The Fundamentals of Writing a Scene

Several water drops hitting a pond surface, resulting in circular ripples
by Trina Alexander | via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is excerpted from the recently released Writing Deep Scenes by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld (Writer’s Digest Books).

When writing fiction (or even narrative nonfiction), scenes are microcosms of your larger plot. Each scene takes us into a crucial moment of your characters’ story and should engage both our emotions and our minds by creating real-time momentum or action.

What comprises a scene?

If you’ve never thought much about the shape of a scene, consider it a self-contained mini-story with a rising energy that builds to an epiphany, a discovery, an admission, an understanding, or an experience.

The reader should feel as though every scene has purpose, deepens character, drives the story forward, and ends in such a way that he just has to know what happens next.

What’s the best way to start and end a scene?

Scenes don’t so much begin as launch—often in the midst of an event or activity. That is to say, you need not start scenes with an explanation or exposition but simply with an entrance into the action. Then, by following a character’s goals and desires, you walk your reader through a setting—preferably in a way that shows the protagonist interacting with it, not just observing it—employing the character’s sensory perceptions, introducing his conflict and relationship with inner and outer antagonists and allies, and building the character to a high or low point. Never leave the reader too satisfied at the end of a scene; she must want to keep reading to find out what happens next.

What should a scene accomplish?

Each scene creates consequences that must be dealt with or built upon in the next scene. And thus, scene by scene, you tell a compelling story that has the dramatic power and emotional impact of a great piece of music.

A scene is defined by the presence of more real-time momentum than interior monologue (contemplation) or expository explanation.

Real-time momentum is a combination of action, dialogue, and character interaction with his surroundings and other characters. Scenes crackle with energy and rhythms that make readers feel as though they are right beside (or inside) the character as he experiences any number of situations and scenarios. In contrast, narrative summary—lecturing, explaining, or describing—puts readers to sleep after too long.

Your scenes can end on a high note (a small victory for your character) or a low note (a moment of cliff-hanging suspense or uncertainty). It doesn’t matter which way it goes so long as each scene concludes by setting up future conflicts for the character(s) and creating in readers a yearning to know what happens next.

What qualifies as a scene?

If you’re wondering whether a passage or section you’ve written qualifies as a scene, consider what scenes are not.

  • Scenes are not an opportunity to take your character on a long, leisurely detour into situations with characters that have nothing to do with the protagonist’s dramatic action goals (that’s a character profile or vignette).
  • Scenes are not a place to explain something or to lecture to your reader (that’s a pace killer).
  • Scenes are not long histories of people and places (that’s dull backstory).

The difference between scene and summary

Not everyone understands the difference between scene and summary, so let us provide a clear distinction. 
Summary explains something to the reader. It offers information, ranging from long-winded histories of the town your character lives in to pat descriptions or rambling explanations for a character’s behavior. Summary doesn’t engage the senses, and it rarely involves moment-by-moment action.

Examples of summary include:

  • “It was a beautiful day.”
  • “She felt happy for the first time in months.”
  • “She didn’t trust men because her father had been the one to leave her all alone in the boat that night, when she almost drowned, and she now also had a terrible fear of water.”

When to use summary

You can get away with using summary in scenes in a few places:

  • Condensing time: When you need to change the time in a scene, you certainly don’t need to make your characters wait on the beach while you bring the sun down, describing every color change in the sky. To condense time, you can simply write, “Night fell,” or “Six hours passed,” or “A month later.” These are appropriate segues that don’t require further explanation.
  • Changing or condensing locations: Readers don’t need to see every storefront your character passes on her drive from one place to another. They don’t care how many red lights she goes through (unless she blows through them—that detail might be noteworthy). In other words, as with time, you have full license to get people where they’re going without any preamble or further description: “They walked three miles to her mother’s house,” or “The train took them a hundred miles closer to their destination,” or “They drove back to her apartment.”
  • Reiterating details previously revealed in the story: This is actually a very important and handy trick. Let’s say the reader witnesses an event that takes place earlier in the narrative in scene form. Later, one of the characters in that scene needs to tell another character what happened. Rather than have the character repeat all the actions, you can simply summarize: “I told him about the events leading up to the explosion,” or “She recounted the high points of the battle,” or “She told him everything she could remember about the abduction.”

Demonstrate, don’t lecture

Rather than citing the commonly used adage “Show, don’t tell,” a more helpful direction for scene work is “Demonstrate, don’t lecture.”

If you tell the reader a character is “outraged,” you’re lecturing. Where’s the proof? Demonstrate her outrage in action and dialogue. Don’t lecture us about your character’s wounded backstory; demonstrate her wounds through how she behaves, thinks, and speaks. Instead of using summary to rehash discoveries and epiphanies, keep them front and center—onstage—so that the reader experiences these moments with the character.

A fun phrase for remembering the functions of a scene is “A scene is a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality.”

  • Stylized: Nothing in your scene appears by accident; you have crafted every moment, every interaction, and every image. To the reader something may seem benign, but you know nothing is.
  • Sharper simulacrum: We read to experience a heightened, more fulfilling version of real life, with all the boring bits excised. In your bid to create a realistic experience, don’t put every single action—the mundane, dull, insignificant moments and boring pleasantries of real life—into your scenes. Include only those that lend themselves to character and plot development and are rich with tension and suspense, those that contribute to the feeling of not knowing how things will play out in the character’s favor or if antagonists will prevail.

Examples of scenes

Following are some examples of scenes—or “scenelets,” for our purposes, as these are not full scenes but have all the key ingredients that tell a reader a scene is unfolding: action, dialogue, and sensory imagery that create immediacy, momentum, and the sense that events are unfolding in the “now.”

They were moving quickly now, Wolgast at the wheel, Doyle beside him, thumbing away furiously on his handheld. Calling in to let Sykes know who was in charge.

“No goddamn signal.” Doyle tossed his handheld onto the dash. They were fifteen miles outside of Homer, headed due west; the open fields slid endlessly away under a sky thick with stars.

—from The Passage, an apocalyptic vampire novel by Justin Cronin

Her hands flew through the scalded feathers, plucking each one until a gray snow pile drifted at her feet and began to swirl in the breeze.

Mabel singed the skin with matches, sulfur rising from each filament, an acrid incense. She dragged on a Lucky.

“You dassn’t go saying bad things about the Doctor.” My grandmother’s cigarette bobbed at me, its orange ember blowing like a hazard light.

—from Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, a memoir by JaThe cover for Deep Scenescki Lyden

Keep in mind that not all scenes have the same effect inside a story—some are designed to slow the pace (contemplative scenes, for instance), while others bring the energy up (suspense scenes and twister scenes, for instance).

To learn much more about crafting compelling scenes, check out Writing Deep Scenes.


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