Some writers can sit at their computers, come up with an idea for a scene, and start writing. If they’re experienced novelists, they might write a pretty good scene out the gate.
It’s likely, though, they’ll end up rewriting the scene multiple times until it starts to gel. Or they’ll throw the scene out and chalk up the hour or two spent as part of the process.
And that’s not a bad process necessarily. It might be just the process a certain writer needs to end up with a terrific scene. But it’s not the best process for the beginning writer. Or for the writer who doesn’t want to needlessly waste a lot of time and effort.
Anyone who says writing a scene is easy probably hasn’t written one (or, at least, written one worth reading). There are so many elements that make up a great scene, and so many things to juggle as you write.
And then there are all the preparatory issues to be considered before you begin. Questions that must be answered:
- Who will the POV character be for this scene? What mind-set do they need to have?
- What is the high moment I need to build to, and what will happen and be revealed in that high moment?
- Where and when will this scene take place?
- Why and how is this scene essential to my plot?
- What is the central conflict in this scene (inner and outer)?
- How will my character change by the end of the scene (because she should, in a significant way, at the end of every scene)?
- What key bits of backstory do I need to include, and how will I insert them without info-dumping?
- How will I create micro-tension on every page by hints, secrets, innuendo?
- What other characters should be in this scene and why?
- What is the tone or mood I need to set in this scene?
- What take-away feeling do I want to leave with the reader when they finish reading the scene?
These are only some of the many questions to consider when plotting out a scene. (You can grab this First-Page Checklist, my Scene Structure Checklist, and my 8 Steps to a Perfect Scene, for starters, to help you with this).
Types of Scenes
Before you write a scene, you need to determine what type of scene it’s going to be.
- Will it be a narrative scene in which the POV character is telling a story?
- Will it be a high-action scene?
- A low-energy dialogue scene?
How many novelists first look at the bigger picture of the string of scenes they are crafting for their novel? If you’ve just had a big-action scene, you might follow it with a contemplative processing scene. If you put too many high-action scenes in a row, you can start to tire out (read: bore) your reader.
There are more than a dozen basic scene types, some of which are transition scenes, epiphany scenes, twist scenes, escape scenes, recommitment scenes, and resolution scenes.
You can see how having so many choices might paralyze you, especially if you don’t have a strong handle on novel structure. When you know, for instance, what the ten foundational scenes are, it makes it easier to choose your scene type. A climax scene will have high action, and, of course, the resolution of your novel would require a resolution scene.
Your genre comes into play as well. The type and number of high- and low-energy scenes are going to vary based on genre. A thriller is going to have a lot more high-energy scenes than a slow-paced thoughtful women’s fiction or romance.
Want to know the best way to figure out what scenes should go where? Study bestsellers in your genre, novels that are as close in plot and style as yours. Tear them apart. Make a list of scene summaries and note what type of scene each one is. That should give you a good idea.
The Action-Reaction Principle
Another thing that will help you determine what type of scene to write is to always keep in mind the natural cycle of action-reaction. This is also something that will vary by genre.
The natural behavior cycle of humans that our characters should also convey is this: action-reaction-process-decision-new action.
A scene might be solely a processing scene. A detective, in the prior scene, just discovered some important clues. Now, in this scene, she is mulling over what she’s learned, maybe discussing it with her partner, to determine the next course of action (decision).
Or you might have an action scene that ends with a reaction. That detective might be chasing down a lead (action), only to find a gang of vampires waiting for her in a dark alley. The last paragraph might show the detective swearing under her breath, wishing she had listened to her partner about going it alone (reaction).
Or you could make that scene all action, ending it with her running into the vampires, leaving the reaction to the next scene.
Sometimes that cycle of action-reaction repeats dozens of times within one scene. Your detective chases the bad guy, who vanishes around the next corner (action). Now she has to process that and make a decision. Should she continue her search or give up and get a latte? She might go to get coffee (new action), only to spot the bad guy flirting with the barista. She then reacts, processes (Should I confront him here or wait till he gets her phone number?), then makes a decision.
At any point, the scene may end in the middle of that cycle on one of the five stages. It all depends on what your high moment is, what key reveal you are building to, how the character will change and why, what is that lasting feeling you want to leave with your readers …
You see how all these pieces intertwine?
Your scene also needs an opening and ending hook. It needs a balance of narrative, dialogue, internal thoughts, and action. How do you know how much of each you should have?
No, scene writing is not easy. It’s a daunting task every time a writer sits down to write.
Note from Jane: If you’d like to master scene writing, C.S. Lakin runs Scene Mastery Boot Camps in Northern California, where you’ll learn with a dozen other writers in an intimate setting. For more information, visit Writing for Life Workshops.
C. S. Lakin is a writing coach, workshop instructor, and award-winning author of 30+ books and blogger at Live Write Thrive (where you can find more than one million words on novel craft). Her Writer’s Toolbox series of books teach the craft of fiction, and her online video courses at Writing for Life Workshops have helped more than a thousand writers. She also works as a book copyeditor and does more than 200 critiques a year for writers, agents, and publishers in six continents (she’s still waiting for someone in Antarctica to hire her …).