The Units of Story: The Scene

The scene is the basic building block of a Story.

While the beat is the actor’s medium, and as such can be “saved” by a skilled actor, even Meryl Streep can’t save a poorly written scene. There is just no hiding for a writer when it comes to a scene. It either works or it doesn’t. There is either a very clear shift in value from the beginning to the end—a change—or there isn’t. If there is no change, no value at stake, no movement, then the scene doesn’t work. And if a writer’s scenes don’t work, no matter how well they can craft a sentence, his story won’t work.

I promise you this. If you put aside everything else that you read on this blog, hold on to this one kernel of truth. Scenes are the place to focus.

Spend your time dreaming up scenes, writing them down, working them, until you are blue in the face. Invest Malcolm Gladwell’s golden 10,000-hour labor law in learning how to write a scene and you’ll always be able to put food on the table. You will be a writer.

You can learn the other stuff easily—in fact it will probably come very naturally—if you can bang out a compelling scene with confidence. You’ll get work as a script doctor or an editor or an advertising copywriter or a how-to ghostwriter if you can write a scene that grabs a reader by the throat and surprises them. And the more efficiently you can do so, the better.

While it can be broken down into its component beats, the scene is the most obvious mini-story. They are the things that stay ever present when we talk about a great movie or great novel. Remember what happened after character A saw character B with another woman?

The structure of a scene is straightforward. A scene must move from one value state to another. From a positive expression of a value like “Love” to a negative expression of a that value “Hate.” Or from a negative expression of a value “injustice” to a positive expression of a value “justice.” Page upon page of prose without a turn from one value state to another is not a scene.

Just having two characters meet and talk does not make a scene. It’s just talk.

The driving force of the scene is conflict. One character is in pursuit of one thing and one or more other characters are in pursuit of another. Only one desire can be fulfilled. So the two forces conflict. One will win and one will lose. Scenes are battles built on conflict. Stories are Wars that take values to the end of the line or at the very least approach the end of the line.

Scenes can turn on very black and white terms—good/bad, life/death, truth/lie etc.

While long form stories can never deliver much entertainment or emotional impact by just flip-flopping between a positive story value and just its negative opposite, a scene can. In fact, it must. These black and white value shifts are usually the obligatory scenes for the external content genres. You’ll find these straightforward, easy to understand, scenes the most difficult to innovate.

Pure action scenes, for example, move between the simple value of life versus death. The character either lives or dies. These are the James Bond “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain” scenes that we all adore:

Do you expect me to talk?

 stops on the steps and looks down, both hands in his pockets.

GOLDFINGER: No, Mister Bond. I expect you to die!

Life/death is the only value at stake in many big action scenes and because it is so simple and understandable, these scenes are some of the most difficult to write. How can you innovative a scene that has been written millions of times?

Can you outdo the action scenes in The Iliad or The Odyssey or Beowulf or The Terminator or North by Northwest? Maybe not, but think about what fun it would be to try. What is very important to recognize is the size of the mountain you are trying to climb for every scene you write. Besting Homer or James Cameron is a very steep task. Better bring extra oxygen and know that this ain’t gonna be done in an afternoon.

You cannot just throw off the first thing that comes to your mind when you are creating an action scene, or any other scene for that matter. Well, you can, but it will be derivative and cliché. I guarantee it.

The reason why you can’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind, though, is that the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is all the stuff that’s been pumped into your brain since seeing your first cartoon.

This is not to say that you should drive yourself crazy on your first draft and not use these first cliché scenes as mile markers for your story. It is to say that you can and should use them to give you a sense of the kind of scene that you need to drop in, but you cannot be satisfied with the first thing that comes into your mind. The first thing that comes into your mind has been written before.

It’s called a memory.

For example, if I’m going to write a thriller, I’ll definitely need a scene where the hero/protagonist of the Story is at the mercy of the villain. This is the obligatory scene that all thrillers must have.  If the reader/viewer doesn’t get this scene, they won’t like your book/movie.  Simple as that.

My first attempt to craft this scene would go something like this:

Our hero is tied to a wall at the four points of his body. The villain begins to crank the rope until our hero is stretched to his limit. One addition crank and our hero’s tendons and muscles in his shoulders and hips will pop.

