How to write a scene: Purpose and structure

How to write a scene: Purpose and structure

How to write a scene - Writing scenes with purpose and structure | Now Novel

Knowing how to write a scene is a crucial skill for writing a novel. Scenes are the basic building blocks of plot. Read this guide for tips on writing scenes, including how to start and end scenes, as well as scene-planning and structuring tips.

What is a scene exactly? What scenes do and why they matter

N.B. This guide goes into some detail. Prefer a concise guide to scene structure including how to begin, develop and end a scene (with examples) and checklists for making your scene structure strong? Download our free, concise eBook guide to scene-writing here.

The word ‘scene’ has multiple literary definitions. On one hand, it is ‘A place or setting regarded as having a particular character or making a particular impression.’ (OED). When we talk of a scene as a unit of story structure, a scene is ‘A sequence of continuous action in a play, film, opera, or book’ (OED). It’s also ‘A representation of an incident, or the incident itself.’ (OED)

How do these definitions combine? Scenes, individual story units smaller than chapters (but somewhat self-contained), show us sequences of actions and incidents that reveal place and time, characters’ actions, reactions or dilemmas.

Scenes (in short fiction and novels, plays and films) serve several functions. They:

  • Move the story forward: They keep us engaged, asking ‘what happens next?’
  • Establish characters’ arcs or cause and effect. This links to the first point. For example, a scene might begin with a character missing a train. As a result, the character may be late for a meeting. The reader wonders what impact this small misfortune will have
  • Reveal consequences of earlier events. A subsequent scene following the missed train, for example, might show the consequences for the character when they are late for a crucial meeting
  • Make a story easier to follow. Scenes chunk what could be a narrative mess into digestible units of action and event. They allow us to play with how we release information to the reader (for example, a scene resolving an earlier subplot might only take place much later in a novel. As writers we can make some plot gratification instant and some delayed)

What are common challenges writers face when drafting scenes? Structure is a common struggle:

Creating scene structure: Scenes and sequels

Most well-planned novels have some form of broader structure (such as three-act structure) ensuring everything hangs together. Yet 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 types of scenes, so his terms are a little confusing. This aside, here is the gist of Swain’s ideas:

Scene units or types

Scene: A story unit that introduces a goal, conflict or disaster.

Sequel: A story unit composed of a reaction, a dilemma and/or decision.

A scene must always be followed by a sequel for pacing reasons. You cannot have one goal, conflict and disaster after another without the occasional breather. Having a sequel between scenes gives characters (and your readers) time to catch their breath and process prior events.

The rigidity of this approach to creating scenes is one of its shortcomings as is the complexity of Swain’s terms. You also might not work in such a linear fashion when structuring your own scenes. Even so, thinking in terms of cause and effect and making sure you balance both is essential for writing good scenes.

Other scene structure approaches: Building scenes in your novel visually

It can sometimes be easier to structure your scenes using visual aids instead of relying on lists and written notes. Here are some visual methods for writing and structuring a scene that are useful at the outlining and first-draft-writing stages:

A) Mind mapping

This is a great tool 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. To create a mind map for a scene, start with a known element written in a circle, centre page. For example, you might know that your scene starts with a couple arguing about something. Write ‘argument between [characters’ names]’ as your starting point.

From here, add more circles branching out from your central scene event, sketching out ideas about what happens next, the emotional mood of the scene or anything else you think is relevant.

B) Index cards

Favoured by the likes of Vladimir Nabokov (who wrote Lolita entirely on index cards), this is useful stationary for structuring scenes. You can write individual actions or events on individual cards. This is a useful method for organizing different events of a scene or chapter.

For example, you could create an index card per scene for each chapter. Each card could describe the scene it covers in a sentence or two, along with the purpose it serves (e.g. ‘Developing main character’). Structuring scenes using index cards is also a useful way to ‘troubleshoot’ your first draft. On each card, in chronological order following your chapters, note the content of each scene in summary form and whether the scene achieves its purpose or needs something added or altered.

C) Storyboarding

This is a common visual approach to story creation used by those who work in visual media primarily (e.g. scriptwriters). 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. Sketching out what happens in a scene frame by frame can really help you get a cinematic sense of your story, of what details are essential and what you can happily leave out.

When planning story scenes, use physical tools like a cork board or whiteboard to arrange summaries of scene events. Writing down possible events in your story on index cards and then shuffling them around can help you decide which event should occur when. A freer visual approach is particularly useful for creating less linear story arcs.

