This week, authors J Thorn and Crys Cain discuss what a scene is, what a scene isn’t, and how to decide where a scene should start and end.
Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn. How’s it going?
J: Great. How are you doing, Crys?
Crys: I’m doing good. I’m getting back into the swing of things more and more, and it feels weird that it’s taking me so long, but I have to keep reminding myself how long I took off from having a normal schedule.
J: Yes, like months.
Crys: Yeah, months. It’s probably going to take about at least half that time to truly get back into whatever the new norm is.
J: Yeah. I can relate. I uprooted in a different way, and I settled in pretty quickly because I wasn’t learning a new neighborhood and we didn’t move very far. But there’s something about the holidays, like you get off track and you just get distracted, I think. And last week and this week have been really hard for me just to knuckle down and work on stuff.
I find myself staring out the window or going for an extra walk. And I’m just trying to be kind with myself and be like, it’s okay, like this is a low productivity week for a lot of people. It’s a week of adjustment. And so you not only have that, but you also have layered on top of that all the summer of chaos that you’re still trying to recover from.
Yeah, just be kind to yourself.
Crys: Yeah, and this week’s weird because my brain wants to be in full production mode, but there’s a bunch of stuff I have to do before Smalls goes to school. And this is my first time sending a child to school, like I am figuring out all the paperwork, all the requirements. And on Monday he goes back to the summer camp at the school and I keep reminding myself that’s gonna be the week when you’re actually going to have the brain space to get stuff done, because he won’t be like knocking on your door. Cause even though he’s under the care of someone else, he knows I’m here.
J: For sure.
Crys: I came at you with this question this week based on some of the editing I’ve done and that there seems to be a confusion for a lot of folks about when one scene ends and another starts. And we have a slightly differing approach to this, but I think the core we have similar. So it was something I wanted to talk about because I feel like it’ll help a lot of people.
J: Yeah. This seems like a pretty straightforward question on the surface, but I think there’s more to it.
Crys: Yeah, for sure. I kind of want to start off with what a scene is not, and it’s not a chapter. Because that, I think, is one of the biggest confusions I come across is that people think they are one in the same. You can have multiple scenes in a chapter. You can have one scene equals one chapter. But a chapter is an organizational unit and a scene is a unit of the story, I would say is the difference.
J: That’s a great way of describing it. I would totally agree with that. They’re not interchangeable even though many writers use those terms interchangeably.
Crys: Yeah. So what is your definition of how you decide where a scene starts and ends?
J: Yeah. So this is where it’s sort of straightforward, but there’s some nuance involved. I like to call this a rule of thumb. And a rule of thumb, it’s not a law of physics, it’s not like gravity. Like you can’t escape gravity, gravity exists. And it’s a law, it’s a physical law.
A rule of thumb is more like a best practice or in most cases. And so I’m prefacing my answer with this because I know someone, probably the person across from me on the other microphone, is gonna go, but wait a minute. And you’re going to bring up a really good counterexample and I’m going to be like, well, yeah, that makes sense.
So it’s not a hard and fast rule. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong if you work outside of this. But as a rule of thumb, this is what I’ve told clients, this is what I go by. A scene is contained within a specific element of time or a specific geographic location. And if you change one of those two variables, most times, but not all, most times that is changing the scene.
Crys: Yeah. I use both of those as markers for, hey, your scene has ended here, generally. If you imagined this to be a movie, those are things where I would say the scene has changed. The other option, I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days, is what is the thing that I do, that you don’t generally, because I often have scenes that run together a bit visually, like I don’t have a hard break because they don’t change time or place, but a scene to me has clearly ended and a new one has started. And I think that the other thing I look for other than change of time or change of place, is kind of change of purpose.
And this is really wibbly wobbly because this ties in with the choice and the consequence and within a scene, you can have many small choices. And I’m thinking particularly like of an action scene, do I go this way or that? But the choice of the scene isn’t going to be one of those small choices. Those are all progressive choices that lead up to, once I make this choice, something big happens. And that can be big in a small way. It’s just that something meaningful happens.
J: Yeah, it’s almost as if those choices are obstacles. That’s another way of thinking about it. Like you’re putting an obstacle in front of a character, they have to make a decision to go around it, but it’s not the big C choice that they have to make in the scene.
Crys: So I’m thinking in particular of an example scene that I wrote for something we’ve done within the mastermind in the last couple of years. And it was a prompt for a romance scene and the lady was waiting in line to file for her divorce. And the scene changed when her conversation partner changed. This is the one that keeps popping in mind, so I think that’s the change in focus for me. It’s not a change in time or place, but she may have been talking to someone who is in line next to her or going through the process, whatever it was, she had a choice in that line.
And then there was another inciting incident that had nothing really to do with her choice other than to stay in the line. And I hope this is clear because this is just pulling from an example from long ago. And someone new came in, as like a new inciting incident, and started a new process of a scene. But she had not changed time or place. And to me, I have a lot of those often, where something will very clearly wrap up in my mind and the character will turn to another conversation or another task, and a new scene starts, but there’s no change of time or place. And I think it’s, for me, it’s a big turn in focus.
J: Yeah. That’s totally legitimate. I wrote a scene today, and I knew we were going to have this conversation, and as I was writing it, I’m like, I’m breaking my own rule right now. Because I had two characters, I had a character in the room, another character knocks on the door, enters the room, talks for minutes and says, “Can I talk to you privately?” And they walked down the hall together. And I wrote that as a single scene. Now, technically they’ve changed location. So according to my own rule, I broke it. But that’s why I think it’s a rule of thumb.