But our hero has figured out that if he can just break his own thumb, he’ll be able to slip out of the restraint on his most powerful arm.

VILLAIN: “Your wife called…I told her you were tied up…”

HERO: “That’s very funny…Why don’t you come over here and say that to my face.”

Villain walks over to hero, Hero breaks his thumb and gets villain in a headlock with his one strong arm. He chokes villain to death and then unties himself and escapes.

On just a cursory look at this construction, you’ll see that it’s basically a mash up of every action movie scene from Die Hard to Taken to Goldfinger.

That’s okay for your first draft.

Let the cliché sit on the page while you move forward. You’ll definitely come back to it later on, when you have your critical editor cap on your head. But for your first draft, write cliché after cliché. It’s okay. No one is going to see this draft but you. What you just need in a first draft are the types of scenes you’ll need and the general order in which they’ll fall.

Just don’t write scenes that don’t go anywhere. They all must have inciting incidents (hero caught by villain), progressive complications (tied to a wall…rope pulled to breaking point), crisis (do I try and buy some time or do I break my thumb and try and free myself? Best Bad Choice), Climax (breaks thumb), resolution (hero tricks villain, kills him and escapes). The scene moves from death to life. It works.

It’s far from great, but it works.

The most important thing to remember about writing a scene is that it has to TURN. It has to move from one state of being to another. It can be a subtle turn, but it must turn in a meaningful way.

When you get stuck, think about the overall state of your protagonist’s quest for his objects of desire (both external and internal). Has his quest moved closer to success or failure from beginning to the end of the scene? It must move from positive to negative or negative to positive or positive to double positive or negative to double negative etc.

If your scene does not move, it has to be reworked so that it does. If you find that you are pulling your hair out trying to turn the scene and it just won’t turn, there’s a good reason why it won’t. You don’t need it in your story. It’s undoubtedly a Shoe Leather/Stage Business scene that just moves your character physically from one space to another.

Cut that stuff. You don’t need it and it’s boring.

What’s great about finding these bits in your first draft is that you can just highlight and delete knowing that the reader or viewer will fill in that stage business inside their own minds. They don’t want to read the part when your lead character goes to dinner with a friend who tells him all about what’s been going on back home for two thousand words.

They want to see the friend pick up a steak knife and try and kill your protagonist. Or they want the friend to brilliantly undermine your protagonist’s confidence. A scene must have conflict. And someone must win or lose.

Later on, when we lay out The Story Grid Spreadsheet (the micro editorial view), I’ll show you how to track the turns in your scenes so that you’ll be easily able to pinpoint the duds and fix them.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


31 comments on “The Units of Story: The Scene

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Thank you so much for this straight-forward, cold-water-in-the-face post Shawn! This clarifies Scene for me in a way nothing I’ve read before does. I appreciate it more than I can say – keep it coming!

  2. I agree with Mary! Thank you, Shawn! (Thanks also for the detailed “nano” answer you gave to my question yesterday about the number of turning points in a scene . I’m actually starting to understand this stuff!)

    Here’s today’s question with a lead-up.

    Scenes are mini-stories (and battles) that show a very clear shift in value from the beginning to the end. The driving force of the scene is conflict. Obligatory scenes for the external content genre turn on black/white terms. The BIG turning point in a scene happens through a BIG beat through action or revelation when something unexpected happens. There’s an inciting incident, progressive complications, a turning point around the complications generated through action or revelation, a crisis that arises from the turning point (best bad choice or irreconcilable goods), a climax decision based on the questions raised by the crisis, and a resolution. Phew!

    Here’s my question and it’s about turning points for internal content genres. I know the turning points have to be meaningful and I assume they are almost always subtle and rarely black and white. When I read and analyze literary stuff (I took your advice to do this early on and I’ve been doing a lot of it lately), I sometimes find it difficult to pinpoint the value and the turning point.

    Any tips on how to figure the subtle ones out or will this question be answered by the micro-editorial view?

    Yours in nano-land and as always, thank you!

