What is a Scene? Definition and 17 Types of Scenes

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The scene is the basic building block of a story. You may be wondering, “What is a scene?”. In this article we dive into the definition of the scene and give you 17 different types of scenes that you can work on.

What is a Scene? Definition and 17 Types of Scenes

What is a Scene?

A scene averages ~1500 words and moves the story forward by shifting the value. A scene must move from one value state to another. 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.

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?

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 read more about the Scene unit of story here.)

Practice Writing with Scene Types

In the fourth episode of the Story Grid Masterwork Experiment podcast, Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, introduced a new concept: Scene Types.

Shawn tells us that scenes come in two flavors, which he termed the editor’s scene and the writer’s scene.

The first flavor is familiar to all of us who study the Story Grid method. It includes the 15 Core Scenes as well as the obligatory scenes and conventions of each genre. They’re the “grammar” of Story Grid: analytical tools that really come into their own during the editing process. 

In this article, we dig into that second flavor. We define some terms and then identify a handful of common Writer’s Scene Types. Once we started to spot them, we couldn’t stop!

Our working theory is that once we have access to a whole toolbox full of Writer’s Scene Types, we’ll be able to write a better story faster.

In forthcoming articles we’ll go more deeply into the practical application of Writer’s Scene Types. For now, let’s get started on this whole new Story Grid topic by understanding what a Writer’s Scene Type is, then looking at a variety of examples.

For purposes of this and future articles on the subject, we’re calling them simply “Scene Types.”

Definition of Terms

Here in the Story Grid Universe, the word “scene” gets tossed around a lot. We had to begin our journey of discovery by defining this new use of the word “scene” in the phrase “Writer’s Scene Types.”

Scene Types: What They Aren’t

To be clear, when we talk about Scene Types, we are not talking about:

  • Obligatory scenes of a genre. For example, the “Lovers Meet” obligatory scene of Love stories, or the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain” scene in Action and Thriller stories.
  • Genre conventions. For example, the “Love triangle” convention of the Love story, and “Hero, victim, villain” convention of the Action story.
  • The 15 Core Scenes required of every story: that is, the Inciting Incident, Turning Point, Crisis, Climax and Resolution scenes of the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff.

On a recent episode of the Story Grid Podcast, Shawn called the above group of scenes “Editor’s Scenes,” because whether we’re plotters who build them in before we ever start writing, or pantsers who address them during revisions, they are at the heart of story structure, and building a solid story structure falls more to our left-brained editor side than to our right-brained creative writer side.

Scene Types: What They Are

On the other hand, Scene Types are the setups or scenarios that help spark our creativity as writers. They’re prompts we can use to innovate and solve problems with must-haves of a story. Broadly speaking, the Scene Type is a description of our global thinking, as storytellers, about what needs to happen in a given scene.

Those of us who learn best through metaphor and analogy can think of a Scene Type as a container. What we pour into the container might be an obligatory scene or convention of our genre, one of our 15 Core Scenes, or some transitional story material in between.

The Scene Types, like the jars in the image above, have different shapes and sizes—different characteristics and purposes. No Scene Type is likely to be an all-purpose container. Some might be better for setting up the protagonist’s ordinary life. Some seem like obvious containers for a revelatory turning point. Some are likely candidates for delivering a global inciting incident, and some are more clearly useful as resolutions.

The Scene Types we choose for shaping our stories can make or break the narrative drive, characterization, conflict, and overall reader engagement.

The structure of a scene type

Scene type operates outside story principles like genre and the other Editor’s Six Core Questions. Most of the scene types I’ve discovered so far are transferable to almost any genre, and many of them could be used as the container for variety of story parts, such as obligatory moments and core events. 

Scene type begins with a consideration of:

  • How many characters are present: Categories are solo, two-character, three-character, small group, large group and crowd.
  • In what kind of surroundings: Categories are indoors, outdoors (for whatever values of inside and outside apply to your story world), or the “both” of a moving vehicle.
  • Doing what: Top-level categories are moving or static. Under either of those headings, characters might be thinking, talking, working, playing, or interacting in various ways with strangers, friends, lovers, family, enemies, objects, or the environment.

