Scene vs Setting

As Told By Pretty Woman and Harry Potter

I come across many writers who don’t always understand the difference between Scene and Setting. Moreover, they do not understand the importance of each, and how they help to drive their story forward.

Your scenes and settings are just as important as your characters and the story plot. A good scene drives the story onward, and the appropriate setting makes sure that the scene is able to play out the way it needs to.

Still confused. Let’s break it down further.

Your setting is WHERE everything takes place. The scene is what occurs in that setting at a specified time.

Movie: Pretty Woman

Setting: 1990 – Earth – Northern Hemisphere – United States of America – California – Beverly Hills – Regent Beverly Wilshire – Penthouse Suite – Bathroom – Bathtub

“Don’t you just love Prince.”

Scene: Vivian is listening to Prince, wearing headphones. She is sitting in a bathtub full of bubbles and enjoying the luxury. Edward walks in on her. They discuss having Vivian stay with him for the week and negotiate a price. When agreed, Vivian shouts for joy and submerges herself completely in the bathtub. When she resurfaces, her face is covered in bubbles. She laughs as Edward wipes the bubbles from her face, confirming she has accepted the terms of their agreement. Vivian replies, “Yes.”

Imagine if this scene were to take place in a different setting, say, on the bench outside the hotel. Vivian would not have been seen as lavishing in the luxury of Edward’s rich lifestyle, so other than money, there would not appear to be any additional motivator to her accepting his offer. Considering the context of the movie (poor girl gets to live a rich lifestyle for a time), that aspect is very important and a bus stop bench would not have conveyed that nearly as well.

Additionally, if the movie had been set in 1974, a different artist would have needed to be chosen instead of Prince. Prince released his first album in 1978, so it makes sense that Vivian grew up listening to his music (much like how millennials can imagine growing up with The Backstreet Boys, for example).

Let’s pick another example, from a book this time.

“Sirius Black!”

Book: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Setting: 1993 – Earth – Northern Hemisphere – Britain – June – Hogsmeade – Evening – The Shrieking Shack – Bedroom

Scene: Harry, Ron and Hermione follow a black dog through a tunnel beneath the Whomping Willow to The Shrieking Shack. The black dog transforms into Sirius Black. It is discovered that Sirius Black is innocent, and that Ron’s rat, Scabbers, is the true traitor: the animagus, Peter Petigrew.

While the year is not as important to this scene, the time of day most certainly is. If the writer had attempted to write this scene in the middle of the afternoon, she would have had to account for the students missing class. A search would have been occurring, making it far more difficult for Sirius to have drug Ron (and for Harry and Hermione to follow) through the passage and be seen by only a few people. As it is, both Snape and Lupin interrupt Sirius’s recount of what really happened twelve years prior. We never would have been able to get the full story if the location was not so private, and if they were interrupted even more.

Tips for Scene and Setting

When choosing a setting for your scene, always make sure that the events that need to happen within that scene can happen within that setting. You don’t want your characters to have a conversation about their plan in the middle of an inn while surrounded by all of their enemies – especially if you don’t want any of those enemies to overhear their plans.

Or, if your characters need to escape on a boat, you want to make sure there is some form of water in your scene. A lake that they cross, or a rushing river, maybe even an ocean.

Each scene you write needs to drive the story forward in some way. This can be driving the plot, or even developing a character. If your main character is rather weak, but they need to have an epic fight at the end of your book with the main antagonist, then you will want a scene(s) that helps your character develop their fighting skills. It’s fine if this scene does not reveal any new plot points, or ties up any loose ends of previous plot points. It is important to the story, so the fight at the end is believable.

Whether it’s scene or setting, both are equally important, but they are not the same. Understanding the difference and how each one helps to add depth, context and meaning to your story is important to writing the best piece of writing you can.