Mar 24

Individual Scenes and Chapters

A chapter in a novel or a scene in a short story or script is a complete dramatic unit which should accomplish all of the following:

  1. advances the plot
  2. develops character
  3. provides the audience with needed information

And all of this should keep the reader/viewer engaged in the story.

In a screenplay or teleplay, a new scene occurs whenever the time and/or place of the story changes. That’s why each new scene begins with a SCENE HEADER:



In film and video, a scene is defined by its physical location and its time. Whenever the CAMERA and or the character move from one location (the living room) to another (the hall, the kitchen, the bedroom, etc.) it is a new scene. Even in the same physical location, when the time changes (a few minutes later, hours later, days, week, months, or years later) this is a new scene. In film and TV each new scene requires a new SCENE HEADER and at least one line of description of action.

What you need to understand is that in the making of a film/video, sometimes the living room set you use isn’t physically located next to the hallway, kitchen, or bedroom set. If all these sets are built on a sound stage, they will be built at different times unless the soundstage is big enough to hold all of them. Think of the average sitcom that has an upstairs. In fact, there is no upstairs. All the sets, all the rooms and the locations are on ground level but the actors movement from one to the other is done by editing their exit from one set to their entrance into the next. Up the stairs on a set, like the Bundy house in “MARRIED WITH CHILDREN” had nothing beyond the top of the stairs except a wall flat and a set of “escape” stairs for the actors to come down after their exit – or a place for them to wait before their entrance to the on stage stairs.

If a production is using actual locations for all the sets and they are physically located in different places, all the living room scenes will be shot together one after another, then the hallway, kitchen, and bedroom scenes will be shot on different days but cut together to make it appear that the rooms are adjacent. It is for this reason that scripts for film and video require SCENE HEADERS because the production must schedule the building, set up and lighting of each set for different times and usually different days. These all become budget considerations for the producer and the production manager when they “breakdown” the script to figure out how much it will cost to produce.

On stage a French Scene is a scene which begins and ends when the number of characters on stage changes. This may or may not be considerations to be made during rehearsal scheduling. And a French Scene may or may not impact the scene dynamics significantly when character enter or exit. But stage plays are not written with the French Scene concept in mind. It’s more of a director’s consideration and will not be reflected anywhere except in the directors and stage manager’s marked scripts.

In prose for a short story or a novel, scenes may be separated by space on the page, by symbols such as –0–, ?, or ? or others. The change of time and/or space can also be accomplished without interruption to the text by having the change included as part of the prose.

By definition a chapter, like a scene in a script, is a part of the story with a beginning, middle and end. How long it is depends on your market. There was a time when chapters were 10 to 30 pages in length. Today, chapters may be as short as two or three pages. Go to a book store and thumb through the best sellers. There simply are no rules about length. The same can be said for a scene except for the scene in a film or video script — these shouldn’t run over 3 to 5 pages max. As they say in the film business, “Less is more.”

When you write a scene or a chapter try to do this:

  1. have some kind of conflict in each (even if it has little or nothing to do with the actual material being covered)
  2. begin with a sight, sound, or dialogue which grabs the reader/audience
  3. start as late as possible in the scene or chapter eliminating any delaying material — get right to the meat of it ASAP. (See the scenes of soap operas as examples.)
  4. plan the emotional arch from the beginning to the end; begin with one emotion and end on a totally different note; emotion examples:
  5. anger l. sacrifice w. suspicious
  6. love m. joy x. hate
  7. fear n. empathic y. uncontrollable
  8. laughter o. embarrassed z. faithful
  9. satisfaction p. greed
  10. lust q. ridiculed
  11. grief r. thoughtful
  12. devotion s. liberated
  13. suffering t. hopeful
  14. pride u. patriotic
  15. terror v. envious

the end of the scene or chapter should keep the reader/audience connected to and interested in upcoming events in the story. The end of the chapter should be like the beginning in that it keeps the interest of the reader/audience — how else to you get a book you simply can’t put done or a movie you can’t walk out on?

  1. don’t forget the value of humor even in the most serious scenes

Be aware of these factors and how they impact the scene you are writing:

  1. physical location
  2. time of day
  3. environmental elements (dust, wind, temperature, humidity, light, etc.)
  4. ambient sounds
  5. characters’ physical movement or lack there of
  6. characters’ costumes and hand props

Short scenes keep the story moving.

Long, dialogue heavy scenes can slow the pace and be visually dull.

If you have a great deal of information to convey, like a character’s back story or factual information the audience needs to understand the story, it is better to break this material up into several short scenes or chapters in different locations rather than try to cover it all in one long chunk. If possible, not only break this material up into several scenes/chapters, but intersperse it with other scenes/chapters which are furthering the story through other subplots or other levels. This allows the audience to digest the required information in smaller bites.

Finally ask yourself:

  1. If this scene/chapter were cut from the script would the story still work?
  2. Do you need all of it or will a smaller cutting accomplish the same thing?
  3. Does this scene/chapter flow out of what has come before it in the story?
  4. Does the scene/chapter start as late as possible (cutting to the meat of the scene)?
  5. Is the description minimal but having impact (like a bikini, long enough to cover the essentials but short enough to be interesting)?
  6. Is the dialogue interactive and flowing out of the characters (as opposed to being a speech of information or a sermon of principals)?
  7. Is there tension (anger, danger, romance, sex, mystery or adventure) in the scene?
  8. Is there a hook at the beginning and at the end to make the reader/viewer want more?
  9. Is there humor in the scene/chapter?
  10. Does the scene sparkle with life, energy, surprise, and emotion?

And remember, if you find yourself skipping over parts of this scene/chapter as you reread it, this is telling you there’s something here that even you don’t want to read.


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