A scene in a story or novel has a lot of work to do. If you think of a story as a series of scenes, then it stands to reason that treating your scenes to a thorough tune-up might be the best way to revise a story.
Below is a scene checklist, put together by a writer, Amy Muia, based on our class interactions, with a few modifications. This checklist draws on examples from “The Siege At Whale Cay,” a short story by Megan Mayhew Bergman anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2015, edited by T.C. Boyle.
Setup and Background Information
Most scenes are preceded by a paragraph or two of backstory that creates context, followed by a set-up paragraph that establishes the specifics of time and place for the occasion. In our story we learn that we are in the Caribbean, on Femme Beach, part of a privately owned island in the WWII era. The paragraph that sets up the scene tells us that: Georgie is out swimming and is curious why Joe isn’t watching her. At the house, she finds a feast being prepared and asks the cook why. The cook says that Marlene (Dietrich) is coming. The arrival of the movie-star is the inciting incident that requires a response.
Goal of the scene: What does the character want in this scene; what is the character trying to do?
It is important for the character to establish a concrete and specific scene goal (the character should be fairly explicit about stating the goal). In our example: Georgie wants to make inquiries to find out what the fuss is all about, initially to explain Joe’s lack of attention.
Value: What value is present at the start of the scene? Is it expressed positively or negatively?
In the set-up, it should be apparent that the character’s responses to stimuli are based in part on a value or deeply held set of beliefs that the character carries into the scene. In our example, Georgie seems to hold in high value a romantic notion of love based on authenticity that makes her empathetic to the reader, especially when she rubs against Marlene’s cynicism. That very romanticism, however, is also based on naivete and eventually gets her into trouble she can’t easily resolve.
List the stimulus/response external actions (beats)
The scene drama proceeds as a stimulus-response sequence that divides into “beats” (each action-reaction item represents one scene beat). In our example: Georgie notices that Joe isn’t watching her swim. She goes up to the house and discovers that a feast is being prepared. Georgie asks the cook why. The cook says the Marlene is coming. Georgie reacts with jealousy (internal response). Joe arrives. Georgie verbally jabs at her.
Internalize the emotional reaction
Scene beats are often briefly interrupted by pauses that allow the Point of View character to react and comment internally (through free indirect discourse) on the significance of what just transpired. In our example: After learning that Marlene is coming, Georgie has a pang of jealousy. Georgie is resigned to the fact that Joe makes the rules.
Desire: What forces block the main character’s desire to reach the scene goal?
The character has a conscious desire to pursue the announced goal. Forces of opposition must take action to block the progress of that desire’s push toward the goal. In our example: the cook makes Georgie aware of her relative ignorance vis-a-vis Joe (the owner of the island and Georgie’s female lover), which causes Georgie to begin to attach significance to previously unexplained things, and which finally leads to Georgie confronting, and being shut down by, Joe.
Large World Events: what happens globally that causes consequences for the overall story?
In the summary between scenes we often learn about global events that change our understanding of the local events. The pressure of the global events should be felt indirectly through character actions and reactions. In our example: Marlene can afford to be dismissive of Georgie’s woes thanks to Marlene’s alleged role cheering troops on tour. Georgie, who has no war experience, finds Marlene’s attitude to be disingenuous at best, but realizes that her presence on this island, and the presence of most of the others, can be said to be a reaction to a war they are trying to keep at a distance.
Result: How has the situation changed or shifted at the end of the scene?
Each scene must change the main character’s situation by reducing the likelihood of her achieving her larger story goal. Each scene must therefore leave the character in some way damaged. In our example, Georgie’s dream of living out the war and its aftermath bathed in Joe’s love on this quiet island is not only threatened, but the very legitimacy of the goal is cast in doubt when Marlene arrives on the island.
Subtext: Is there a sense that the scene is not about what it claims to be about?
In scenes, characters should never say exactly what they mean nor are their responses only about the trouble immediately in front of them. In our example, Georgie learns to hide what she is really about in order to minimize the damage inflicted by Marlene, and in order not to be taken advantage of by Joe. What lies hidden in Georgie comes out when trouble in a late scene occurs that she finds she simply cannot ignore.
Are your scenes doing the work they should? Submit them to the following checklist before you decide.
□ Are events presented in the order they occur?
□ Is every action a response to a stimulus?
□ Is every stimulus external?
□ Is the response also external?
□ Does the response follow immediately?
□ Do the beats (actions/reactions) increase the risk?
□ Does internalization follow the stimulus, not precede it?
□ Has enough progress been made toward the goal that the internalization doesn’t feel like too much of an interruption?
□ Is the length of the internalization appropriate (short in the middle of the beats; longer at the end of the scene)?