Scene Building Basics

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What is a scene?

In the context of a story, a scene is essentially a unit of action. We recognize it when we see it in a movie. It’s that moment we’re pulled in and riveted to the screen, either by an action sequence or an emotionally intense interaction. We know it is over when we can breathe again. Readers have a similar response when reading a scene in a novel.

As writers, when we’re constructing a scene, it’s important to think about the purpose of scenes in general, and then about the goal of the particular scene we’re writing.

In general, a scene will do most or all of the following:

  • Introduce a goal or a conflict, maybe even a disaster.
  • Move the story forward. By the end of it, the plot and characters should not be where we found them at the beginning.
  • Create structure for the narrative and make the story easier to follow.
  • Explore cause and effect. Something happens that will have fallout later. Or something already happened and the resulting action is playing out now.

Here are some things to ask yourself before constructing a particular scene:

  • How will I launch and end it?
  • Where are my characters now? Where have they been?
  • What is the goal of it?
  • Will the goal be achieved or not?
  • Is there something that will be revealed during it?

Some effective ways to launch a scene:

  • Action launch: Dive right into the middle of the action! Is the main character being chased down a dark alley? Is the space ship crash-landing on an uncharted world? Has something gone terribly wrong with the spell and now a demon is on the loose?
  • Narrative launch: Perhaps you need to set the stage a little before bringing the reader into the heart of the scene. Consider giving a quick summary. Or perhaps we need to get inside a character’s head before the action starts. A brief internal narrative may be the most effective way to launch it.
  • Setting launch: If the physical setting is crucial for the upcoming scene, a brief, vivid set-up makes sense. Is your character stranded in the bitter cold arctic? Is she hiding out in forest camp? The reader may need some information at the launch set-up if the setting is going to play a role in the scene, or if the setting is so foreign that the reader needs help creating a picture in their mind.

We want to end our scene with readers ready to turn the page, not close the book. There can be a sense of closing to it without closing out the story, or you can leave off with a cliffhanger.

Here are some ideas for closing out:

  • End in the middle of ongoing action. A character in peril will definitely keep readers on the hook!
  • End with a realization. The reader will wonder where this new information will lead the character or the plot action.
  • End with a new problem. Your characters may have gotten through one obstacle only to find another.
  • End with emotion. Maybe a discovery or an action is going to have a major emotional impact on a character down the road and this scene has provided the catalyst.

A few more things to consider:

  • Point of view: Even if there are several characters involved in it, for clarity’s sake, consider writing it from one point of view. Head-hopping within a single scene can be confusing for readers.
  • The high moment: A scene should contain a small story-arc of its own within the arc of the whole novel. There should be a moment of highest tension, an instant of revelation, or a climactic action of some sort.
  • Change: Something should have changed during the course of the scene either with plot movement or character development.

There’s a lot to think about when crafting a scene for your novel. In the coming weeks, we’ll explore each of the components in more detail and build on these fundamentals.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 

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About Author

Tabitha Lord is the award-winning author of the HORIZON series. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, four kids, two spoiled cats, and lovable black lab.

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