    1. Mary Doyle says:

      Debbie, thanks for articulating this question – I’ve been wondering the same thing but hadn’t worked through exactly what I wanted to ask.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Debbie,
      A lot of literary stuff has a ton of dead wood in it. That is, “high-art” line by line writing often just sits there with little purpose other than to show the skill level of the writer. So what I think you are discovering is that in some of the big literary stories, the emperor has no clothes. The scenes go nowhere and the plot is nonexistent beyond some pseudo intellectual malarky about man’s injustice to man or some such. The only thing keeping the reader reading is in the cultural pressure to be able to say you read the damn thing. On the other hand, you’ll find dead wood in things like MOBY DICK too and/or DICKENS stuff that is really just exposition/description of a particular time and place. Oftentimes, that exposition, when well done, is terrific and when written well can keep the pages turning even though it is not technically a scene.

      As you know, I’m going to really pull apart THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. There are about three chapters in that book that are pretty much straight exposition. There’s a chapter about the procedures in place to deal with the abduction of a high level government official and/or a relative of one and Thomas Harris chose to just get it all out in a third person authorial voice. A journalist’s voice (he used to be one at the AP). And it works great. It’s short and sweet and to the point. Doe’s it shift value like a scene should? No. But it’s okay because it’s necessary and to get too cute with the exposition that had to be dropped in there…i.e. embedding it in a scene could get pretty long and cheesy. So he bit the bullet and just banged out an expositional chapter. It works.

      So what all this is to say is that there are instances when the writer may need to drop in exposition in a way that is straightforward without turning a scene. But those choices are usually made at the very end of the writing process. An editor may say something like “what are the procedures for the kidnapping of a senator?” And the best way to get that information in the book is to just bang it out and put it down in straight expositioin. So Harris’s entire novel has 3 out of 64 scenes that you would categorize as this kind of non-movement. 5 percent of the entire book. I think that’s a good place to limit yourself for stuff that has to be in the book, but you can’t seem to get it into a scene.


      1. Michael Beverly says:

        In a world of weird serendipity I actually read that scene last night. I’m preparing.

        I thought it wasn’t a whole chapter; so I went and checked. The explanation of procedures for kidnapping is actually half a chapter (chapter 16) and takes about one page on my Kindle (I read in a small font, so it might be a little more than that in a paperback).

        Just wanted to reinforce what you are saying; it’s not even a whole chapter, in the second half of the chapter, Crawford is talking to “Alpha 4”; the FBI director (sort of a debriefing) so the chapter itself has movement.

        As always, thanks Shawn.

        You really helped me here with this post because I’d just finished my first read through of my first draft and I was getting depressed because it’s cliche and cheesy and I was ready to hang myself from a chair because I don’t live in a two bedroom house.

        But now I realize I’m following the correct procedure; get the scenes hammered out and a book finished in rough draft. THEN fix it. Thank you.

        I’m so excited.

      2. That is UNBELIEVABLY HELPFUL, Shawn!

        Again, I am astounded by your generosity. (I’m astounded by Michael’s story of synchronicity, too.)

        The fact that a newbie like me has direct access to a pro like you (and also to other wonderful writers, directors and editors like those in our “group”) and for free, is absolutely unbelievable.

        You really should be nominated for saint-hood or at the very least knighthood.

        Sir Shawn Coyne has a nice ring to it. : )

        1. Larry says:

          What she said. Squared.

  3. Cliches as placeholders. Bingo.

    Your assurance that scene is where the money is really helps.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      You got it Joel. Master the scene, the rest takes care of itself.

  4. Carol Malone says:

    Hi Shawn, I’ve been reading you posts regularly and have gained a world filled with writing excellence. I can’t wait for the spreadsheet grid. Writing the small scene has always been a challenge for me. How to take character A from this point to the next and make him learn something, get out of something, or help someone else learn something. That’s the real challenge. Thanks for your words of explanation on scene writing. Off to put to work your instructions.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Carol, Spreadsheet is up next after units of story.