When you strip a scene down with those questions, you find that there is a large but finite number of combinations available.

But within these finite general categories there are almost infinite ways to combine particular characters, particular locations, and particular actions. Scene types, therefore, play into the “combinatorial explosiveness” of story possibilities that Shawn talks about. 

On the Story Grid spreadsheet, three existing columns point to scene type:

  • Number of characters onstage
  • Location
  • Story event (or literal action, i.e., what the characters are doing)

I add a separate Scene Type column, and use names like “Meal scene” or “Two person conversation: boss/subordinate” or “Preparing for battle.” Many writers (including me) tend to favor certain comfortable scene types without realizing it, and use them repetitively. Naming and tracking them in their own column quickly reveals this problem.

17 Types of Scenes

We began our research by with some specific Scene Types that Shawn first introduced in our editor training course in 2017: Stranger Knocks on the Door, Friends Having Coffee, Conversation Over a Meal, Conversation in a Car.

It took a while to develop the knack of seeing these Scene Types in the midst of a wide variety of stories, but once we started looking, dozens of Scene Types began to appear under this new lens. 

Shawn has said, “The environment the characters are in can either distract them from the conflict of the scene, or be used to enhance the conflict.” So as we studied the following Scene Type examples, we tried to discover the role of conflict avoidance and conflict enhancement in each one.

Here are the 17 Types of Scenes we cover in this article:

  1. Stranger Knocks on the Door
  2. Friends Having Coffee
  3. Conversation Over Drinks
  4. The Drunk Scene
  5. Conversation in Motion
  6. The Drive (or Ride) and Talk
  7. The Walk and Talk
  8. Meal Scenes
  9. Meal Scene of Dominance
  10. Meal Scene of Discomfort
  11. Meal Scene of Celebrating Too Soon
  12. Bureaucracy
  13. Lone Drinker and a Bartender
  14. Duel
  15. Big Battle
  16. Packing for the Journey
  17. Preparing for Battle

1. Stranger Knocks on the Door

The name of this Scene Type is usually literal, with variations for, say, ringing a doorbell or battering the door down. Its key element is an actual door separating the stranger from the protagonist, so that the only way to find out who’s there is to open the door. Sometimes a gatekeeper such as a servant intervenes.

Example 1: Rocky

(the first 10 seconds of the clip are blurred)

It’s not really a stranger at the door in this case, but a Mentor figure who has become estranged.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The old Mentor figure aggressively tries to convince the protagonist that he needs him in order to have a chance at his goal, while the protagonist parries, avoids, and denies.

Example 2: Double Indemnity

Here, it’s the protagonist knocking at the door of a stranger, but similar dynamics apply.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: While there’s little conflict between the two principal characters, the gatekeeper character creates a barrier by trying to refuse admittance. The protagonist avoids conflict by simply ignoring her.

Example 3: Breaking Bad

Here again, it’s not really a stranger, but a known entity—in fact, the protagonist—who’s been shut out. Interestingly, the door itself plays a part in the conflict.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The protagonist’s banging on the door creates the conflict. The gatekeeper character ignores it. The protagonist escalates the conflict by breaking in. The gatekeeper defies him and raises the stakes until he backs down.

2. Friends Having Coffee

The experience of sitting down over beverages with old, new, or soon-to-be friends is an almost universal human experience, so of course a popular and evergreen Scene Type in stories of all sorts is Friends Having Coffee.

Note that “coffee” is the more American take, but of course it can be tea, soft drinks, milkshakes—whatever. Alcohol is different, and we’ll get to that next.

This Scene Type isn’t really about the coffee or the coffee-shop, so it’s a mistake to insert it into a story simply because it’s time for our characters to have some caffeine.

This first example is fairly obvious, and it works so well that they built an entire television series around it. It’s an ensemble piece and is an excellent way to have a group of characters interacting with one another.

