What Is a Scene? The Ultimate Guide to Write and Edit Amazing Scenes


What is a scene in a novel? How do you know where a novel scene starts and ends? How long should a scene be? And how do you know your scenes really work?

These are vital questions for writers. Great stories are made up of great scenes.

But I get so many questions from writers, especially when they’re new to writing or new to sharing their writing with others to get feedback, about what the scenes of a novel actually are.

So in this article, I’m going to break it all down. You’ll learn:

  • What the scenes of a novel actually are
  • How to tell where they begin and end
  • Why something MUST change in every scene (I call this a “value shift”)
  • The six key moments every scene must include
  • How long scenes can be
  • How many scenes go in a novel
  • What to do if you’re struggling to identify your scenes

Plus, I’ve created a worksheet to help you edit your scenes. You can grab the worksheet here:

Now, let’s talk scenes!

Scenes: The Building Blocks of Story

The thing is, when you’re a consumer of stories—when you’re a reader reading books, or a moviegoer watching movies—you’re not thinking in terms of scenes. You’re just enjoying the story, which flows from one event to the next to the next.

When readers do break books into smaller units, they’re usually thinking in terms of chapters. Those are clearly marked, with page breaks and numbers and occasionally titles. When we read books, we’re telling ourselves, “just one more chapter, and then I’ll turn the light out and go to bed.”

And I’m assuming that before you started writing books, you began by reading books. Which means you were introduced to stories in terms of chapters, not scenes.

People consuming stories don’t think in terms of scenes.

But people who create stories do.

Scenes are the building blocks of stories. A scene is one unit of story that contains one story event. And that means that in order to write a great story, you need to write great scenes. And in order to write a great scene, you need to know what a scene is.

So that’s what we’re covering in this article. I’m going to break down exactly what scenes are and how to recognize them and use them in your own stories.

As we go, I’m going to use an example scene to illustrate the theory I’m covering. It’s the first scene of Under the Whispering Door by T J Klune, which is an absolutely beautiful novel I read and loved this year.

You can read the scene I’ll be using by going to Amazon and using the “Look Inside” feature to check out the first few pages of the book for free. Click here to read the opening scene for free on Amazon.

And of course, if you enjoy it, I highly recommend reading the whole book!

Not right now, though. Right now, we’ve got to answer that all-important question: what is a scene of a novel?

This is an article you might want to save and come back to, or re-read a few times. Scenes are that important.

So let’s dive in.

What Is a Scene of a Novel?

Let’s start off with the definition of a scene. I define a scene as:

One unit of story, generally 1,000 to 3,000 words long, in which one story event occurs to move the story forward. This unit has an arc of change with a beginning, a middle, and an end—that is, there’s an inciting incident to create a conflict, a build to a climax, and a resolution in which something is different from how the scene began.

Or, to put this in another way, you could say, a scene is one little piece of story in which one change happens that contributes to the larger narrative.

So that’s our working definition. Let’s break each element of it down. I’ll start with a simple way to recognize one scene. Let’s talk about the boundaries of a scene.

Boundaries of a Scene

Scenes usually have:

  • One set of characters
  • One location
  • One time span

When One Boundary Changes

If one of these things changes, the scene might be over, but it might continue.

For instance, in the opening scene of Under the Whispering Door by T. J. Klune, the protagonist, Wallace Price, fires his paralegal, Patricia. The scene opens with the two of them in his office, talking.

At first, Patricia thinks it’s going well. She’s crying about how her life has been really difficult lately, and she thinks that Wallace has called her in because he understands that she’s really struggling.

He quickly makes it clear, though, that he’s brought her here because he’s noticed some mistakes in her work and he has a zero-tolerance policy. He’s not here to comfort her, but to fire her.

And he does. She goes from crying for how much empathy he’s showing her to crying for how heartless he’s being. And he calls security, walks her to the elevator while she kicks and screams, and then returns to his office alone.

By the end of the scene, he’s alone in his office. That’s a change in the set of characters in this scene. We went from two people having a conversation in his office to one person sitting alone.

But notice that he’s still in his office, and it’s still the same moment in time, the same half-hour or so span of this scene. So this scene isn’t over yet, even though one of our three boundary markers has changed. We get a few more paragraphs that resolve the scene, where Wallace goes back to work completely unbothered about the fact that he just cruelly fired his paralegal.

