How to write a scene: Nailing scene structure

Knowing how to write a scene is a crucial skill for writing a book of fiction. Scenes are the basic building blocks that make up your plot and the rising and falling action of your story, but how do you construct a scene and make sure it works towards creating a satisfying novel? Here is a guide to thinking about and creating scenes:

Story scenes: What they do and why they matter

Each scene of your novel has multiple jobs to do. Among other functions, scenes move the story forward, keep the reader engaged, and establish character motivations and cause and effect. For example, a scene might begin with a character missing a train. As a result, the character may be late for meeting someone. Depending on how your story is structured, this could cause minor ripples, or the consequences could be catastrophic. For example, the meeting might be a job interview, and the character could not get the job as a result. It could be a meeting with someone who is fed up with the character’s lack of reliability, and this lateness might be last straw. It might be an important final meeting with someone the character is in love with but has no further contact information for and may never see again. That person might leave the meeting spot thinking they have been forgotten. These scenarios all have high dramatic potential.

Catching your breath: Scenes and Sequels

You may have read about the three-act structure and thought about how you would structure your own book with plot and character arcs. However, you might not have considered that individual scenes have their own structure as well.

Dwight Swain, who wrote the book Techniques of the Selling Writer, divides scene structure into two separate approaches that he calls scenes and sequels. Both scenes and sequels as described by Swain are actually scenes, so this terminology is a bit confusing. According to this approach, a scene has a pattern of goal, conflict and disaster while a sequel is composed of a reaction, a dilemma and a decision. A scene must always be followed by a sequel for pacing reasons. You cannot have one goal, conflict and disaster after another. The idea of having a sequel is that between scenes the your characters (and your readers) have time to catch their breath and reflect on what has occurred.

Swain breaks down scene structuring on a smaller scale into what he calls Motivation-Reaction Units or MRUs. These MRUs consist of the character’s individual motivations and reactions as they lead into one another.

The rigidity of this approach to creating scenes is one of its shortcomings as is the complexity of Swain’s terminology. Furthermore, not every writer works in such a linear and restrictive fashion. While it is a model that a writer might find useful sometimes, there are less complicated ways to think about and plan out scenes.

Building scene structure visually

It can sometimes be easier to structure your scenes using visual aids instead of relying on a list in a notebook or on a computer. The visual approaches listed below may spark your creativity and will give you the ability to move your ideas around and see how the parts of your story fit together:

  • Mind mapping is one of the best tools for learning how to write a novel using visual aids. You can mind map in a notebook, on a whiteboard or using a computer program. Simply put, a mind map begins with an object in the middle of the page. For example, you might know that a scene starts with a couple arguing about something. That is your beginning point. Write this down in the centre of your page in a box or bubble From there, you can add more shapes branching out containing ideas about what happens next, the emotional mood of the scene or anything else you think is relevant. The particular incident you start with might be only one in a much larger mind map for a chapter or an entire novel.
  • Index cards can be colour coded to mark different types of scenes or sections of your novel. You might choose to include specific information about each scene on the index cards. For example, each card might describe the scene in a sentence or two and then name the primary element that this scene deals with such as advancing the plot or developing the character. You could also use the index card approach to ‘troubleshoot’ your first draft. On each card, you can indicate what a corresponding scene accomplishes and note whether the scene achieves its purpose or needs something additional, whether this is more dialogue, character development or some careful cuts.
  • Storyboarding is a common approach to scene-writing used by filmmakers, comics writers and other storytellers who work in visual mediums. In storyboarding, you literally sketch out the big moments of your scene. Don’t worry if you can’t draw; this is for your eyes only, and it’s fine to use stick figures to represent your characters. Your only concern is making sure you can tell your characters apart on your storyboard. As is the case with using mind mapping and index cards, storyboarding gives you the opportunity to see how scenes link with one another and the larger story.

You can also use tools like whiteboards and bulletin boards for your mind mapping, index cards or storyboarding. What makes these activities particularly enjoyable is their tactile nature. These techniques can also open new possibilities: writing down possible events in your story on index cards and then shuffling them around can help you decide which event would best happen where in your story arc. Boost your creativity by using tools such as these to move out of a more linear way of thinking about storytelling.

Planning scenes does not mean that there will be no spontaneity in your writing. Some scenes and events will only occur to you as you write. However, you can go back and do a kind of reverse outline of your scenes once you have finished the first draft. Once you have your first draft written, you can go back and delete and consolidate scenes. Note where scenes may be missing that are needed to link up parts of your book. Breaking your novel down into scenes like this both before and after writing the first draft can help you ensure that your novel has a strong narrative drive and the pieces of it connect to one another.