Example 1: Friends

The coffee shop where the six Friends meet is practically a character in the show. It provides a setting where the characters can deliver dialogue-as-exposition in an organic way, demonstrate their traits, and tell parts of the story that happened outside the setting.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: One character actively expresses inner conflict while another actively denies it.

Example 2: Thor

Here the friends are not quite friends yet, and the presence of both food and coffee serves to highlight cultural, social, or class differences between the characters. The food adds a Meal element, which is a Scene Type of its own that we’ll look at in a moment.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: One character actively creates conflict by unknowingly breaking social rules, while another actively tries to suppress that conflict by creating another—scolding the first character for his actions.

If your scene has only two characters, the dynamic changes. It would probably look more like this scene from Gilmore Girls.

Example 3: Gilmore Girls

In this example, the coffee itself actually does play a role, giving the characters fodder for what appears to be a flirtation. No third party is present to witness, interrupt, or judge the conversation, so this variation leans more strongly towards intimacy.

Conflict enhancement: it’s slight, but it works: a humorous argument over the meaning of “café au lait” gives the two characters grounds to get to know each other better.

3. Conversation Over Drinks

Now if we were to change the coffee to wine or spirits, Friends Having Coffee suddenly becomes a Conversation Over Drinks. Why would we make that switch?

A Conversation Over Drinks can be dramatically different from Friends Having Coffee—we might say “as different as night and day.” We associate coffee and tea with morning, and alcohol with evening. While coffee and tea tend to quicken speech and even sharpen anxiety, alcohol is an adults-only beverage that slows reactions and relaxes inhibitions, promoting greater intimacy, but also increasing certain dangers.

Example: Kramer vs Kramer

In this scene the alcohol doesn’t have time to take effect, but notice how the wife’s choice to meet over drinks creates a soft, intimate, date-like tone that misleads the husband and provides sharp contrast to his angry reaction.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The wife tiptoes delicately toward what she has to say, allowing the the husband’s misinterpretation to mount until she drops the bomb, provoking a violent reaction.

Note the unlikely similarity between this scene and the Thor scene above: each features the breaking of a glass, creating embarrassment and shock for the other character(s), one for dramatic effect, and one for comic effect. We’ll see a similar dynamic in the Meal Scene of Discomfort type below.

4. The Drunk Scene

If our characters in a Conversation Over Drinks scene become actually drunk, the Scene Type changes to a subtype we’re calling the Drunk Scene.

Often humorous, the Drunk Scene goes beyond the quiet intimacy of Conversation Over Drinks and removes characters’ inhibitions so that they say or do what they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do.

While alcohol is the usual source of disinhibition, of course other causes (say, alien rays or fantasy elixirs) can serve similar purposes.

Example 1: Good Omens

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: one character blurts out the truth about what’s to come while the other tries to deny it, though he knows it’s true.

Example 2: Tombstone

Though far more serious than the previous scene, this one also contains a comic element. Note, too, the power-play variant where only one character is probably pretending to be drunker than he is.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The unwell protagonist repeatedly raises then lowers the tension until his own life is at stake, before using his (supposed) drunkenness to comically defuse the situation.

5. The Conversation In Motion

Whether characters are walking, on horseback, driving a car, or riding in a vehicle, the uniting element of this Scene Type is motion while characters are delivering what would otherwise be static talking-head dialogue. There are two main subtypes, the Drive (or Ride) and Talk, and the Walk and Talk.

6. The Drive (or Ride) and Talk

In a conveyance of some kind, the Conversation in Motion Scene Type adds more than just motion. It can reveal characters’ social status through the quality of the car or carriage they’re in. It can establish a setting as they pass through a landscape. It can build tension because characters can’t easily get out of a moving vehicle. 

