Scenes are the workhorses of a story. A writer can have one or several scenes in a chapter. Instead of a story goal – to resolve the big problem that defines the whole novel, the point-of-view character creates a scene goal, which will advance his or her cause toward reaching that story goal.
In her book, The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield defines scenes as “those passages in narrative when we slow down and focus on an event in the story so that we are ‘in the moment’ with characters in action. Or we can say that a scene is a segment of story told in detail, the opposite of summarizing.” She further explains that there are four basic elements to a scene:
- Every scene has event and emotion.
- Every scene has a function.
- Every scene has a structure.
- Every scene has a pulse.
JK Rowling describes the four elements of a scene in the first chapter of Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone.
In a scene, characters do things and feel things. Or in other words, they act and react. Therefore, ever scene has an event and emotion. Rowling has Hagrid appear on his motorcycle with baby Harry when Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore are engaged in a conversation with each other, waiting for his arrival:
“Hagrid,” said Dumbledore, sounding relieved. “At last. And where did you get that motorcycle? (14)”
The scene advances forward as they bend forward over the bundle of blankets on the motorcycle and find baby Harry fast asleep, and they confirm that it is indeed Harry with his scar:
“Is that where —?” whispered Professor McGonagall.
“Yes,” said Dumbledore. “He’ll have that scar forever. (15)”
The dialogues in the scene advance the plot further, and we can state the event and emotion developed in it through the characters’ reactions.
There is a reason a scene needs to be described in detail with dialogue, characters, and setting. It accomplishes something for the story. It has a function. It changes something. It makes now different from the past. Rowling describes this by showing how Hagrid wants to say goodbye to the baby, but eventually breaks down and howls like a wounded dog because he finds it hard to let the baby go:
“S-s-sorry,” sobbed Hagrid, taking out a large, spotted handkerchief and buying
his face in it. “But I c-c-can’t stand it – Lilly an’ James dead – an’ poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles – (15)”
These elements of the scene reveal something about Harry that he may be special, perhaps making the reader feel more deeply attached to him even if he is just a baby. This also sets up a situation that will be important later in the story.
Ever scene has a structure: a beginning, middle, and end. An alternative way to think of the scene structure is that there is a situation at the beginning, a line of action, and then there is a new situation at the end. Thus a scene establishes the structure in three parts.
JK Rowling does this effectively by setting up Hagrid’s arrival with baby Harry, sharing some of the conversations among Hagrid, Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore, Dumbledore taking the baby from Hagrid, and finally, leaving Harry at the doorstep of the Dursleys:
“A low rumbling sound had broken the silence around them (14).”
Dumbledore took Harry in his arms and turned toward the Dursley’s house (15).
“Yeah,” said Hagrid in a muffled voice, “I’d best get this bike away. G’night, Professor McGonagall – Professor Dumbledore, sir (16).”
“Good luck, Harry.” Dumbledore murmured. He turned on his heel and with a swish of his cloak, he was gone (16).
This scene brings us into the story, letting us know what is going on, involves us, and lets us move forward with the plot.
Scofield defines the pulse of a scene as “some vibrancy in the story that makes the scene live in the page and makes it matter to the reader.” Sometimes the pulse is subtle, and sometimes it is highly visible, but it is always present in a scene. It is emotional, an attitude, a state of desire or need.
Rowling describes this by showing that Harry would grow up to be a special child who needs to be protected. Dumbledore trusts Hagrid enough to bring him home safely, and as the scene progresses, and the three of them take extra care to not wake the sleeping baby. At the end of the scene, as Harry Potter rolls over inside his blankets without waking up, people meeting in secret all over the country wish for his safety:
He couldn’t know that at this very moment, people meeting in secret all over the country were holding up their glasses and saying in their hushed voices: “To Harry Potter – the boy who lived!(17)”
All the main characters describe their feelings for the child through dialogue. They care for Harry’s well-being. Harry’s safety is the pulse of the scene.
Therefore while creating a scene, writers should make sure that the character with a goal runs into opposition. The opposition creates conflict that builds greater suspense through repeated thwarted efforts, until finally the character succeeds and reaches the goal, or fails. The scene ends with change: a surprise, twist, setback, or disaster relate to the goal.