How to write a scene that has narrative drive

As mentioned above, keep track of what you want each scene to do. Keep this information handy so you can refer to it as you write each scene. When writing a scene, ask these questions to keep focused on the scene’s purpose:

  • Where does the scene take place? How much does the setting need to be described? Does the setting contrast with or complement the emotional tone of the piece, and how does that affect the way it plays out? Can you increase the impact of the scene by putting it in different location that the one you originally had in mind?
  • When does the scene happen? Is it in a chronological sequence with what has already happened in the story, or is it a flashback? How does the scene indicate its time frame?
  • Who is in the scene? Do you need more or fewer characters?
  • What happens in the scene? What is the scene about? Keep in mind that these are not necessarily the same question; a couple working together on a home renovation project might be what is happening in a scene but it might actually be about the cracks in their relationship showing.
  • Why do the characters behave as they do in this scene? Why does the scene happen? Why is the scene necessary? These questions are all related to cause and effect, and this is an important aspect of creating narrative drive.

Beginning and ending scenes

How story scenes begin and end is another important component of constructing effective scenes. Not every type of opening and ending is appropriate for every type of scene, so you will need to think about factors like the purpose of the scene, how long you want the scene to be and the kind of mood you want to convey to the reader in the scene. In beginning a scene, you should think about how to grab the reader’s attention. At the end of a scene, you need to think about how to keep the reader turning pages.

Five ways to begin a scene

  • Begin the scene with action. You can’t start every scene with an explosion or a chase, but just as it is best to begin a novel as close to the action as possible, you can try to do the same with each scene.
  • Summarise. Sometimes, it’s better to tell, not show, and beginning with action instead of a summary may sometimes slow down the narrative. A single statement can sometimes have a strong impact: “The man had been dead three days before they found the body.”
  • Begin the scene by revealing a character’s thoughts.
  • Start with the setting. Your readers don’t want long paragraphs of description, but you can set the stage with a striking setting, and this is particularly true if the setting is unusual or reflects something about the scene or the character’s emotions.
  • Begin with dialogue. Plunging the reader into a conversation between two characters can be immediately compelling.

Five ways to end a scene

  • End in mid-event. Cliffhangers are a time-honoured way of wrapping up a scene. For example, in his novel Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell ends one scene in the middle of the action as a heroine is entering a potentially fatal conflict with the antagonist’s henchmen. This type of end draws the reader on to keep reading.
  • End with a character epiphany. A character may have a realisation that changes the story from this point forward.
  • End with the character learning new information or setting a new motive or goal. As with the realisation, the course of the story might change at this point.
  • End with emotional turmoil. The event or incident of the scene may be over, but that does not mean the character or characters have emerged unscathed.
  • End with a promise. In other words, the scene ends, but it leaves the reader anticipating what is ahead. For example, in a mystery novel, a scene might end with one character promising to tell another about a big secret the town has been hiding.

Frequently asked questions

What does every opening scene need to have in order to be successful?

The main purpose of the opening scene is to make the reader keep reading. Narratively, the scene can do this by introducing a compelling situation. Structurally, the scene can end mid-action to keep the reader reading.

How do you write an effective action scene?

A number of elements go into writing a good action scene. First, the reader has to care about the characters. This is why although an opening scene should be compelling, full-on action in the first lines is not necessarily the best way to start because the reader is not yet invested in the characters. Action scenes also need clarity. The reader should know where the characters are and what is happening throughout the scene unless suspense is created by writing from the point of view of a character who does not know what is happening with other characters. Finally, writers should think about action scenes as a series of shifts of powers between characters. This builds more suspense than having one character clearly dominate.

I don’t know how to write a scene that shows emotion: Help!

It may sound counterintuitive, but it is usually better to take a more subtle approach to a character’s emotions. One thing to keep in mind is that the writer should endeavour to make the reader feel the emotions of the characters. Characters who are raging or sobbing hysterically leave less room for the reader to take on those emotions themselves. A character who is suffering but more contained or emotion that is expressed through aspects of the setting and other elements can actually be more effective ways of conveying emotion. Bringing emotion to a scene may also be a place for showing instead of telling. For example, showing a character who is anxious about being on stage flub her lines several times can be more anxiety-provoking for the reader than simply saying that the character is worried.