Example: Sense and Sensibility (forward to 2:11)

The Drive-or-Ride and Talk part begins at 2:11

Here the characters start a fairly statis conversation in a room, then continue it on and off in a carriage. It has the effect of making the husband a captive audience while also revealing a lot about the historical and social setting of the story.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The wife subtly but aggressively pushes her agenda on the unwilling husband, who feebly parries until she has changed his mind completely.

7. The Walk and Talk

The Walk and Talk subtype differs from the Drive or Ride and Talk by adding physical exertion—possibly to compare characters’ fitness or their relationship to the environment. It slows down the passing scenery and can expose characters to weather, hazards, and distractions that a vehicle would protect them from; and it gives characters more opportunity to exit the conversation.

Example 1: The West Wing

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: in every piece of the conversation someone questions someone else’s choices, while the other person defends, explains, or avoids the attack. 

This particular Walk and Talk scene is a piece of filmmaking virtuosity by Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme, and would be extremely difficult to render clearly in prose, but a Walk and Talk scene doesn’t have to be so complex or large to work.

Example 2: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

More like a Run-and-Talk, this on-foot first encounter specifically serves to play up physical differences between a superhero and more ordinary mortal. Notice the monumental setting in a place of power, which sets the tone of the story.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The superhero politely provokes the ordinary mortal by passing him several times. The ordinary guy shows comic irritation. His sense of humor and the superhero’s politeness resolve the conflict in a new friendship.

8. Meal Scenes

You’ve seen a thousand of these. Just as people in real life need to meet each other, apply for jobs, socialize over beverages, and move from place to place, so they also need to eat. 

But we don’t write a meal scene—or any other Scene Type—just because “at this point in the story, they’d be hungry.” By that reasoning, we might as well include going-to-the-bathroom scenes, scenes of characters asleep, or descriptions of the long drive from point A to point B.

No, the Meal Scene, like all Scene Types, must serve a story purpose. We’ve identified two principal categories of Meal Scene: Meal Scene of Dominance and Meal Scene of Discomfort; and one minor type: Meal Scene of Celebrating Too Soon. While all of them involve people eating, note that none of them are fundamentally about people eating, or about the food. 

9. Meal Scene of Dominance

This Scene Type lets us create tension by pitting characters—typically two of them—against each other in a highly civilized environment where their choice of acceptable actions and reactions is limited by social convention.

Once you see it you’ll never look at a two-person meal scene the same way again: in a surprising number of cases, one character eats while the other refrains.

Example 1: Primal Fear (Warning: strong language)

In this example the older character, the villain, shows dominance by eating heartily in front of the younger protagonist while praising himself. The protagonist attempts to show dominance by refraining from eating (as if to show that the need to eat is a weakness). Not eating also makes it easier for him to walk out of the restaurant.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The villain pretends that there is no conflict and that this is a social occasion, until the protagonist forces the conflict into the open.

Example 2: Supernatural

See it again? One character eats, one doesn’t. Here, an omnipotent non-human character demonstrates dominance by offering food to the human character, who is afraid to eat it and afraid to offend by not eating it.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The non-human character subverts the human character’s expectations of conflict by offering instead to negotiate (at which point they both normalize the situation by eating together).

10. Meal Scene of Discomfort

The family dinner table is a setting fraught with social mores. We set a scene there in order to limit what it’s appropriate for characters to say or do. We can use manners, table settings, and the food itself to reveal social differences, and build tension by restricting a character’s ability to leave.

Unlike a conversation in a moving vehicle, in this Scene Type the constraint against leaving is social and internal rather than physical.

Like the Friends Having Coffee scene, a Meal Scene of Discomfort is a well-established way to have characters deliver exposition in dialogue, reveal their attitudes and traits, and show the social and class setting in which they operate.

Unlike the coffee scene, this one tends to focus on the discomfort, testing the reserve of the uncomfortable characters and the boldness of those breaking the “rules.”

Example 1: Grace and Frankie (a bit of strong language)

The only clip we could find of this exact scene is embedded in someone’s Twitter feed. We’ll hunt for a better one

While not technically the family dinner table, the restaurant dinner with two very close couples here fills a similar function.

