All writers craft their novels one scene at a time, word by word. Since scenes are the building blocks of stories, it pays to know how to write them.
If you can craft scenes that move the story along in a compelling way, you'll soon have an excellent book on your hands. This remains true whether you're writing a screenplay, a short story, or a comic book. So read on as we discuss how to write scenes.
- What's in a scene and how to identify one.
- What each scene should accomplish.
- Tips for writing scenes.
Table of contents
- What is a Scene, Anyway?
- What Scenes Need to Accomplish
- Tips for Writing Effective Scenes
- Experimental Stories Excluded
- How to Write Scenes: The End
What is a Scene, Anyway?
You probably already have a good idea of what a scene is. But to make sure we're on the same page (literally), I'll go over it here.
A scene is a unit of continuous action in a story. Action, in this case, simply means that something is happening, even if it's just two characters talking (or even one character arguing with himself). Every scene has a structure—beginning, middle, and end—and it is designed to further the story in one or more ways.
A scene can be a 7,000-word-long chapter or a 500-word section. A chapter can have multiple scenes (usually separated by—you guessed it—a scene break). The length of a given scene will be dictated by what the author is trying to accomplish in the scene.
Perhaps the easiest way to think about scenes is to picture a movie or show. You can tell that one scene is ending because there's a transition. Usually, the screen goes blank for a split second before the next scene starts.
However, the transition doesn’t always have to happen off-screen. If the characters move from one location to another, that’s considered a scene change.
When one scene ends, at least one of the following things happens:
- There's a location change.
- We join another character or characters.
- Time passes off-screen.
Now that we're clear on what a scene is, let's look at what you should be aiming to accomplish with your scenes.
What Scenes Need to Accomplish
The most important scene writing advice to absorb is that every scene needs to move the story forward in some way. If you're not sure what a scene accomplishes, then it probably shouldn't be in the book.
But moving the story forward isn't just about constant action. There are many things that fall under this header. Let's take a look at each of them now.
Pro Tip: Many scenes accomplish more than one of the scene goals below, but you certainly don’t need to include all of them. One or two scene goals is all you really need to keep the story moving forward.
Create or Advance Conflict
Conflict is a key ingredient in every story. And while not every scene needs a gunfight or a car chase, there are many other types of conflict. In a romance, the conflict is often found in interpersonal relationships. In a science fiction story, the conflict could be caused by invading aliens, warring factions, or even politicians maneuvering to accomplish their goals.
The point is, if your scene is furthering your story's primary conflict, then you're in good shape. What you shouldn't do is have conflict that doesn't contribute to the plot or to significant character development.
Conflict for conflict's sake doesn't count as a scene goal.
Show the Effects of Conflict
While the story's primary conflict is likely what many of your scenes will be about, it doesn't mean every scene should be a fight scene, an argument, or a battle scene. In fact, some writers insist that if you have conflict in one scene, it should be immediately followed by a scene exploring the effects of that conflict.
In other words, you can show your characters dealing with the conflict from the previous scene and deciding what to do. While I don't necessarily agree that you must follow this alternating scene structure, I think it's useful to keep in mind if you're unsure what your next scene goal should be.
Choice is a big part of any story. So if you have a scene in which your main character is making a difficult decision, then you're on the right track.
Show Character Development
While people may come to the story for the plot, they tend to stick around because of the characters. This is why crafting a complex and believable main character is such an important part of writing a compelling story.
Likewise, a compelling scene will benefit from character development and emotion. When you show how the story so far has affected the characters, whether positively or negatively, you can rest easy knowing that your scene is moving the story forward.
Of course, this character development should be impactful and played out throughout the story. After all, a satisfying character arc is a major reason people enjoy stories!
If you're unsure, ask yourself if your character(s) are the same at the end of the scene as they were at the beginning. If they are the same, then you have not effectively conveyed character development in that scene.
Show Character Motivation
Character motivation is another good goal for a scene. When we're talking about a main character, this often comes through in the character development scenes. However, this isn't the only case.
If you're introducing your antagonist, for example, you wouldn't necessarily need to show how he or she has changed inwardly from the beginning to the end of the scene. It could be the case that you're developing the antagonist's motivations while also showing the reader what the protagonist will be going up against.
Whether you do this through an action scene, dialogue, inner monologue, or some combination, is up to you. But a good antagonist is one that isn't just bad for the sake of being bad. They need to have motivations that are clear to the reader, even if the reader doesn't agree with them.
Build Your World—But Not Only
Worldbuilding is an essential part of the writing craft. This is especially true for those who write science fiction, fantasy, or any story where the rules of the world are different from our own.
