In a family flick, there might be a scene where the six-year-old daughter complains to her daddy that she doesn’t wanna go to a birthday party. First, she wines about it, but quickly this turns into tears and chewing the tips of her fingers; while her Dad struggles to pay attention to something else—like his smartphone telling him that his boss wants his head on a chopping block.
This scene conveys the daughter is bothered by attending the party for some reason that she can understand and feel deeply on her level, while Daddy is faced with a much more ominous dilemma. This scene could be in a story from any genre, so knowing the genre only helps discerning the meaning of this scene in the broad scheme of things. Genre won’t tell us specifically what the scene is intending to communicate under the surface level.
The scene on the surface says “daughter doesn’t wanna go to a party, and daddy is busy with work.” This is the shallow meaning of the scene. Underneath the shallowness, there’s the bigger meaning of the scene: daughter is scared of the kids that will be at the party, and she really would rather be with her daddy who she hardly get’s to see. Meanwhile, Daddy is pouring sweat because he doesn’t know how to please his boss and be a single dad and cope with being a new widower. Ouch. I’d really empathize with them both in this (most likely) dramatic (of the drama genre) story.
But that’s as deep as the scene is intended to go. The paragraph above is all the intended meaning of the scene. This scene is meant to get you to empathize with the characters—not draw even deeper conclusions like “the father struggles with his priorities since he doesn’t know whether his job or his daughter’s needs are more important at the moment.” The scene also isn’t saying “the daughter is selfish, immature, and just needs to behave, which she obviously cannot since her father is such a lousy father that hasn’t ever taught her not to whine to him while he’s busy working.”
One scene is too little to draw big conclusions. One scene is not enough to extrapolate deep judgments of right and wrong when character’s motivations are not clearly illustrated or stated. The accumulation of all scenes in a story, the grand finale in particular, play a major role in the overall meaning of a story. So, in the end of the little scene above, the heart-wrenching predicaments of the father and daughter may be one part of a greater whole of a story that says (in and through the whole story) “good relationship in the family matters most” or “no one matters more to a young daughter than her father” or “heads of family must accept their callings to their families as an honorable responsibility.” It’s all the scenes put together that can have any one of these underlying meanings/messages.
The meaning of a solitary scene = most likely undeterminable
The meaning of all scenes together = determinable