One wife specifically calls out the social restrictions inherent in this Scene Type: that there is subterfuge and dominance involved in holding a difficult conversation in a restaurant, where the expectation is that everyone will keep a lid on their emotions for the sake of appearances.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The husbands’ choice to reveal their secret in a public place is clear conflict avoidance. The wife cranks the conflict up to eleven when she breaks the rules and creates a scene.

Example 2: Supernatural

Instead of a public place, here we have guests at someone else’s family dinner table. The norms of one family (the woman and her daughters) go wildly against the norms of the other (the men).

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The girls don’t care who they make uncomfortable. The mother tries to mediate two conflicts—between the daughters, and between the daughters and the guests. The men are comically conflict-averse.

11. Meal Scene of Celebrating Too Soon

A third, more minor Meal Scene Type is one we might call Celebrating Too Soon, where any conflict at the table is restricted to harmless banter, and instead we have an air of genuine conviviality or celebration at the end of some challenge. This subtype creates a sense of peace or resolution, only to give way to a shocking event. 

Here’s one famous example:

Example: Alien

12. Bureaucracy

The bureaucracy scene takes place in an indoor setting where a character or small team encounters a gatekeeper, or several gatekeepers serially—the threshold guardian archetype.

The scene is often humorous and satirical. It serves as a complication, a special type of hurdle that slows the protagonist down and builds tension. Alternatively, it might serve to slow the antagonist down and provide an opportunity for the protagonist. 

It can also reveal a lot about the story world, its rules, and its structures of power. When the story’s force of antagonism is society, the bureaucrat can be one of that antagonist’s embodiments.

Example 1: Coco

Here the bureaucracy is the threshold guardian of the extraordinary world that the protagonist needs to enter. The scene reveals how the world works and establishes stakes: the dead must declare the offerings they bring back from the land of the living, while only those still remembered by the living are allowed to leave. If someone breaks the rules, they’ll be apprehended.

Conflict enhancement and avoidance: The protagonist (the living boy) doesn’t belong in the Land of the Dead. Seeing the border control agents catch the impostor builds tension for the viewer and the characters, and the protagonist’s dead family members try to avoid conflict by soft-peddling his presence.

Example 2: Jupiter Ascending

This bureaucracy scene also tells us a lot about the extremely hierarchical world of the story, where power structures are so dense that graft is inevitable and even the new queen has to pass through it in order to be validated. The scene is also used to show us the variety of beings in this alien world.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The protagonist, a fish-out-of-water character, allows herself to be dragged along by the guide as meaningless delays and obstacles mount. The guide finally cuts through conflict by simply buying their way out of it.

Example 3: Zootopia

While this example is mostly a joke about using the slowest animals in Zootopia to staff the DMV, it also creates entertaining high contrast by pitting the sloths against two of the fastest: a rabbit and a fox. More than that, though, it serves the important plot purpose of building tension (for the characters as well as the viewer) because the slowdown has a material effect on the ticking clock of a police investigation.

13. Lone Drinker and a Bartender

This scene type falls under the vast heading of the Two Person Conversation in a Room. The lone drinker needs to talk, and is loosened up enough by alcohol to tell their story to the neutral bartender. The bartender has no stake in the story; they’re just doing their job. That job usually involves polishing barware while listening to the drinker deliver exposition.

I hypothesize that this scene type could be stretched to include confessions made by a parishioner to a priest, a patient to a psychologist, or a client to a lawyer (in which cases it’s not alcohol but the practitioner-client privilege which allows the character to speak freely).

The key use for this scene type is a character delivering information or character development to the audience under the guise of speaking to an uninvolved other in perceived low risk circumstances.

Example 1: The Shining (strong language warning)

The bartender is so neutral and professional as to be inhuman, giving the protagonist a wide-open field to say whatever he wants. The bartender acts as a surrogate for the audience, letting us project our disbelief onto him.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The protagonist drinks to end five months of abstinence, but the alcohol itself sets his downward spiral in motion. Strong, uninhibited language builds conflict, while the bartender is a professional conflict-avoider, appeasing, agreeing, and speaking in platitudes.

