What a Scene Needs
How to make your scenes work.
A good scene is more important than anything else. No doubt you’ve be told that you must grab a reader on the first page. Or that people can tell if you can write by the end of the third page. In reality, people can tell before they reach the end of the first scene (no matter how long).
There are many things a scene needs to be a good scene. These are in no particular order, but they need to be in the scene.
A Character Goal
Someone wants someone to do something. No matter what the scene is, someone wants something to change and that change will probably be the result of someone doing something.
So, if your scene has dialogue. One of the characters must want the other character to do something.
A loser and something learnt.
Based on the idea that each scene must have a goal. There will be an antagonist attempting to prevent the goal from being reached. In that exchange someone has to lose and during that some information has to be exchanged.
Let’s look at one of the great court room scenes. Jack Nicolson and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men. Tom is the winner getting Jack to admit to ordering a “code red”. Jack doesn’t realise that he has lost until he is detained. After Jack’s rant about how he is on the wall protecting the country, Tom learns that Jack’s arrogance is his weakness. So Tom challenges Jack, undermining Jack’s authority. Jack flies into a rage and attempting to regain his authority over Tom, who he sees as a joke, he admits to ordering the code red.
This is also a great example of a status shift. Who is in control of the scene, who has the power. This goes back and forth in this scene. Character “status” is the thing that drives this scene.
Inform the audience (only once).
The audience must learn something about the character or about the plot. This can only happen once in your story. If you show your character falling in love, they can’t fall in love again. If we learn that the bank has some super high tech safe, telling the audience that a second time would be boring.
The scene must progress the story. At the end of each scene we must know something that moves us closer to the end of the story. If the story hasn’t progressed the scene wasn’t needed. If a scene is just there to give the audience information find a way of doing that in another scene and preferably with action. If you can get a scene to accomplish multiple outcomes it is a good scene.
If you can’t achieve these things in a scene, look at what the scene is missing. Find a way of getting goals, lessons and losers in the scene and keep the story moving.