A hand is a bag of tendons and flesh with sticks in it that makes it do things. You could describe what a hand looks like, what it does, or how it does it. To encompass what a hand is, all three aspects of what it is needs to be described to capture the “handness” of a hand.
A scene works the same way. It is what it describes, what it does for the story, and how it does it. What it describes is the actions of the moment. For so much underpublished work, writers can get trapped in thinking what a scene describes is what a scene *is* but that’s just describing the hand. A scene, as the smallest unit of story, has to do something for the story, and it has to have the structure to do it with.
There’s not much I can say about describing the actions of the scene. This isn’t a problem for the majority of underpublished writers because it’s usually the aspect of writing they can do the best. They are very good at describing what the character sees, says and does.
To be able to capture what the character sees, says and does is an accomplishment that can take years to develop. Point-of-view filtering the description through the opinion of the character at the moment creates microtension at the sentence level. Being able to produce a well-written scene is an important milestone of a writer’s creative path.
Once the author is able to capture what the character does, says and sees in a scene, the next step is to look at the structure and the function of the story as a piece of the whole story. Hands have infinite functions. So do scenes. But while hands sometimes have no function at all, a scene doesn’t have that luxury.
Outliners and pre-scene planners should have a function in mind for each scene. “This scene establishes X is terrified of not being able to see” or “this scene establishes X and Y like each other, but don’t trust each other”. True pantsers who can’t even have that much constraint on what they’re going to write will have to spend more time in the rewrite stage looking at the structure and function of the individual scenes once the work is finished.
But it’s the how the scenes accomplish what they need to accomplish that I think needs the most attention drawn to it. How the author reveals the information is one of the most important functions of a scene. What does the character see, hear or do to change one aspect of the story?
Of all the tools the writer has to establish something to the reader, “dialogue” should be kept in the back of the box. While there’s nothing wrong with revealing information through dialogue, stories in which everything happens through dialogue do not tend to use any other tool to reveal information.
All that can happen in a dialogue-revealed scene is the character learns something they didn’t know before. While learning something new through dialogue can be very impactful if that knowledge is earned through the character’s previous actions, only using dialogue to reveal the information to that point can steal its thunder.
By at least the rewriting process, evaluating scenes at the description, form and function levels keeps the story from being lost to the muddle in the middle.
But I don’t think I need to/want to/have to do all of that.
No one has to do anything they don’t want to do. Publishing today is so competitive that writers who do go through and make sure that every scene drives the story forward still get rejected. Writing isn’t one particular skill, it’s dozens of skills all smashed into one activity. Even the writers who do most of them very well still do not routinely publish.
Is your work good enough to not do X and still succeed? Maybe. But writers who figure out X will always have X in their writer’s toolbox to use each time they need to use X in a scene.