When All Boundaries Change

On the other hand, if all of these things change—if we have a change in the set of characters, a change in the location, and a change in the time—the scene is probably over.

Let’s go back to that example from Under the Whispering Door.

Wallace is in his office, alone, back to work. Then there’s a line break, and there are a couple very short lines to tell us that he died two days later. That’s not really a scene, but kind of a transition at the end of this first scene to move us to the next one.

And then the next scene begins, and we open on Wallace at his own funeral. That means enough time has passed that he’s passed away and his funeral has been arranged. That’s our time change.

We’re no longer at his office, but at a church. That’s our location change.

And we’re no longer alone in an office, or sitting with another employee. Instead, there are six other people at this sparsely attended funeral. That’s our character change.

All that indicates that we’re in a new scene.

Guidelines, Not Rules

So that’s a simple guide to the common boundaries of a scene in a novel. If you’re not sure where a scene starts or stops, look for a change in the characters present, the location, and the time span.

I will add, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and the elements we’re going to talk about next are more important to the definition of a scene than these three signs. But this is going to apply to most scenes, and it’s a great way to start recognizing where scenes begin and end in the books you read and in your own novel.

Now, let’s talk about the purpose of a scene. What happens in a scene to make a scene a scene?

Purpose of a Scene

In every single scene, something changes.

Now, this is true at all levels of story. Stories are about change. That means in every novel, something changes. In every act within a novel, something changes. In every sequence—that’s a set of several scenes within an act—something changes. And in every scene, something changes.

But it can be tricky for new writers who are just getting started to figure out how to make sure something changes in a scene. I have read many first drafts by new writers where a group of characters go to a restaurant, have a conversation over dinner, and leave.

And notice how that fits the set of boundaries I listed out for how to recognize a scene! It’s one location, one group of characters, and one time span. So by those guidelines, it’s a scene.

But if no change happens during that conversation in the restaurant, it’s not actually a scene. It’s just a group of people having dinner, which is very nice in real life but not very interesting to read about.

In order for a scene to work, in order for it to serve its purpose within your story, it must include a change. And that change needs to matter to the overall story.

Value Shifts

The way I think of this is as a value shift. What does that mean? I’ll explain.

In this context, “value” is a little like “a state of being.”

Here are some examples of values:

  • Good or evil
  • Rich or poor
  • Healthy or sick
  • Alive or dead
  • Right or wrong
  • Safe or unsafe
  • Confident or insecure
  • Inside or outside
  • Awake or asleep
  • Together or apart

This list could go on and on and on forever.

Now, in every scene, at least one value must change. It doesn’t have to be a value on this list; it could be just about anything. But something must change.

Usually, several things will change. Not all of them will be particularly important, but one of them will be very important and relate to the overall plot of the story as a whole.

Value Shifts in Under the Whispering Door

Let’s go back to that opening scene from Under the Whispering Door. Here are a few values that change:

Together to Alone: When the scene opens, Wallace and Patricia are sitting in his office together. By the end, Wallace is alone.

Employed to Fired: At the beginning of the scene, Patricia is an employee at Wallace’s law firm. By the end, she’s out of a job.

Loved to Hated: At the beginning, Patricia is overwhelmed with gratitude for Wallace’s apparent kindness and care for her. By the end, she’s cursing his cruelty.

I’m also going to add to that:

Presumed Heartless to Proven Heartless: Patricia tells Wallace in the early part of the scene that she always knew he was a good and kind person, even though everyone else in the law firm thinks he’s a ruthless jerk. Which is to say, everyone but Patricia presumes he’s heartless. When he fires her, Patricia realizes that everyone was right about him all along. He’s proven heartless.

All of these are great value shifts. When you read the scene, you can clearly see that the beginning—together, employed, loved, presumed heartless—is different from the end—alone, fired, hated, proven heartless.

Now, not all of these value shifts are equally relevant to the novel as a whole. For instance, this is the only scene where we ever meet Patricia. The book isn’t really about her career path. So the fact that she’s first employed and then fired is a great change, a really dramatic one, but it’s not the most important change for the novel as a whole.