And I think there are instances, examples like the one you’ve raised, where it’s like, okay, yeah, it’s not a hard and fast rule. So I think what I would like to do though, is maybe take this conversation up one level because I think many of us, we get hung up on the rules of writing for the sake of being a rule follower. We’re complacent. We’re people pleasers or we want to follow the rules. And my question is like, why does it matter what you designate as a scene or not? What is the point of framing or contextualizing what you call a scene? So I’m posing that question, what do you think the purpose is?
Crys: For me, the purpose is being able to see that my progress through the story has consistent turning points or choices in each section where it would be natural to have one because this helps me control the pacing. If I have a long set of things without a choice happening and I say that’s a scene, then to me, that’s a faulty scene. That’s a weak scene.
And it might work, it might carry information, but it’s not going to do the multiple kinds of things that I want a story to do. It’s not going to move me forward, it’s not going to provide information. And development, like I want it to do at least two or three separate things in a scene to really be a strong scene.
It doesn’t mean it’s not a scene, but it does mean it’s a weak scene if I don’t have, for me, like with my more puzzley brain, if I can’t understand where the edges of the puzzle pieces lie, then I don’t know if I’m putting my puzzle piece together strongly or just gluing random edges together.
J: Yeah, I think you used the word pacing. I think for me, that’s key. What we have to remember is that most of us, I think, are writing to be read. That sounds so simple, but we have to remember that. We are creating a reading experience for somebody else. And for me, do I care how someone defines a scene? No, that’s not what I care about.
When I’ve worked with clients and I’ve worked on manuscripts, I’ve got a quote-unquote scene that was like 4,000 or 5,000 words that changed location several times and spanned four days. And I’m like, that’s not a scene. And I’m not pointing that out because I’m the scene police, I’m pointing that out because that all blends together, there’s no pacing for the reader.
And by creating scene breaks, which is exactly why they do it in theater and why they do it in movies and television, is that you’re controlling the pacing of the story. And yes, it’s highly genre dependent. The same way the length of a scene is, how you break up scenes, how long they are, how you transition from one to another, that’s all genre and story dependent.
The point is, that’s what you need to do to help control the reading experience or to design the reading experience in a way that it doesn’t just all blend together. I think we’ve all had those situations where it’s almost like being in a conversation and the other person doesn’t take a breath and doesn’t give you the opportunity to say anything. And that’s what it feels like when you’re reading it.
Crys: Yeah. And I’ve had a lot of friends who are more intuitive writers. They don’t care to learn these kinds of architectural pieces that we are fascinated by, that we have conversations about, and that really excite us, because for us, it makes us better writers.
And for me, it’s the difference between building a tree house by slapping some pieces of wood on a tree and making sure that’s not gonna fall down if I jump on it, and architecting a building that you know what each corner is going to convey visually and where the shadows are going to fall.
They’re both great for their functionality, and some people are completely fine with treehouse building. And they just are like, I want it to look good, and so I’m going to put everything together and it’s going to look like a tree house. And we’re like, yeah, that’s a tree house. Sure, I see it.
But then you put together a Frank Lloyd Wright building, and you’re like, okay, that is a Frank Lloyd Wright building. You know that. You look at it, you see that it is not going to fall down for 300 years. And I lean more towards the Frank Lloyd Wright writing style, that architectural writing style, because I’m like, I want to understand it. I want to know all the bits and pieces.
J: Yeah. Yeah. I think too, this is a place where I think movies and music are very good corollaries to talk about scenes. You typically don’t have what we consider an album by an artist that doesn’t have three to four seconds of empty space at some point on it. Because those are songs, scenes, right? And there is space between them.
And when you watch a movie, with very few exceptions, which I’m going to mention one, there are scenes. There are cuts. They change location. They change time. They change emotional focus. It’s not a continuous shot. Now, unless you’re watching 1918, which is a beautiful example of breaking the rules where it’s one contiguous shot for the whole movie. Even though there’s not a cut, you could make an argument that there are scenes, there are just not edits or cuts. But still, I think that’s a natural way that humans enjoy stories. I think it’s a very natural process to have breaks. And if you don’t know where to create the breaks, you won’t create any, and that’s where it’s most problematic.
Crys: Yeah. And for any writer who is like well, if the reader doesn’t know where care and I’m doing it instinctively, does it matter? Maybe not for you, maybe it doesn’t. But I think knowledge is power. And as a viewer of movies who doesn’t care about all the nuts and bolts of how they put together the lighting and everything, I’m just really glad that they know how to do some really cool stuff so that I get to enjoy the magical effect they put together for me.
J: Yeah, I think this is one of those examples where you kind of have to know the rules before you can break them. That’s what it feels like to me. And again, it’s not a hard and fast rule, but I think you have to understand how scenes are structured and why they’re done that way before you decide you don’t need that. Because sometimes that’s just a cop out.
Sometimes there are people who just are not growth mindset. They’re not students. They don’t want to learn. And they just say well, this is just how I do it. And there’s sort of a willful stubbornness that goes along with that. So I’m not condoning that, but I do think if you understand why the rule is there and how it exists, then you can break it.
Crys: 100%. For our listeners, I am curious if they’ve struggled with understanding where their scenes end or not, or if they have a different insight that we haven’t brought up that we’ve missed.
J: Yeah, definitely. If you have a rule of thumb when it comes to scenes, we’d love to hear it.
Crys: Thank you so much for joining us this week. If you’d like to learn more about the community, check out www.theauthorsuccessmastermind.com.