Example 2: Passengers 

(The relevant scene ends at 1 minute, 4 seconds of the clip)

This scene seems to have be a tribute to the previous one from The Shining, but takes it a step further by making the bartender literally a machine. Instead of platitudes, this bartender gives what seems to be real advice, and he has some agency in influencing the drinker’s actions, as a therapist or a priest might.

Note that the scene also admits that it’s a bit of a cliché by having the protagonist call attention to the bartender’s clichéd action of polishing glasses.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The protagonist has an internal conflict that’s going to lead to a big crisis, and the bartender’s advice incites him to the action he’s been avoiding. That action will eventually give rise to all the conflict of the middle build. 

Example 3: Deep Space Nine

(Video quality is very poor, sorry.)

In this exceptionally well-written example, we have a reversal: the bartender makes the lone drinker listen to his conflicted thoughts. While both bartender and drinker are alien beings, the bartender is the most human one of the three we’re looking at here.

In disclosing a business-is-bad problem to his “frenemy,” he tells the viewer a great deal about how the conflict has affected ordinary people, while revealing tons of character and background, and creating empathy.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: Bartender and drinker have an inherent conflict: they appear to have been on opposing sides in a larger war. The drinker serves the appeasing role, avoiding conflict by letting the bartender talk through his own internal conflict.

14. Duel

As the name implies, this is a two-person scene of direct conflict. It usually involves some conversation, and will tend to take place outdoors when the duel is physical, though a verbal-sparring version could as easily be indoors. 

This scene type usually sets two well-matched characters against each other in a personal battle for dominance. Whether through witty banter or fighting skills—often both—the scene type lets the reader or viewer see strengths and weaknesses in the sparring partners that will hint at each character’s outcome in conflicts later in the story. 

This scene type doesn’t serve well as the Hero at the Mercy of the Villain scene, because that core event depends on a large power divide between the hero and the villain, while this scene type is driven by the evenness of the match, and often ends in something like a draw. It’s less about victory and defeat, and more about finesse and style.

Example 1: Princess Bride

In this distillation and parody of all sword-fighting scenes, two characters who don’t yet know they’re both good guys are evenly matched to a ridiculous degree, both in swordplay and wit. They develop mutual respect that will support their later alliance.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The conflict is mostly supplied by the swordplay itself, while their exchange of compliments actively offsets any sense of real danger.

Example 2: The Untamed 

(A couple of English subtitles are missing, but you don’t need them to get the gist.)

Here, two opposite-type characters are evenly matched in skill while revealing extremely different desires and motivations. Instead of speaking of his admiration for his opponent, the protagonist thinks it in a voiceover, a common convention in this type of Chinese drama.

This is also an unusual twist on the Lovers Meet obligatory moment of a love story. 

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The talkative character creates conflict by breaking several rules (forbidden liquor, violating curfew), then tries to defuse it with friendly banter. The silent, rule-bound one enhances the conflict by shattering the illicit bottle of liquor.

15. Big Battle

This is always a large-crowd scene in a big setting, usually outdoors. As in all large-crowd scenes, a small number of key characters need to be the focus. In the Big Battle, they display traits like leadership, skill, and courage, or cowardice and poor judgment, against a backdrop of meaningful life-and-death action. Significant power is at stake. 

Whether the battle is the core event (as in war stories and many action and performance stories) or falls elsewhere in the narrative, the outcome of the battle decides the fate of one or more of the key characters. The true cost of war is usually shown side by side with glory and valor.

Example 1: Gladiator

This is the opening scene of the film. The protagonist’s ordinary life is war. The scene establishes him as a great leader and a strong, respected warrior. It includes a “St Crispin’s Day speech,” which is a trope of its own. The speech foreshadows the protagonist’s outcome. We see the relative strength and sophistication of the protagonist’s army over the enemy, and the gruesome reality of warfare even for the winning side. 