How do you write a good flashback scene?

First, you need to make sure that you need the flashback and that it doesn’t cause the narrative momentum of your story to grind to a halt. Is it the right time for a flashback? For example, a reader may be frustrated if a flashback follows a cliffhanger, but one way around that is to use the flashback to reveal information the reader has been anticipating for a while. A writer should also be careful to indicate that the scene is a flashback. For example, the voice or tense might change. Finally, the flashback should move the narrative forward even though it is about something happening in the past.

How do you write a scene with multiple characters without losing track of the main character?

If six or eight or even more characters are involved in a scene, it can be challenging to give them all things to do and say. However, it is not that different from writing any other type of scene. You need to identify the purpose of the scene, the main characters in the scene and the conflict. This will help prevent becoming distracted by the large cast of characters. If the scene is taking place in a crowded environment such as a nightclub and many characters are present, you can give groups of them things to do like retrieve drinks, dance, or talk amongst themselves while you focus on the main characters and action.

Some writers may have an organic approach to writing scenes while others may prefer to plan scenes extensively. However, either type of writer can benefit from tools such as mind maps, index cards and storyboards. These types of tools can also be used after a first draft has been created – they’re essential for anyone wondering how to write a novel systematically. Writers need to think about other elements as well including the who, what, where, when and why of the scene. Scenes also need strong openings and endings including beginning and ending in mid-action, character epiphanies and emotional turmoil. By thinking about scenes as the essential components that build a successful novel, writers can craft compelling page-turners in any genre.

Do you want to stop reading and start writing? Start building scenes that will give your novel satisfying structure.

 

Images from here and here

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  • I’ve never tried mind mapping for any of my scenes, but I might start now!

    • Let me know if you find it works for you. How do you usually approach them technique-wise?

      • My story structure is based off of plot points. Then I let my characters go wherever they want to in a scene/chapter. Everything moves in the right direction to hit the next plot point, or sometimes my characters surprise me!

        Over the years I’ve gone back and forth with how much to structure vs. how much I should let my characters act and speak naturally.

        • Interesting insight – it is a fine balance between being systematic and letting ideas change and recombine with minimal authorial ‘interference’, for want of a better word.

  • Alex PH

    I have a scene during my first act that introduces several characters and their relationship with the main character. It basically occurs while he’s sitting in the kitchen and different characters come in, have a conversation, and leave, kind of weaving them in and out through a few conversations.
    This is my first time writing anything and I’m wondering how to make this introduction effective and prevent it from feeling like it’s dragging on. I think each different conversation is important and reveals a lot about the characters/contributes to the plot and to the twist at the end of the chapter, but I’m not sure if I should split them up and scatter them throughout the exposition having them occur at different times/places or keep them woven together.
    Does it still count as one scene if there are several different goals of this series of kitchen conversations? Maybe I need to give the main character a goal rather than just having him sit in the kitchen hanging out
    Thanks!

    • Hi Alex – thanks for sharing your writing challenge. Sounds like you have a clear idea of how you want your character introductions to function, in terms of their narrative purpose. Is it essential that all the information for each character occurs up front? If not then your idea to split them up might have multiple pros: It will help to prevent an expository lump and it can also use a recurring, familiar setting to draw the reader’s memory back to important prior scenes and dialogues.

      I’d suggest joining our writing groups on Now Novel and submitting ideas to our writing community and seeing what others think too. Let me know what you decide to do with the scenes ultimately 🙂

  • Rod Steen

    I have an action scene with multiple characters in it that I’m stuck on. It’s the take down portion of an undercover operation. I have the basic premise of the scene already mapped out as follows; my UC character is in play. The surveillance teams are in position. All is well until the proverbial fly (an external party) lands in the ointment. My UC character and the intended target end up being snatched off the street in a seemingly random late night opportunistic kidnapping right in front of the covert surveillance teams. Where I’m stuck is how to bring the flurry of activity of how the teams react to this to the fore.

    • Hi Rod,

      Sounds like a complex scenario and it is certainly tricky juggling so many characters and forces in the length-restrictive space of a story scene. For bringing the flurry of activity to the fore, perhaps cut back and forth between the actions and movements of the kidnappers and the surveillance teams? In terms of the logistics, think of the three-dimensional structure of the space – how will the people stationed above the scene react vs the people on the ground? Is there some human error that enables the kidnapping? It could seem unlikely to readers otherwise that kidnappers could be so brazen.

      I hope you find a workable solution! Thanks for checking in.

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