  5. Cheryl says:

    Hi, Shawn, great post. Here is what I struggle with — could be the ADD — I clutter my scenes with stuff that doesn’t matter. Dickens may have an excuse — part of his era kind of thing — but I don’t. How do I boil down a scene to its essentials? How do I stop this ADD-kitchen-sinking stuff? Do I slap myself out of it? (LOL)

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Cheryl,
      No slap the character/s out of it. Not you.
      Focus on the conflict. Anything that does not make your character act or react…cut. It could be external forces (a snowstorm), personal (significant other confesses to an affair), societal/cultural (shame associated with tattered clothes/and or social position) or internal forces (self sabotaging behavior…character gets loaded before a big speech). These forces of antagonism will make you focus on the scene task at hand. Hope that helps

      1. Jule Kucera says:

        This response reminds me of the very beginning of this blog and the words that first made my shoulders recede from my ears, “the writer is not the problem… the problems are the problem.” No self slapping.

        Thank you for the way you teach us–logically and patiently. Thank you for your respect not just for the writing but for the writer.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Thanks for this.

  6. Jack Price says:

    Hi Shawn,

    Another great post. Like Carol, above, I can’t wait for the lesson about the spreadsheet grid.

    I’m re-reading The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Today, this passage jumped out at me.

    “Classic writing, with its assumption of equality between writer and reader, makes the reader feel like a genius. Bad writing makes the reader feel like a dunce.”

    And I thought of your blog. I always feel so smart after reading your posts. “Now I understand,” I think, as if I’ve figured it out on my own.

    But it’s your clarity that does the trick. Thank you for taking the time to say it clearly and succinctly and not talk down to us dunces <:-)


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Jack. Appreciate that very thoughtful shout out. You’ve just made a tough week much better!
      All the best Shawn

  7. Elanor says:

    “The most important thing to remember about writing a scene is that it has to TURN. It has to move from one state of being to another. It can be a subtle turn, but it must turn in a meaningful way.”

    I think that’s my takeaway from this amazing post. I know from reading other sources that for a scene to be a scene there has to be a change embedded in it, but something about the word “turn” makes this really click for me. Also, the thing about how the turn can be subtle, it just has to be meaningful — so helpful!

    I also appreciate a lot of the info you’re giving in answer to people’s comments:

    “… there are instances when the writer may need to drop in exposition in a way that is straightforward without turning a scene. But those choices are usually made at the very end of the writing process.”

    “Focus on the conflict. Anything that does not make your character act or react…cut. It could be external forces (a snowstorm), personal (significant other confesses to an affair), societal/cultural (shame associated with tattered clothes/and or social position) or internal forces (self sabotaging behavior…character gets loaded before a big speech). These forces of antagonism will make you focus on the scene task at hand.”

    Thank you so much for sharing all this with us! It’s making a difference in my writing and revising already!

  8. Dan says:


    This is an excellent post. I am a new subscriber to your blog and with this kind of advice I will most definitely be coming back for more.

    Some great reminders to keep the story moving with conflict, and to cut it if it doesn’t move the story. I know this is simplifying your work, but a good take away nonetheless.

    I look forward to future posts.

  9. Fawn says:

    I’m finding your posts indispensable. Just added your blog to my website for other writers. Thanks!

  10. Shane Seley says:

    Great stuff Shawn! Spreadsheet, Spreadsheet, Spreadsheet… Appreciate your great ability to share knowledge. I feel like I’ve been handed keys to the clubhouse.

  11. Stacy says:

    I am gobsmacked by how useful these posts are, and for me they come at the perfect time. Really clarifies things. Thanks!

  12. Herbert Exner says:

    I read each post/line/word and it’s exciting. I read them through the lens of an innovation marketer – especially innovations that use quantitative methods in a way that its models are understandable and computational.

    It’s amazing how many analogies I find. Building blocks and units are so important. The smallest unit a quant innovation has are functions. The most important units are tasks (your scenes). I simply need to copy: if tasks don’t work, the whole innovation doesn’t – how great the total solution may ever be.

    I borrow from “constructor theory” – a new fundamental theory of physics. In short, the most fundamental components of reality are entities – constructors – that perform particular tasks (transformations, changes…), accompanied by a set of conventions (laws…) that define which tasks are possible for the constructor to carry out. The constructor of a robot task is its control program. Constructor theory can help to generalize theories like computation, statement unification, expressing the principles of testability and computability…there’s no such thing as an abstract program…

    Each function, task, subsystem, system must have a constructor, progressive problems and a solution…how nested they ever are…

    Whether it’s a quant finance system (a prototype for “storytelling” analogies) or a rolling mill automation…if you don’t apply the right event based modeling, building block design (tasks!), interaction patterns…you’re lost.