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: Most of the conflict within the scene is literal and physical, as the two armies clash. At the very end, the Emperor’s troubled expression signals both relief that the battle is over, and a more internal conflict to come. 

Example 2: The Untamed

This is part of the culmination of the story, and is the all is lost moment for the protagonist, who has turned to the dark side. He stands above a battle that he has inadvertently caused, and tries to make amends by using mystical powers against the enemy. His companion (in white) actively fights on the ground to buy him time to complete the magic. 

The clip cuts off short (the battle goes on for many minutes of screen time), but the scene does what a good Big Battle culminating scene should do: it brings all the key characters and their arcs together. In this case, it ends tragically but inevitably with the death of the protagonist.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: As in most Big Battle scenes, the main conflict is the clash of the opposing sides, the actual fight. The companion on the battlefield is actively trying to support the protagonist, who is the only one with the power to end the conflict sooner. 

16. Packing for the Journey

Like driving to a destination or eating a meal, the mundane activity of packing a suitcase is pure shoe-leather unless it serves a story purpose. Both of the examples here involve two people in a room conversing over a suitcase, but there’s probably a subtype involving one character alone with their possessions and thoughts.

What a character chooses to take on a journey tells us something about their current circumstances, their priorities, their wealth or poverty. It can reveal where they’re going and why. Who’s going with them and who’s staying behind can show a lot about the strength of the character’s relationships. How they pack tells us about their state of mind and their values: order or chaos? Speed or deliberation? What they forget to take on the journey could drive the whole story.

The scene type often involves a parting gift that will play a role later in the story. 

Example 1: Brooklyn

The protagonist, who is leaving home forever, doesn’t have enough possessions to fill a suitcase. The suitcase itself is emblematic of the emigration theme of the story. The practical matter of shoes and clothes serves as a cover for the strong emotions of the two sisters, and underscores the serious, permanent nature of the protagonist’s leaving. The conversation over the suitcase foreshadows the protagonist’s unexpected return home in tragic circumstances. 

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The coming separation between the sisters creates emotional tension, which the older sister tries to avoid by focusing on her own failure to do enough. The departing sister refutes her. It’s a very mild conflict, but it carries significant emotional weight.

Example 2: Game of Thrones

Almost the same scene as the one from Brooklyn, but in a completely different kind of story, with a very different tone. The parting gift is more explicit here than in the previous one, and the fact that it may be a forbidden gift (“close the door”) tells us something about the relationship. Of course, the gift of a sword is a guarantee of future violence, so it creates tension for us. The age and gender of the characters innovates on the scene type—it’s the little girl who’s leaving while the adult man is staying. 

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The girl is annoyed at the rules of packing. The older character’s gift resolves that conflict because the gift must be carefully packed. As in all such packing scenes, the characters try to avoid the emotional conflict of the coming separation by talking around it and putting on brave faces.

17. Preparing for Battle

TV Tropes refers to this general scene type as “Lock and Load,” because it often features protagonists preparing guns before a fight. However, the fight can be metaphorical and the weapons can be symbolic, and the scene type still serves similar purposes.

It’s usually a small-group scene set in a relatively safe space (often indoors, always away from the actual battlefield), generally going up against a more powerful enemy. It serves as a tension-building pause in the action, allowing characters to express emotion in various ways. How they prepare and what they say to each other reveals skills and character traits—loyalty, courage, fear, humor, rancor, etc.—and can reveal aspects of their relationships and histories. The scene type is an opportunity to deliver exposition about the fight to come. It can also foreshadow the outcome of the fight.

Example 1: Firefly

Each member of the team of protagonists clearly demonstrates their characters through specific words, actions, and choice of weapon: skeptical, timorous, resolute, commanding, humorous. Dialogue naturally delivers exposition about the risks of the coming battle and the nature of the enemy. (You can perceive a faint Speech in Praise of the Villain in here.)