The Most Important Value Shift

Because I’ve read the whole book, I know that it’s about Wallace starting off a pretty terrible, selfish person and then realizing after death that he didn’t live a very satisfying life, and he wants to change that.

And with that context, I think that “presumed heartless” to “proven heartless” is the most important value shift in this scene. It’s directly related to that overall plot of Wallace’s character being challenged as he realizes all the opportunities for kindness and relationship that he missed throughout his life. We’re establishing that he’s not a great person, and he doesn’t really care.

So in this scene, we have a change, or a value shift: presumed heartless to proven heartless. And that change directly contributes to the larger plot of the story beyond this single scene.

Every single scene in every single novel must include a change in order to contribute to the novel as a whole. Scenes earn their place in a book by including a value shift.

And so a conversation between a few friends over dinner at a restaurant could be pretty boring.

Or, it could be a riveting moment when one friend brings up the other’s betrayal, and they get into a fight, and then the first friend storms out and there’s a rift between them. That’s a change: friendly to unfriendly. Together to apart. Celebrating to fighting. Concealing secrets to revealing secrets.

That’s a dramatic, interesting scene.

Now, in order for a value shift to happen in a scene, in order for that arc of change to take place, there are a few other things that scenes must include. Let’s talk about the elements of a scene.

Elements of a Scene

You can probably guess that every scene includes conflict. After all, stories are about conflict! If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

What you might not know is that conflict happens within a specific structure. There are a few fundamental story structure elements that describe the way in which conflict begins, progresses, and resolves. And every scene includes all these elements (with a couple of exceptions that I’ll talk about in a moment).

Now, depending on which story craft books you read, you’ll find that different story theorists use different names for these elements. And some people include ones I don’t, or they don’t include ones that I do.

The set of elements I’m going to share are the ones I use myself to analyze and edit scenes. They’re the ones I use to give my clients feedback and help them learn to craft great scenes. They’re really, really useful specifically for editing.

So let’s get into them. There are six elements:

  1. Inciting Incident
  2. Progressive Complications
  3. Turning Point
  4. Crisis
  5. Climax
  6. Resolution

And now I’ll give you a quick breakdown of each of these terms.

1. Inciting Incident

Something disrupts the character’s “normal” and kicks off the action of the scene.

In our opening scene of Under the Whispering Door, it’s that Patricia has come to Wallace’s office, and she’s sitting in front of him crying.

2. Progressive Complications

The conflict escalates as more complications happen. These events might make things better or worse, but they certainly make things more complicated.

In our scene, Patricia says she didn’t think he cared, and Wallace bristles that she’s implying he doesn’t care that she made a mistake in her work.

Then she makes it clear that she thought he didn’t care about her, but she knows he does because he sent her flowers for her birthday. That’s a problem for Wallace because he never sent her flowers, and it means someone in his office wasted money on sending flowers in his name, and he’ll have to stop that.

And then she starts listing out all her problems in her life and why she’s so grateful for this job to keep her family afloat, and Wallace can’t keep this conversation on track.

And then she says, “I don’t care what anyone else says, Mr. Price. You’re a good man,” and he finds out that people think he’s pretty horrible.

We’ve got some good things here and some bad things here, but the scene is escalating at every turn.

3. Turning Point

This is the largest, most problematic progressive complication, which forces the protagonist to respond in some way.

In our scene, the turning point is that Patricia finally asks Wallace why he called her here.

4. Crisis

In order to respond to the turning point, the protagonist must make a difficult choice. This is a choice between two bad things (best bad choice) or two good things (irreconcilable goods).

In our scene, the crisis for Wallace is: Will he be swayed to compassion by all the deeply personal things she’s shared, and let her keep her job? Or will he go through with his initial plan to fire her, even knowing now how badly it will ruin her life?

5. Climax

This is the moment when the protagonist takes action on the crisis choice and experiences the consequences.

In our scene, Wallace fires her. He is unaffected by her sob story and lets her go. And she doesn’t take it well, but no matter how she defends herself, or how much she pleads, or how angry she gets, he doesn’t sway, and in fact goes so far as to have her literally dragged out of his office kicking and screaming.

6. Resolution

This is the “new normal” after the climax. Something has changed since the scene began with the inciting incident, and readers want to see what the world looks like now.