    Your methodology has inspired a new way of looking into the dynamics of an innovation…thank you Shawn!

    I wait for the next posts…with excitement.

  13. DC Harrell says:

    I appreciate how this is articulated. Like others, I’m enjoying the plain logic of your approach. It’s clear. It makes a ton of sense. I can (and am) immediately apply it to the story I’m developing. Much obliged. Much.

  14. Stan says:

    Can scenes have movement if it only has one person engaged in internal monologue?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Stan,
      Yes, the inciting incident, progressive complications, crisis, climax, and resolution would all come from internal conflict. Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT as I recall has numerous internal monologue scenes. The lead character would be having a battle between one part of themselves with another.
      All the best,

      1. Stan says:

        Hope it’s permitted to ask you questions of this nature, but here goes nothing. Since you’re a literary agent, do you take queries?

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Stan,
          Unfortunately my client list is full to the brim. Have far too much stuff on my plate to consider any new projects for the foreseeable future and even beyond that. Best of fortune finding the right rep.

  15. Aurelie van Duyse says:

    Hello, I am currently doing a Story Grid Spread Sheet for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and I am having a very hard time deciphering between beats, scenes, and sequences. Do you have any tips?
    If you have time to help me out here’s a link to the book:
    Right now I’m mostly confused with the end of chapter two (starting at the second paragraph from the bottom of page 22, and the beginning of chapter 3.) Should this little blurb with Harry pitting himself and telling the reader a bit about his view on reality (which is a bit incorrect), be part of the scene before (Harry makes a glass disappear and thus sets a snake free), or the next scene (Harry spends the summer getting bullied and so on), or should it be a little 320 word scene(Can those exist?) ?

    I don’t really think the later option is correct, that sounds more like a beat. But still, I’m not too sure.

    Also the scene after is a bit confusing in itself. I can’t decide how long the scene is. Does it start at the beginning of chapter 3 and go to the end? Or is it the little blurb in the which the author explains the Inc. Incident: school is over; Complication: Harry still gets bullied; Crisis: is his whole life going to be like this?;Climax: He’s going to different school than Dudley and the bullies; Resolution: He’s happy. So this is must be a beat right? But then you start a whole new section. I feel like neither this beat and the one before really fit in to the scene before or after. It feels so separate from, starting on paragraph 9 of that chapter, when they sit to breakfast and Harry goes to get the mail. The Inc. Incident: Harry gets his first letter, Complication; the Dursleys take the letter away, Crisis: I’m not too sure when the Crisis moment is. Harry doesn’t seem to have a decision to make, he wants the letter and they are bigger than him so he won’t get it – and this kinda sounds like a resolution.

    So, all in all, I’m confused. This chapter and this book, they work. Whether you read it or not you know it because of the copies this book that are all over the world.
    So why do I feel like I’m in a mess?

    Thanks for your time!
    I just finished the Story Grid and I loved it.
    PS: Should I start with making a Spread Sheet or the Foolscap?

  16. Aurelie van Duyse says:

    Alright, so I’ve decided to make a scene from paragraph 1 to paragraph 61 of chapter 3.
    To be clear my question is: What do I do with the little moments where the author reflects on the past? By this I am referring to Harry’s little pitying moment and reflection.
    As for my scene, I found the Inc. Incident and Crisis and all that jazz, but I still can’t find the exact turning point. And the value… are we talking about the value shift for Harry or his Aunt and Uncle? Because this whole thing is a Crisis for Harry, yes, but it feels more like a danger to his controlling family. So what do I then put as a polarity shift?
    The letter’s arrival is positive for Harry and almost a double negative for the Dursleys. The fact they take it away is negative for Harry, and a short positive for the uncle and aunt.

    I really hope I’m making some sense.
    Please help me if you find the time.
    I would be ever grateful!


  17. Claudia Peel says:

    Thank you for your post and many thanks to your readers who commented on it.

Leave a Comment