How to write a scene that has focus and narrative drive

Writing scenes that drive your story forwards by introducing significant details of plot and character is key to an enjoyable novel. When writing a scene, ask these questions to keep focused on your scene’s purpose:

  • Where does the scene take place? Have I made it easy for the reader to visualize this? What role does the setting play in how the scene unfolds?
  • When does the scene happen? Is it in chronological sequence with preceding events? Or is it a flashback? Have you made the scene’s time-frame in relation to the rest of your story clear through narration or a chapter or section heading?
  • 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. Example: a couple working together on an overwhelming home renovation project might be what is happening in a scene but it could actually be about the widening cracks in their relationship, either literally or symbolically
  • Why do the characters behave as they do in this scene? These questions are all related to cause and effect, and this is an important aspect of creating narrative drive.

Beginning and ending scenes in a story or novel

Knowing how to start a scene is important. When crafting a scene opening, think about the purpose of the scene, how long you want it to be and the kind of mood you want to convey to the reader.

The hook is important in a novel, but to craft a real page turner make every scene have a lesser or greater hook of its own.

5 ways to begin a scene

Here are 5 types of effective scene openings:

  • Starting a scene with action. You can’t start every scene with an explosion, interrogation or car chase. Yet just as it is best to begin a novel as close to the action as possible, try to make your scene openings share active character desires, choices and dilemmas that make us want to keep reading
  • Starting scenes with summary. Sometimes, it’s better to tell, not show. Sometimes starting with the specifics of characters’ actions gets too deep into detail, too fast. A general expository statement (something telling the reader what’s happened before the start of the story) can have a strong impact. For example, “He’d been dead three days before they found the body.”
  • Beginning by revealing a character’s thoughts.Many character-driven novels begin by introducing us to the mind, the world view, of a single character. Salinger’s cynical teenager Holden in Catcher in the Rye, for example
  • Starting with setting. Many authors set the stage with striking setting. Setting description as openings are particularly effective if the setting is integral to impending plot developments (e.g. describing the imposing peaks of a mountain in an action/adventure novel about mountaineering mishaps and survival)
  • Beginning with dialogue. Plunging the reader into a conversation between two characters can be immediately compelling.

Infographic: 5 ways to begin a scene | Now Novel

5 ways to end a scene

Ending a scene well can make the difference between your reader putting your novel down or saying ‘I’ll just read one more chapter’ when it’s already 1 a.m. Here are 5 ways to end a scene with intrigue:

  • End mid-action. 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 rammed off a bridge while driving by the antagonist’s henchmen. The scene closing draws us on to learn her fate.
  • End with a character epiphany. A character’s crucial realisation makes us wonder what action they will take because of the dilemma or motivation new information creates
  • End with the character discovering a major obstacle. We want to know, as readers, what solution they’ll discover and attempt.
  • End with emotional turmoil. The events of the scene may be over, but not the fallout for your character(s).
  • End with a promise of further revelation.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 telling another the local constable has been hiding something major from the force, and the scene ends on their arranging a meeting for private discussion

Are you inspired to write a compelling scene? Here are some further questions and answers on the topic of writing the perfect scene:

Our frequently asked scene-writing questions

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

We cover the crucial elements of scene openings in one section of our concise guide, ‘How to Write Scenes: A concise guide to scene structure’. Download it for free here.

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

Think of how you can combine appearance, action and even setting description to create a mood mirroring your character’s feelings.

For example, showing a character who is a trainee actor anxious about being on stage flub her lines several times is more anxiety-provoking for the reader than simply saying that the character is worried. Showing her waiting anxiously in the wings before her crucial performance, perhaps pacing or otherwise showing nervous behaviour, would add to the overarching emotion of the scene.

How do you write a good flashback scene?

First, you need to make sure that you need the flashback. Is it the right time for a flashback? For example, a reader may be frustrated if a flashback follows a cliffhanger.

Make sure you clearly indicate either through an explicit heading or through narration that the scene is not located in the main time of your story. You might signal a change with a different tense. Even though the flashback scene takes place in the past, remember to make it relevant to the present time of your story: How will it help us understand more, or increase the unknowns we urgently want resolved?

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.

First, identify the purpose of the scene, the main characters in the scene and their goals. Make sure you make transitions between different focal characters clear so readers aren’t confused about who says and does what.

Need help improving scene structure? Get constructive feedback on Now Novel now or get ongoing 1-on-1 guidance from a writing coach.

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