That said, worldbuilding can't be the only reason for your scene. It needs to be intertwined with one of the other goals above. A scene that is just worldbuilding can quickly try the reader's patience. And it's important to remember, exposition is best done through showing, not telling.
In the opening scenes of your story, feel free to do some worldbuilding. But only do as much as is absolutely necessary for the reader to comprehend your story. And make sure that each scene also moves the plot forward in a meaningful way.
Tips for Writing Effective Scenes
Now that we've covered the primary goals of a scene, let's look at how to write effective scenes while incorporating those goals.
Craft Two-Sentence Scene Goals
If you're the type of writer who likes to outline, then you may already do something to outline your chapters, if not your scenes. However, it's possible to outline a book by planning what happens but not why it happens.
This is why I suggest writing down one- or two-sentence scene goals for your individual scenes. These goals will help you nail down the why of each scene. This can help keep you on track as you write (or outline).
If outlining doesn't fit with your writing style, that's okay. You don't have to outline or even write anything down to establish a goal for each scene. All it takes is a few minutes of brainstorming before you write a scene to get to the meat of why the scene is important. Then you can simply hold it in your head as you write.
Decide On Your Character
Before you start writing a scene, it's imperative to decide on the right point-of-view character. Your POV character will be the one from whose perspective the scene is told. And to avoid the dreaded “head hopping” you should stick to one POV character per scene.
Deciding which character may be a simple matter for you, if you only have one POV character. But if you have more than one, ask yourself which character is most affected by what will happen in the scene. Generally, that is the character whose POV you want.
If you do change POV characters from one scene to the next, make sure to establish this change right away in the new scene.
A great scene will immediately pull the reader in, just like a great opening scene for your story will pull the reader in. This is why an oft-quoted piece of writing advice is “start with action.”
The one thing you don't want to do is bore the reader with unneeded setting description or backstory that could otherwise be drip-fed to the reader as the action progresses.
Another great option is to start with dialogue. Opening a scene with a line of powerful dialogue can pull the reader in just as starting in the middle of action or movement can.
Use the Five Senses
Yes, in the writing tip above I said not to use unneeded setting description or backstory to open your scene. But you still want to give the reader enough information to imagine the setting. Otherwise, your characters are just floating around in empty space. This is where the five senses come in.
It doesn't take much to give the reader an idea about where the characters are. A sentence or two here and there is all you need, and the reader's imagination will do the rest.
You don't have to use all five senses for every single scene. If the character is in danger and their senses are heightened, strategically describing the setting with all five senses could be a great way to increase tension.
However, if the characters are simply talking in a cafe or a restaurant, you probably don't need to use a lot of sensory detail—unless, of course, it's germane to the story or character development.
Scene structure is a lot like story structure. Each scene is like a little story, and it should have a beginning, middle, and end. A good scene builds toward some kind of mini climax, whether it be a decision, a fight, an important conversation, or a dramatic realization.
Shortly after this little climax, the scene should end in a way that makes the reader want to continue reading.
However, there are certainly exceptions to this structure. Some scenes could end just before the climax starts—the cliffhanger ending. This is a great way to get the reader to turn the page, but overusing it can backfire. Use the cliffhanger scene ending wisely.
Whatever your scene ending, it should promise intrigue, conflict, emotion, or obstacles for the main character. It should build toward a major plot point, thereby creating a strong scene and furthering the story.
Experimental Stories Excluded
It's worth noting that literary fiction is known for loose story structure, unclear (or nonexistent) plot points, and meandering storylines. Some of them don't have a tidy resolution, either.
However, most literary fiction novels that don't follow the scene structure outlined above are almost always connected through theme and/or character. But since there’s not a plot per se, not every scene will move the story ahead in a meaningful way.
If you're writing a literary fiction novel or an experimental story, then you may want to break all the conventions mentioned above. And that's fine! The tips in this article are geared more toward genre fiction authors.
Literary fiction tends to be a harder genre to break into for indie authors, but that's not to say you shouldn't give it your all. Still, it's good to know the traditional scene structure that nearly all genre stories have.
Once you know the “rules,” then you can go about breaking them.
How to Write Scenes: The End
There's no such thing as a perfect scene. And if there was, we'd probably get bored of reading the same scene over and over again. However, the tips above can help you write strong scenes. And as long as they advance the story in one or more ways, then you can be sure that they do what they're supposed to.
Of course, the editing process is all about making sure each scene does what it's supposed to while trimming any fat (otherwise known as taking out all the boring parts). But if you can start a scene with a strong opening, further the plot, create tension, and then close it in a way that makes the reader turn the page, then you've done a fantastic job writing your scene!