In our scene, this is the moment of calm after the firing.

How does Wallace feel after that traumatic demonstration? What does he do after his employee of several years has been forcibly removed?

He goes straight back to work and puts her out of his mind with absolutely no further concern about the matter except for a general resolve to hire better in the future.

Scenes (Almost) Always Include These Six Elements

Inciting incident. Progressive complications. Turning point. Crisis. Climax. Resolution.

Every scene needs to include all six of these elements. These six elements are the framework for the conflict in the scene.

Look for them as you read books. Watch for them as you watch movies. The more you study stories, the more you’ll start to notice these elements playing out over and over and over again.

I mentioned earlier that there are two exceptions to this. There are two ways in which you can write a complete scene that doesn’t include all these elements. Those two exceptions are a scene that begins in medias res and a scene that ends on a cliffhanger.

A scene that begins in medias res begins “in the middle of the action.” That means it begins in the middle of the progressive complications. The inciting incident happened before the events that we see on the page.

Technically, you could say that our example scene began in medias res: the inciting incident is really that Patricia comes to Wallace’s office. We don’t see that happen in the story; by the time we begin, she’s already sitting there crying.

A scene that ends on a cliffhanger ends at the crisis. We see the turning point, we see that the character is in a pickle, but we don’t yet see how they’re going to get out of it, and we’re hooked to keep reading because we want to know what’s coming next. We have to turn the page to the next chapter to find out.

And in the next scene, or in a later scene, we do find out. We pick up right where that moment left off and we see the crisis and climax and resolution.

Note that in both of these instances, with both in medias res and cliffhangers, all of the scene elements do exist. We know what the inciting incident was for an in medias res opening, or we find out pretty soon. And we do get the crisis, climax, and resolution of the cliffhanger in a future scene.

So make note of these six elements:

  1. Inciting Incident
  2. Progressive Complications
  3. Turning Point
  4. Crisis
  5. Climax
  6. Resolution

And make sure to include them in every single scene.

All right, so we’ve covered the definition of a scene, the typical boundaries of a scene, the value shift of a scene, and the six elements every scene must include.

What’s next? Let’s talk about the length of a scene.

Length of a Scene

A scene in a novel is typically between 1,000 and 3,000 words long.

1,500 to 2,000 words is a really comfortable length for a scene

Some writers write consistently long scenes, pushing 2,500 or 3,000 words. Some writers write consistently short scenes, scenes that are even shorter than 1,000 words.

Most writers write scenes of a variety of lengths, with some really long scenes, some really short scenes, and most scenes somewhere in the middle.

What’s the right length of a scene for your book? Well, first off, you know it needs to include a value shift, and it needs to include those six elements of story structure.

If you’ve got those, you’re covered, whether your scene is 500 words or 5000 words.

But you’ll probably find as you write the style and pacing that best fits you and your novel. Maybe you like really short, punchy scenes. Maybe you like to run really long. You might read a lot in your genre and find that one length is more common than another. Or you might write a lot and as you discover your voice you’ll find you gravitate to scenes of a certain length.

A good starting point, though, is 1,000 to 3,000 words.

How Many Scenes in a Novel

Now, how many scenes will you need to write?

A novel of about 80,000 words will typically contain roughly 60 scenes. If you’re doing the math, you might notice that that works out to scenes of 1,333 words, which is neatly on the shorter side of our scene length range.

If your book is longer than that, you might have more scenes. If your book is shorter than that, you’ll probably have fewer.

But in general, for a novel, you’re looking at about 60 to 70 scenes.

What about chapters? How many scenes will you have in each chapter?

The answer to this question is entirely up to you.

Your chapters could be just one scene long, all the way through your book. Or your chapters could have many, many scenes. I’m currently reading A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, and it has 13 chapters, but way more than 13 scenes.

On the other hand, the scene I’ve used as an example throughout this article is the whole first chapter of Under the Whispering Door.

Also, if you’re really into cliffhangers, you could begin your chapters in the middle of one scene and then end in the middle of another scene. You’re just constantly ending chapters right at the turning point of scenes, over and over, so every one ends on a cliffhanger. That’s not my preference, but it’s an option.

