How to Nail Writing Scenes

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A scene in a novel is defined as a sequence of continual action. Scenes are more than just a series of events though. They drive the story forward, reveal information about characters, and give a reader more information. In other words: writing scenes is hard work!

Considering novels are a collection of scenes, nailing them is key to writing a great novel. Let’s look at what a scene is and how to structure it with purpose.

What is the Purpose of a Scene?

If you can answer this question, you are nine miles down the ten-mile road of scene writing. Scenes aren’t a chance to show your character at work for no reason. Scenes aren’t about revealing an unrelated element of the character’s past. Scenes have purpose. They drive the plot forward. They show something essential about the characters that relate back to the plot or their arc.

To figure out the purpose of your scene, you should ask three critical questions:

  1. What happens in the scene? (Think: the actual events.)
  2. What is the scene about? (This is more than the events and often relates to character development. Imagine a couple is painting their new house. Arguing over color choice is really a proxy fight for a lie she caught him in last week.)
  3. Why do the characters behave like they do?

Keep in Mind Cause and Effect

Scenes in novels, like ones in movies or television shows, build on one another. For every action in scene one, there will be a reaction in scene two, and so on. New action spurs additional reactions. That’s how it works in real life too, and it’s a useful way to know what should happen next in your book.

You may have heard about the idea of “scene and sequel.” It stipulates for every scene of action or discovery there should be a more contemplative scene, or “sequel” in the parlance, of mulling over that action and deciding how to react to it.

The idea behind the scene/sequel formula is that the reader stays in the character’s head and knows how he processes each new revelation. Some people find literally doing the “sequel” of thinking after every “scene” of action to be too prescriptive, but the concept holds.The reason is because the concept of scene/sequel is another way of saying cause and effect. For each cause (action or “scene”) there is an effect (or, “sequel”) on the characters.

If you were to just write action sequence after action sequence thinking it would be more exciting, you’d write yourself into a corner. People read novels to see what’s going to happen next, but they want to know what happens next because they care about the characters those actions are happening to. Each action should change a character—whether they are spurred to action or freeze.

How to Begin and End Scenes

Scenes are smaller than chapters, but that doesn’t mean they are insignificant. They are the building blocks of a story. And just as you know to open your novel with a hook, so too should you open a scene with one.

Opening with a hook doesn’t mean it has to be an action sequence. But it has to be interesting. And it has to give the reader a sense of place, who’s narrating, and what’s happening. Play around with it, but always keep the idea of a hook in mind.

Knowing where to end the scene is at least as important. The key concept to keep in mind is that you want to end with interest. You want the reader to want to read on and find out what happens next. That means you’ll want to end in mid-action, with an epiphany, the discovery of a major obstacle, in emotional turmoil, or with the promise of further revelation. However you do it: keep it thought-provoking.

In conclusion, the most important element of scene writing is that significant details about plot and character should be revealed. If you always keep the purpose of a scene front and center in your own mind, you’ll have readers up until 2 am, wanting to find out what happens next.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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