Scene: A Definition

Mech Heart HiRes copy 2

A scene is a unit of conflict.

Every scene is a story. It has a protagonist and an antagonist in conflict as they struggle for their goals. These goals may be very small, their struggles very slight, but scenes need those struggles and goals for the same reason that novels and movies need struggles and goals: to keep the story moving.

Bea and BarneyYou’ve probably noticed a pattern here: linear structure is composed of narrative units, each unit having a protagonist and an antagonist in conflict as they try to reach their goals.  Story plots, subplots, acts, and scenes all have that structure.  Those conflicts are broken down into units in each of these forms:  Plots can be analyzed by breaking them into acts; acts can be analyzed by breaking them into scenes, and scenes can be analyzed by breaking them into smaller units, sometimes called beats.  (Next on Writing/Romance: Beats).

Although the major structure–novel, novella, short story–will have only one main protagonist and one main antagonist, the scenes within those larger structures can have any character as a protagonist, who is almost always the point-of-view character in that scene.

The key to scenes is the same as the key to acts and to the entire novel: Every unit of conflict should change the main characters and move the story forward by escalating the plot and setting up expectation for the next scene, even if those changes and movements are very small.

TroubleshootingIf your scene seems dead, try running a conflict box on it. The vast majority of the time, the problem with a boring scene is weak or no conflict.

For other posts in this unit, see The Structure Unit main post.

5 thoughts on “Scene: A Definition

  1. carolc says:

    Love the illustration!

    I’m assuming if any character can be the protagonist of a scene, then any character can be the antagonist of a scene, even a character who was a protagonist of a different scene. Or am I missing something?


    • Yes. This might be Bea’s book, for example, but this is Barney’s scene. So while Barney may be the protagonist of this scene with Bea as the antagonist, in the story as a whole, Barney could be Bea’s antagonist in a love story plot, or a rival’s antagonist in a story about two people vying for Bea’s affections, or . . .

      Liked by 1 person

  2. CateM says:

    So I think sometimes in pursuit of scene conflict, romance writers end up writing manipulative heroes/ heroines which can add up to unhealthy relationship dynamics that make it hard to root for a HEA. Do you have any tips for writing romantic scene conflict without crossing into bullying/ manipulation (assuming that’s not what you’re going for. )


    • Don’t think of it as a romantic scene.
      Think about each of your characters as people. Think about what each of them wants in the scene (goal).
      Now look to see if they’re in conflict (conflict box is good here).
      If they both want ice cream, there’s no conflict.
      If he wants ice cream and she wants steak, that’s a conflict they’re going to have to negotiate.
      Creating conflict where there is none rings false, so always look to your characters first to see where they draw their lines for “acceptable” and how they cross purposes in the scene.

      Liked by 1 person

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