

The four purposes of a scene are as follows (in order of importance):

1. To progress the story
2. To reveal character
3. To introduce a character
4. Exposition

The more of these 'reasons' your scene is serving, the more purposeful the scene will be.


Context is how the scene relates to the rest of the story. Many novice writers fail to grasp that a significant part of the power of a scene is due to what has come before it or what the scene implies will come after. In classical storytelling there is a beginning, a middle and an end to all stories – and all those elements depend on the others to have any meaning at all. Scenes should be a natural consequence of what has gone before – this thread of consequence is narrative. This is why scriptwriters have notions of 'inciting incidents' (suggesting future scenes) and 'obligatory scenes' (scenes demanded by previous events). All these types of scenes are defined by how they relate to other scenes – in other words, their context.


This is what actually happens in the scene. This should be obvious, but many writers produce lengthy scenes where nothing happens at all or are merely expositional. This isn't enough no matter how scintillating the dialogue or interesting the exposition – something has to happen. How can you define if something has happened? Something must have changed for the characters within that scene – it doesn't have to be something epic, it just has to be something of dramatic significance. Small details can have massive dramatic significance. Massive actions can have trivial significance. It's the consequence of the action that's really important.


This is the setting – the location – in which the scene takes place. While the situation itself can be dramatic, and indeed the scene itself should be, it is possible to divorce a scene from it's setting – it is in fact the most loosely-coupled of the four elements to the scene. Despite this, it's foolish to ignore the dramatic possibilities of setting - juxtaposing a location which carries a particular emotional resonance with a scene that's carries the opposite emotion can heighten a scene or comment upon it – a marriage break-up scene in a children's playground for example. Also emotion could be reinforced by a setting that complements the action of a scene.

But situation is not just about location – it's also can carry a certain amount of dramatic business of its own – a plane diving out of the sky, a sinking ship, or a precarious cliff-edge all have significant dramatic potential divorced from the action of a scene. Now imagine my marriage-breakup example scene occurring in one of these places.

Armed with this information you now should be able to understand what's going on with any scene you write, and what you need to do about it to make it excellent.

Some more useful links about scenes:


  1. Great article, James! Useful information that every writer should keep in mind. The more tools we have to add drama and tension to our stories the more compelling a reader will find them.

  2. @gene - thanks for your comment, Gene, and I'm glad you found the post useful.

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