The point here is, chapters and scenes are not the same thing. Chapters are the way you divide up your book for your reader. And scenes are the units you use as an author to craft an arc of change within your story.

And the number of scenes you include in each chapter is entirely up to you.

If Your Scenes Are Hard to Find

So there you have it: a comprehensive overview of what a scene is and what makes a great scene work. I hope that this is giving you a lot of tools you can go apply to your own story to start revising and crafting your own amazing scenes.

But before I wrap up, I want to talk about one more thing: what to do if you’re not sure where your scenes are.

At this point, I can jump into a story—a published book or a book I’m editing—and identify quickly and pretty easily where the scenes start and stop.

But that took me a lot of practice over several years. And if the concepts we’ve been talking about here are new to you, then it probably won’t be immediately obvious how to recognize scenes.

That’s why I started with the typical boundaries of a scene—characters, location, time—and with that fundamental question: what is a scene?

Because maybe you weren’t thinking about this at all when you were writing your first draft. You were just telling yourself the story and having a great time with it, and things happened when they happened and you began new chapters when it felt right. And that’s great! Fantastic. That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in your first draft.

But your task in the editing process is to come back and take a really close look at each and every scene, and make sure it has exactly what it needs and it’s really contributing to your story and earning its place in your book.

Which means you’ll have to go through your book and identify every single scene.

3 Ways to Identify Scenes When They’re Hard to Find

What do you do if you open your book to page one, and you start reading, and you get a couple chapters in and realize: you have no idea where your scenes start and stop? You have no idea what constitutes a scene in your novel?

If that happens to you, here’s my advice:

  • Look for natural dividers within your story.
  • Look for places where you’ve put a chapter break or a line break.
  • Look for places where there’s a change in the location, or a jump forward in time, or a different group of characters on the page.

All of those things are indicators that the scene has changed. And they’re indicators of where you’re naturally breaking up your story into individual units of action and plot.

And it’s those individual units that you’ll edit, one at a time, as you go through your developmental editing process.

Once you’ve found those individual units, you can start applying all those elements we’ve been talking about. You can look for the value shift: what changes in each scene? Why does that matter? And you can look for all six elements of story structure.

And once you’ve made sure your scene includes all those things, well—that’s how you know you’ve got a great scene.

Edit Your Scenes With the Scene Analysis Worksheet

Writing great scenes is one of the most important skills you can have as a writer.

If you can write great scenes, you have the tools to craft an incredible story that keeps your readers turning pages long after their bedtime because they just can’t wait to find out what happens next.

And to help you master that skill, I have a free worksheet for you: the Scene Analysis Worksheet.

Get the worksheet by entering your email in the box below:

As I share this, I want to give credit where credit is due. Many of the concepts I’ve outlined in this article are concepts I learned from Story Grid, an editing methodology created by Shawn Coyne. And this scene analysis worksheet is also drawn from Story Grid, and slightly modified by me to reflect what I’ve seen work best for my clients.

I have seen over and over that using this as a tool to analyze your scenes will really, really help you figure out what’s working in your writing, what’s not, and what to change in your editing process.

It includes all those elements of story structure, from inciting incident to resolution, that I mentioned.

And it also includes a few questions to help you figure out what your value shift is in each scene (or whether your scene is missing a value shift, and now you get to add one!).

Get the worksheet below:

Your Turn: Edit a Scene of Your Novel

Now, I want you to apply all this to your scenes.

I want you to open up your manuscript. I want you to read the first chapter. And I want you to identify your first scene.

If that’s tricky, go back to those concepts I mentioned earlier:

  • Look for natural dividers within your story.
  • Look for places where you’ve put a chapter break or a line break.
  • Look for places where there’s a change in the location, or a jump forward in time, or a different group of characters on the page.

See if you can identify a scene in your book.

And if that’s easy, then take it a step further. Pull out the Scene Analysis Worksheet and use it to evaluate your scene.

Does your scene include everything we talked about in this article? Does it include a value shift? Does something change? And does it include all the elements of story structure?

This, this right here, is your task as the writer, for every single scene in your book. So get started right now and go analyze your first scene.

And be sure to grab your scene analysis worksheet to guide you through.

And enjoy crafting some amazing scenes!

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