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The skeptical crewmember refuses to get involved, pointing out the stupidity of the mission and creating conflict within the ranks. The leader avoids that needless conflict by ignoring him and continuing to prepare, and the scene ends in solidarity.

Example 2: The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

(Click to embiggen.)

A team helps the protagonist don unfamiliar armor and hands him weapons he explicitly doesn’t know how to use. The experienced warrior offers advice about how to carry out the ruse. As in the Firefly example above, the many flaws in the plan increase the reader’s sense of foreboding, albeit much more seriously. Here again, the superior power of the enemy comes out naturally in dialogue.

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The protagonist suffers inner conflict about both the ruse he’s perpetrating and the danger he’s facing. He actively avoids it at the same time by no longer listening to the advice. 

Example 3: Mrs Doubtfire

This scene, like the previous one, focuses on selection of armor and weapons—in this case clothing and accessories—in service of a risky ruse. Using a cinematic montage of music and images, it bypasses both inner reflection and most dialogue, but does show the complexity of the plan. This pre-loads tension into the optimistic note at the end: all those moving parts are bound to fail later. 

Conflict Enhancement and Avoidance: The conflict here is in the underlying premise: the absurd idea that a ruse this bold could possibly work. The avoidance is in the form of celebrating short term success (they’ve created a good disguise) and ignoring the risks. 

The structure of a scene type

Scene type operates outside story principles like genre and the other Editor’s Six Core Questions. Most of the scene types I’ve discovered so far are transferable to almost any genre, and many of them could be used as the container for variety of story parts, such as obligatory moments and core events. 

Scene type begins with a consideration of:

  • How many characters are present: Categories are solo, two-character, three-character, small group, large group and crowd.
  • In what kind of surroundings: Categories are indoors, outdoors (for whatever values of inside and outside apply to your story world), or the “both” of a moving vehicle.
  • Doing what: Top-level categories are moving or static. Under either of those headings, characters might be thinking, talking, working, playing, or interacting in various ways with strangers, friends, lovers, family, enemies, objects, or the environment.

When you strip a scene down with those questions, you find that there is a large but finite number of combinations available.

But within these finite general categories there are almost infinite ways to combine particular characters, particular locations, and particular actions. Scene types, therefore, play into the “combinatorial explosiveness” of story possibilities that Shawn talks about. 

On the Story Grid spreadsheet, three existing columns point to scene type:

  • Number of characters onstage
  • Location
  • Story event (or literal action, i.e., what the characters are doing)

I add a separate Scene Type column, and use names like “Meal scene” or “Two person conversation: boss/subordinate” or “Preparing for battle.” Many writers (including me) tend to favor certain comfortable scene types without realizing it, and use them repetitively. Naming and tracking them in their own column quickly reveals this problem.

Summary of Scene Types

There are many, many more Scene Types than we’ve discussed here, and we’re compiling them into a Scene Type database as we discover them. Our aim is to build a kind of grab-bag of possibilities that we can all reach into to stimulate our writerly imagination, either while planning or revising our stories.

Can you think of other Scene Types with examples from novels, movies, or television? You can help build the database by letting us know in the comments.

Special thanks to Rachelle Ramirez, who gave us a lot of editorial support.

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About Anne Hawley

Anne Hawley is a developmental editor specializing in literary historical fiction and stories set in fantasy and science fiction worlds. When she's not editing, she's creating courses for writers at Pages & Platforms, a women-owned business aimed at helping diverse writers tell the best story they can—and then market it to its intended audience. Anne is the author of Restraint, a queer love story set in 19th Century London, and the forthcoming The Footman, set in the same universe. She lives and rides a bike around Portland, Oregon.

About Valerie Francis

Valerie Francis is a Certified Story Grid Editor and best-selling author of both women’s and children’s fiction. She’s been a Story Grid junkie since 2015 and became a certified editor so that she can help fellow authors become better storytellers. To learn how to put story theory into practice join Valerie's inner circle: valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle